Chopin: Piano Concertos (SACD review)

Ingrid Fliter, piano; Jun Markl, Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Linn Records CKD 455.

I've loved Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 for as long as I can remember. While it may not be the greatest music in the world, it is among my favorites. As Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was primarily a pianist and composer for the piano, most of what he wrote was for solo piano. Maybe that's why the orchestral accompaniment he provided for his two piano concertos can sometimes seem almost like an afterthought. But that's of no consequence with melodies so lovely and memorable as his.

Anyway, I hope you'll forgive my bias for liking practically every recording of Chopin's First Piano Concerto that comes along, and when we get the Second Concerto thrown in for good measure as in this disc from pianist Ingrid Fliter, it's an almost instant winner with me. Not that Ms. Fliter displaces my two absolute favorites, however: Maurizio Pollini (EMI) and Martha Argerich (EMI), or the several recordings in my collection from Arthur Rubinstein (RCA), Thomas Vasary (DG), and Yundi Li (DG). Nevertheless, Ms. Fliter is in the running.

Chopin wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830, within a year following his Piano Concerto No. 2, but he published No. 1 first. So if No. 1 seems the more mature of the two, well, by a few months it actually is. Chopin described the second movement of No. 1 as "reviving in one's soul beautiful memories." In Chopin's case, he composed the piece when he was about nineteen or so and smitten at the time with a beautiful young student, Constantia Gladkowska, at the Warsaw Conservatory. Although he barely talked to her and she soon married somebody else, he may have had her in mind when he wrote his piano concertos, as well as a few other works.

Of course, the piano parts dominate both piano concertos, the better to showcase Chopin's own virtuosity on the instrument. Yet with the Piano Concerto No. 1, the piano doesn't even enter the picture until after a fairly lengthy orchestral introduction. Maybe the composer intended the prolonged preamble to make the piano's entrance all the more grand. It certainly works that way. Anyhow, while Fliter, Markl, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra open the piece big, it doesn't sound quite as dramatic as some other conductors and orchestras do, probably because of the reduced size of the chamber ensemble. Be that as it may, the introduction is impressive enough in its way and sets an intimate tone for the main theme to follow. Then Ms. Fliter takes over and the rest is hers.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ms. Fliter now divides her time between Europe and the U.S. In the past decade or so, she has become something of a specialist in Chopin, having already released two well-received Chopin albums before this one, and winning the Silver Medal in 2000 at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

Ms. Fliter takes the first movement of No. 1 at a slightly more leisurely pace than most of the pianists I mentioned earlier, bringing out all the beauty and Romanticism of the main theme. It is a sensitive, radiant, rhapsodic interpretation, one that will, I think, bear up under repeated listening, for I'm sure most people will want to return to it again and again.

In the second, slow movement, Ms. Fliter is as delicately lyrical as any pianist I've heard. If we see the operas of Mozart as an inspiration for Chopin, we clearly hear the voice of those operas in Ms. Fliter's playing of the Romanze. Then, both pianist and orchestra acquit themselves eloquently in the spirited finale, although again Ms. Fliter tends to favor unhurried tempos. Still, the expressive pacing leads to much reward in terms of the music's nuances and color. It's quite a lovely realization of a score that never grows old.

In the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Ms. Fliter brings a comparable degree of refined energy to the proceedings as she did to No. 1. Although she doesn't have as many memorable melodies to play, she engages us, nonetheless, with the compelling sweetness and sheer virtuosity of her performance. The orchestra may not have quite as much to do in the Second Concerto as it did in the First, but the Scottish Chamber Orchestra proves a good, lively supporting member of the presentation, never overpowering the soloist nor behaving too subservient to her needs. So, it's a well-played and well-balanced rendering of the music.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the concertos for hybrid two-channel and multichannel SACD at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, UK in June 2013. In the stereo format to which I listened the orchestra sounds clean and well defined, yet with enough hall resonance to provide a realistic setting. There is also a good degree of orchestral depth to add to the illusion. Moderately wide dynamics and an adequate frequency range fill out of the equation. The piano is a bit forward for my taste, but it's certainly clear and well articulated, with no undue harshness or brightness. Overall, the Linn team have put together a rich, natural-sounding recording, one that falls comfortably on the ear.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa