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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa