Chopin: Preludes (SACD review)

Ingrid Fliter, piano. Linn Records CKD 475.

The last time I reviewed a disc from Argentinian-born pianist Ingrid Fliter, she was playing Chopin's piano concertos and doing a very good job with them. She is above all a most sensitive and elegant pianist, and as such she makes the perfect interpreter of music by the piano's finest composer. This time out she tackles Chopin's twenty-four Preludes and does her usual splendid job with them.

Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) originally published his twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28, in 1839, writing each little piano piece in one of the twenty-four keys. Up until his time, the musical term "prelude" usually meant an introductory work, but Chopin's preludes are individual, self-contained, self-standing pieces; they aren't necessarily introductions to anything else, unless it's the next prelude in the set (more on that in a minute). Interestingly, Chopin himself never played more than a few of them at a time in concert, whereas today it is common for a pianist to present the complete opus; there aren't more than about forty minutes' worth of them, after all.

Ms. Fliter, born in Buenos Aires, now divides her time between Europe and the U.S. In the past decade or more, she has become something of a specialist in Chopin, having already released three well-received Chopin albums before this one and winning the Silver Medal in 2000 at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Her time and devotion to Chopin's music pay off once again in the present album.

Ms. Fliter plays the set in the intended order, starting with the Prelude in C major, which Chopin marks as Agitato. It is here that Ms Fliter makes it known that she will play these things the way she personally sees them. Although the opening prelude is very brief, under a minute, she injects it with a quiet, though still appropriately agitated, longing. It sets the tone for the rest of the pieces, Ms. Fliter lending them a delicate touch.

Since the time Chopin wrote them, there has been some discussion among critics as to whether the set is really a collection of separate and disconnected piano pieces or whether Chopin meant for the entire set to be subtly united, forming one unified whole. It's hard to see the associations in most readings, but in Ms. Fliter's hands the musical segments do seem more related to one another than ever before. The textures seem lighter than usual, and the pieces seem to run from one to another more seamlessly. Whether the themes really are connected is another matter; yet under Ms. Fliter the consistency of mood and tone hold them together. It's one of the few times I could listen to the whole set comfortably in one sitting.

The Prelude in E minor sounds especially beguiling, wistful and bewitching; on a side note, it was played at Chopin's funeral. The well-known Prelude in A major seems more relaxed than we normally hear it, leading to a beautifully flowing Prelude in F sharp minor. There is no sense of stopping and restarting anew here; instead, it's as if each prelude were an introduction to the next.

And so it goes. Among my favorites are three quick works in succession: the Preludes in C sharp minor, B major, and G sharp minor, each piece breezy, elegant, and thrilling by turns. Then we have probably the most popular of the Preludes, the "Raindrop" in D flat major, rendered by Ms. Fliter in leisurely fashion, no winter downpour but a light, sweet spring shower. Even the darker middle section carries less menace than we customarily hear, which some listeners may fault but which again helps tie the individual works better together.

I also loved Ms. Fliter's readings of the enchanting Prelude in A flat major, the calming Prelude in F major, and the imposing Prelude in D minor that concludes the set. Overall, this is one of the best, most-thoughtful, most-cohesive realizations of the Op. 28 Preludes I've heard. It may not carry the emotional weight or drama of some of its rivals, but Ms. Fliter makes up for it in her poetic sensitivity.

Chopin would later write two more preludes, which Ms. Fliter does not include. Rather, she fills out the disc with five mazurkas (Op. 17 No. 4, Op. 17 No. 2, Op. 63 No. 3, Op. 50 No. 3, and Op. 6 No. 3) and two nocturnes (Op. 9 No. 3 and Op. 27 No. 2). Ms. Fliter makes the mazurkas appear airy, playful, and, eventually, epic; the nocturnes dreamily evocative.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Hobbs recorded the music at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK in June 2014 for two-channel and multichannel SACD and two-channel CD playback. In the two-channel SACD format to which I listened, the piano sound is big, full, and warm, with firm impact. A pleasantly expansive ambient bloom lends to it an air of realism; it also produces a slight softness in the piano tone that enhances the music nicely.


To listen to a selection 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 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.
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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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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