Chopin: Études, Op. 10 and Op. 25 (CD review)

Also, Schumann: Symphonic Études. Valentina Lisitsa, piano. Decca 478 7697.

Once a teacher, always a teacher: I cannot help but begin this review with a definition of "étude," since that's what we've got here from Chopin and Schumann, and not everyone may understand what they are. My WordWeb dictionary tells us an étude is "a short composition for a solo instrument; intended as an exercise or to demonstrate technical virtuosity." Wikipedia takes it a step further, saying it's "a French word meaning study, an instrumental musical composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill. The tradition of writing études emerged in the early 19th century with the rapidly growing popularity of the piano."

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) composed two sets of études, Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837). They were probably the first such sets of études to gain a reputation in the piano repertory, and virtuoso pianists continue to play them today. They were quite unique for their time, and, certainly, they are not easy to play. Franz Liszt, to whom Chopin dedicated the Op. 10 études, was among the first pianists to play them successfully, and they've been giving pianists a hard time ever since. Not even the great Chopin interpreter Arthur Rubinstein thought his performances of them good enough to record in their entirety.

Which brings us to Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who makes Chopin's études look easy. Ms. Lisitsa launched her career via social media a few years back with YouTube videos that became quite the rave of the music world. These days, she's been working a lot with violinist Hilary Hahn and recording for one of the biggest and oldest record companies in the world, Decca, so obviously talent will out. Her Chopin études are among the finest I've heard. Yet taste differs, and other listeners may find her manner too precise, relying more on technical skill and less on heart. Whatever, the Chopin fan may want to sample Lisitsa's études.

Ms. Lisitsa's playing is a marvel of exactness, and she swirls through the finger work with a commanding ease. Yet there is much elegance and refinement in her interpretations as well. If I had any minor reservation, it's that she does take some of these little études at a quicker pace than most other pianists do. While this leads to some thrilling moments, to be sure, some jaw-dropping dazzle, I'm not sure it expresses all of the softer, inner emotions these pieces have to offer. As I say minor; Ms. Lisitsa's showmanship should easily carry the day and win over most listeners.

Valentina Lisitsa
Favorites? To be honest, even though I love Chopin, the études are not among my favorite Chopin works. Nevertheless, for me, the highlights of Ms. Lisitsa's disc include Nos. 1, 3, 6, 11, and 12 in Op. 10, all of them models of culture and sophistication; and Nos. 1, 2, 8, 9, and 11 of Op. 25 for their thoughtfulness and lyrical beauty. But, then, these are, as I say, just personal favorites that Ms. Lisitsa carries off with consummate ease.

In addition to Chopin's two sets of études, we get the Symphonic Études, Op. 13, including the five supplementary variations, of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Schumann's études are even briefer than Chopin's, most of them lasting no more than a minute or so each, but they are no less difficult. As tests of a pianist's virtuosic skills, Schumann's pieces work perfectly. Yet it isn't easy to make each stand on its own merits. Ms. Lisitsa does a splendid job individualizing the works and investing each of them with an appropriate zest and vigor. No disappointments here, either.

I suppose when it comes down to it, one has to decide how many versions of Chopin's or Schumann's études one needs and whether Ms. Lisitsa's renditions are enough better or enough different than all the rest to warrant a purchase. After all, there are already fine recordings from Pollini (DG), Perahia (Sony), Andsnes (Virgin), Ashkenazy (Decca), Lugansky (Naxos), and others available, some of which one probably already has. I can only tell you that Ms. Lisitsa's performances and Decca's sound would not be out of place among the best of them.

Producer, engineer, and tape editor Andrew Mellor recorded the music at the Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany in June 2014. The sound captures the piano pretty accurately, with a modest distance involved. It's clear and clean, a trifle hard in the upper registers but probably accurate. I'd say it's the kind of sound that reflects well the precision of Ms. Lisitsa's style.

Incidentally, the running time of the album is a little over eighty-five minutes, which may be some kind of record for compact discs. I've been collecting and reviewing CD's since the early Eighties when Sony and Philips jointly introduced them in the U.S., and I don't think I've ever found one until now with a playing time as long as this disc. Remarkable.

JJP

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.

Mission Statement

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