Most of the great Romantic pianists have said what they had to say about Chopin's "Big Eight" - some several times. The late Jorge Bolet made the Ballades one of his last efforts. Earl Wild, perhaps a year or two younger, and one of the last torch-bearers of the pianist-Titans Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, and Busoni, makes his mark here. It's an elegant inscription, of perfect dimension and clarity. But these are inalienable traits of Wild's. What besides his physical mastery assures that these recordings will live on? Artistry. And in the scherzos particularly, Wild has some remarkable conceptions.
First, some of the questionable moments: Wild has a reputation for gleefully sabotaging Chopin with misplaced rubatos; that is not exactly in evidence here. What is noticeable in the lyrical interludes of Ballades 1 and 4 is a stalling between melodic sentences, as if he were losing interest in the thematic development. This drove a friend of mine to distraction. He played me a hissy, live recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing the Ballade #4. Sure enough, Richter managed to convey tension throughout the trio section. Then again, Richter has a notable ability to evoke apocalypse in any work (whether it's there or not). For my ears, these are minor tics.
When the Scherzo #1 in b was published in England, the programmatic title "Le Banquet Infernale" was affixed to it (to the dismay of Chopin). It is the most careening of the set; Wild tears through it without actually ripping it. The evenness of his mechanism is stunning. The trio section of the hackneyed second Scherzo has freshness and depth. Wild has a magic touch with the pastoral harmonies. I think the keystone to this disc is the third Scherzo. Both Richter and Ashkenazy fall short of Wild's cascading pianissimo arpeggios; the introductory octaves crackle and then melt into the hymnal chords of the melody. After many listenings, I now find the second Ballade, with its frightening range of sonorities, extremely pleasing.
Chesky has improved on the sound of Wild's Medtner recording (which was already outstanding). The bell-like bass is stupendous. If you weren't lucky enough to catch Earl Wild at Carnegie hall in November - he played on his 75th birthday - here is your chance.
Copyright © 1997, Robert J. Sullivan