Given the popular and critical success of Roman Polanski's film The Pianist, it seemed appropriate to give this CD an objective listen, as many will want it as a souvenir of the film, even if they don't know much about Chopin and his music.
The Pianist is the true story of Wladislaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who managed against all odds to survive in the rubble of Warsaw throughout World War Two. Apparently a fine musician, his playing of Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp minor was the last live music to be heard over Polish radio before Germans began bombing the city. Unsurprisingly, this particular nocturne plays a prominent role in the film, as does the First Ballade and the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante. Sony has added another handful of Chopin's music to this CD, and the result is not a bad "sampler" of the composer's work.
In the film, Szpilman is played by actor Adrien Brody. His soundtrack performances are actually by Janusz Olejniczak, a Pole whose recordings for the Opus 111 label already have established him as an excellent performer in this repertoire. (Furthermore, he bears a slight physical resemblance to Chopin himself.) Interpretively, Olejniczak steers a middle course, falling prey neither to exaggeration nor to excessive literalness. He has the power required for the emotive climaxes of the two ballades, and he can scale his sound back for Chopin's more confessional writing. This disc is centered on the darker side of Chopin's muse, except for the more decorative Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, where Olejniczak's fine legato playing and agility both come to the fore.
Wojciech Kilar, a composer of both film music (Bram Stoker's Dracula, etc.) and concert works, contributes one track to this CD for a grand total of one minute and fifty-four seconds. It's an effective mood-piece, but not very motivating for Kilar's fans. There's also a mazurka played by Szpilman himself, recorded in 1948. Sony has done what it could, but obviously one shouldn't expect anything approaching modern recording quality on this single track, especially as it appears to be a private recording loaned by the pianist's family.
The music on this CD doesn't necessarily represent Chopin's range, nor has it been sequenced in a coherent way. Nevertheless, the performances are excellent, and curious listeners could do far worse than to make this their very first Chopin CD… and, one would hope, not their last.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle