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CD Review

Frédéric Chopin

Piano Concertos

  • Piano Concerto #1 (1833)
  • Piano Concerto #2 (1830/36)
Samson François, piano
Orchestre National de l'Opera de Monte-Carlo/Louis Fremaux
EMI 67261
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"We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane." - Kilgore Trout

Chopin's music is truly humane. It has taken me several years of listening to really appreciate his music, but once the awareness takes place, everything changes forever.

It was just a few months ago that I learned to appreciate these particular works on another EMI release with Martha Argerich and Charles Dutoit. I enthused about it and still find it excellent. The reader should know that some other writers have panned that disc… primarily for the orchestral accompaniments and sound. I found both to be excellent. In fact, one writer complained that he couldn't hear the horn in the duet around 7:00. I hear it just fine, a bit distant perhaps but that lends to the atmosphere.

Anyway, this "Great Recordings of the Century" release offers more insights to the music. Mind you, it is quite different. François is more velvety in his touch. The orchestra matches this conception. Argerich has a fleeter, more mercurial approach. Hers is like a humming bird; François' is more like a swan. In a way he is also more "Romantic". Take the very opening of the first concerto, when the piano enters François pauses just a fraction more than Argerich and then seems to emphasize the music more. Another place I noted this was about 5 minutes into the same movement. When listening to Argerich I wrote, "an achingly beautiful melody." With François I wrote, "like little cat paws" and noticed that here the music is, again, played with a bit more character, emphasizing the moment. Another fascinating difference is how the pianists handle the "noodling" at around 2:30 into the third movement of the first concerto. Argerich's right hand is more distant, the whole passage taken at a fast pace. François' right hand is significantly more pronounced, the "noodling" more pronounced and slower…, but perhaps a bit more poetic for it? While I can appreciate that some critics might find the same noodling "mannered" I like it. I like it differently than I like Argerich; I like them equally. I had intended to make other comparative comments, but after awhile gave it up. There are just too many places where I was writing notes. Let me just tell you that in an attempt to capture the essence of this recording I wrote, "it sounds like a stream going someplace."

Until a few months ago Samson François was a name I vaguely knew, but that was all. When I got the EMI GROC recording with the pianist doing the Ravel concertos I was immediately taken by his playing. I am not sure if either that recording or this one was ever available in this country. I certainly don't recall seeing either of them. Samson François' surname is identical with Chopin's middle. He lived only to the age of 46, dying in 1970. While the insert notes are almost all about François and not about Chopin, maddeningly they tell nothing about François' early demise… but at least do stress that he was a weirdo. Anyway, I have found both this disc and the earlier Ravel reason to seek out more of his recordings. I recall seeing, the other day, a Philips set with François as part of their "great pianists" series. Time to check that out.

You know, it has occurred to me that a serious listener to classical music should have more than one recording of a piece. The idea that there is one recording that is "best" is just silly. How can you possibly appreciate a piece of music unless you have explored the various perspectives, studied the different facets? In fact, I think I shall soon go get out my recording of Pollini's "rosette" recording and give it a listen.

The tyro to classical music will find either François or Argerich an excellent introduction to this music. In fact, try both. I really enjoyed the experience of reporting on my experiences whilst listening to these recordings. Then, too, I get a certain kind of evil pleasure when I use words like "shall" and "whilst".

P. S. Give the Pollini a try, too.

PPS. I finally got the Philips set devoted to Samson François. I also did some other research. I discovered that the guy essentially drank himself to death. He was a protégé of Cortot, but his playing is different. The Philips set is well worth the investment as it offers one disc of nothing but Chopin with one of the finest recordings of the piano sonata #2 that I know. I have found that my system at home requires that I cut the treble and boost the bass to make the discs warmer (this has been true of all the recordings in this series) but once that noodling is done the sound is excellent. I also talked with an old friend of mine, Al Franz. Al was manager of a record shop through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and into the eighties. He checked his resources and confirmed that in 1955 the Chopin Piano Concerto #1 was listed in the Schwann catalog. Nothing else, however, was listed at that time.

Copyright © 2000, Robert Stumpf II