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CD Review

Frédéric Chopin

EMI 85691

Works for Solo Piano

  • Sonata #2 in B Flat minor, Op. 35
  • Sonata #3 in B minor, Op. 58
  • Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49
  • Barcarolle in F Sharp Major, Op. 60
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Recorded 1973-74; Reissued 2004
EMI Encore 85691 75:25
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EMI 85453
  • 24 Preludes, Op. 28
  • Prelude in C Sharp minor, Op. 45
  • Prelude in A Flat Major, Op. posth
  • Berceuse in D Flat Major, Op. 57
  • Polonaise-fantaisie in A Flat Major, Op. 61
  • Variations in A (Souvenir de Paganini)
  • Introduction and Variations on a Theme from Hérold's "Ludovic"
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Recorded 1973/76; Reissued 2005
EMI Encore 85453 74:52
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Comparison Recordings:

Preludes – Argerich/DG, Bolet/Philips, Freire/Sony
Berceuse – Moravec/Vox, Rubinstein/RCA
Polonaise – Horowitz/RCA, Kempff/Decca, Richter/Doremi
Sonata #2 – Gornostayeva/Revelation, Horowitz/Sony, Novaes/Vox, Rubinstein '46' & '61'/RCA
Sonata #3 – Argerich/EMI, Freire/Philips, Freire/Decca, Gornostayeva/Revelation, Kapell/RCA Kempff/Decca, Lipatti/EMI, Novaes/Music & Arts, Pollack/Infinity Digital, Wirssaladze/Melodiya
Fantaisie – Schließmann/Bayer, Harasiewicz/Philips, Luisada/RCA
Barcarolle – Favre-Kahn/Arion, Moiseiwitsch/Pearl, Sofronitsky/Philips

Summary: Consistently Disappointing

These two discs are at super-budget price, even lower than a Naxos disc. Some folks would feel that getting Barenboim at such minimal cost is a dream come true; others might consider Barenboim a nightmare at any price. Generally, I find Barenboim a highly rewarding pianist except for his infrequent forays into Bach territory.

Well, let's get to the heart of the matter. It is difficult to warm up to these two discs because of the sonics and the performances. The soundstage on both recordings is rather raw and cramped, resulting in levels of abrasiveness that most listeners will find unattractive; boosting the volume control only exacerbates the problem. Concerning the interpretations, it's a rocky road that Barenboim takes us down, fluidity apparently not one of his major concerns. At the same time, Chopin's most powerful and concentrated utterances are not fully conveyed.

In the Op. 28 Preludes, Barenboim infrequently offers a true legato, preferring small bumps in his phrasing; although a technically difficult way to go when presenting fast arpeggios, I find the rewards minimal. However, the most damaging feature of Barenboim's interpretation concerns the lack of excitement he brings to the powerful preludes #8, #16, #18, and #24. In these pieces, the drive and strength is definitely diminished. I am somewhat surprised with this tepid approach given that the preludes #12 and #22 display an abundance of punch and grit.

However, all is not lost. Barenboim fully conveys the bleakness of #2, #4, and #6. The serenity he offers in #7 is captivating, and there is no lack of ceremony in #9. Perhaps his most interesting approach comes in #23 that is one of the slowest performances on record at well over one minute. Some listeners might find the tempo sluggish, but I consider the performance very sweet, loving, and luxurious. So, Barenboim's way with Op. 28 is very much a mixed bag that is many rungs below the quality of the comparison versions.

The Berceuse is not a mixed bag; it simply does not fare well in Barenboim's hands. At almost five minutes in length, he does not project the buoyancy, playfulness, spontaneity, or conversational elements present in Rubinstein's 1946 version on RCA. Ivan Moravec's account on Vox is also quite slow, but he delivers the security and love absent in Barenboim's rather cool interpretation.

The three outstanding comparison versions of the Polonaise-fantaisie take us from the soft and gorgeous refrains of Kempff to the 'take no prisoner' account of Horowitz. Kempff's version is the most poetic I have ever heard, yet he still manages to convey the angst in the music when required. With Horowitz, I get the feeling he's ready to exterminate an entire village; his tremendously strong opening to the introduction provides a determined sign of what's to come. Let's not forget the dimly recorded Richter interpretation. Richter always overcomes problematic sound, and his recording of the Polonaise-fantaisie may well be the best on record with its mesmerizing poignancy and coiled tension. With many other excellent recordings of the Polonaise-fantaisie to choose from, Barenboim's rather slow and sluggish performance does not impress.

Barenboim's "Preludes" disc concludes with two variations works that are all show and no substance. Still, they are quite fetching and rarely found on Chopin recital discs. Barenboim takes very well to these two pieces, fully conveying their upbeat and exuberant nature with excellent virtuosity. However, when the best performances on a disc are of the least substantial fare, skepticism rears its head.

Turning now to the other Barenboim offering, the comparison versions for the Piano Sonata #2 should be no surprise except for 1986 recording of Vera Gornostayeva. A relative unknown in the Western World, she is a splendid Chopin performing artist who routinely dives into Chopin's angst and lyricism; the other two Chopin Sonatas also grace the disc.

Barenboim doesn't improve as the 2nd Sonata commences. Although he conveys plenty of power and tension in the Grave introduction to the first movement, well setting the stage for the "Doppio movimento", he soon ruins it by allowing the tension to go limp. As for the lyricism of the first movement, Barenboim's disinterested performance is a far cry from the wonderful poetry/poignancy of Horowitz and Rubinstein. And again, Barenboim's harsh soundstage is hard to live with. Fortunately, the three remaining movements reach a higher standard of performance. Barenboim generates abundant energy in the hard-driving Scherzo, his Funeral March is slow and of sufficient weight, and the mercurial final movement displays a fine sense of detailed disorientation. Still, the comparison versions possess greater tension and melting lyricism.

I have included in the heading ten exceptional comparision versions of the Sonata #3, and I wouldn't be surprised if other serious Chopin enthusiasts recommended at least another ten versions of equal merit. This Sonata is my favorite of the Romantic era, and it irks me to listen to an interpretation that does not bring out its driving angst, menace, ceremony, and a few of the most gorgeous melodies Chopin ever composed.

Barenboim's performance of the 3rd Sonata doesn't irk me, but it also does not make much of an impression. He's at his best in the slower sections, particularly the dream-like middle section of the third movement. However, there is a lack of consistent drive in the outer movements, and his display of virtuosity in the second movement is nothing special and pales next to the thrilling presentation by Martha Argerich. Best to stick with the comparison versions.

The wonderful Fantaisie in F minor gets a fairly good presentation by Barenboim. He does quite well by the poignant themes, but the necessary tension of the powerful themes is not fully captured. Compared to the Harasiewicz, Schließmann, and Luisada versions, Barenboim's has little sweep or display of architectural detail.

Barenboim concludes the disc with a version of the Barcarolle that should have ended with the first section where the pianist certainly offers abundant rapture. However, the more powerful second section finds Barenboim banging away on the keys with a soundstage that is extremely harsh; the rapture vanishes. It is such a relief to move to more fertile territory with the emotional intensity of Sofronitsky, the transcendent urgency of Moiseiwitch, and the rugged and determined presentation of Laura Favre-Kahn.

Don's Conclusions: Neither Barenboim disc is recommended, and I don't intend to keep my copies. Too often the music's lyricism is scuttled by his bumpy legato, its tremendous strength is held in check, and the soundstage turns powerful phrases into key-pounding exercises. At no time does Barenboim touch the comparison versions, and a few works are clearly below the average. With so many exceptional Chopin recordings on the market, Barenboim's efforts can be forgotten.

Copyright © 2005/2006, Don Satz

Trumpet