Josef Hofmann claimed that the pianist never existed who could perform each and every Chopin étude equally well. Of course, that hasn't stopped nearly ninety pianists from recording them all since Wilhelm Backhaus first traversed Op. 10 and 25 for HMV in 1926. Earl Wild, of course, has lived with these works publicly and privately for most of his long performing career, and has finally committed his interpretations to disc. The results, however – given his reputation for flamboyance, are rather "mild", not "wild" about Chopin. While the 77 year old pianist's legendary technique is more than up to the task, an aura of posterity and permanence seems to hover over the proceedings. I miss the fire, abandon, and sense of risk that Wild unfailingly brings to this music on stage. There's never any doubt that a seasoned master is at work here, although I wish he were more at play!
Some pianophiles treasure Vladimir Ashkenazy's 1959/60 traversal of the études above all others, including the pianist's own 1975 remake for London/Decca. The controlled frenzy, for instance, of the "stride piano" a minor étude (Op. 25/4) has a demonic intensity far removed from the pianist's later recording. And his ultra-secure double notes, in the "thirds" and "sixths" Op. 25 studies will send many an aspiring pianist back to the woodshed in despair. More often than not, though, Ashkenazy's sense of tempo fluctuation seems self-conscious and awkward, and lacking in forward motion. He fusses, for instance, with the basic tempo of the little "Butterfly" étude, depriving it of its quicksilver simplicity and charm. But there are compensations – the ravishing left hand inner melody in Op. 10 #11, the shimmering hues and shadings in the "Aeolian Harp" étude. The shallow and tubby sonics plaguing the three LP editions I know (MK, Monitor, Saga) have been somewhat tamed in the Russian Disc transfer, although there is marked distortion in loud passages. BMG's transfer, purportedly effected from the original tapes, seems marginally cleaner, but less atmospheric, as if the air between the notes has been slowly sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Russian Disc has no filler, while BMG includes Ashkenazy's whirling dervish take on Liszt's Mephisto Waltz #1 – a fiery, complex reading to set alongside the live Arrau (Ermitage), Feinberg (Harmonia Mundi), and Kapell (BMG), among other great recorded Mephisti.
Copyright © 1994, 1996, Jed Distler