Recording of the Week Frédéric Chopin
2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the composer Frédéric Chopin’s birth. Born in Poland in 1810, Chopin’s prodigious musical talent was obvious from a very early age, with both his earliest compositions and his first public performance dating from when he was aged just seven. Like many Poles he left his native country for Paris in 1831, and never returned. These days Chopin is considered one of the most significant and individual composers of his time. Writing almost exclusively for piano solo (all his compositions at least include a piano), he established a number of musical forms as standard – such as the mazurka, the impromptu and the nocturne; invented some entirely – such as the instrumental ballade; and made significant innovations to the development of others – such as the piano sonata.
While of last years anniversary composers it was Handel who seemed to get the most extensive treatment from the record labels, this year it is undoubtedly Chopin who is being given the five star treatment, with a raft of new releases and some very tempting box set re-issues. Of the new releases I have particularly enjoyed the ‘late masterpieces’ disc by Stephen Hough which is beautifully phrased and seductively expressive, while the Nocturnes under Nelson Freire is like a Masterclass in shifting moods and colours.
Of the three essentially complete anniversary box sets issued this year (by Sony, EMI and DG), I’d say they all have something interesting to offer. The EMI set is quite a bit cheaper than the other two and represents a bargain way of getting to know Chopin’s wonderful works, but while there is nothing inherently bad about any of the recordings, I found a few too many of them rather ordinary. That accusation however cannot though be levelled at the last disc of the set, where EMI have brought in the seventeen-year-old (and former BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist) Benjamin Grosvenor to play a disc of ‘Rarities’. Although not great pieces, Grosvenor demonstrates a musicality and sensitivity of touch often far more impressive than what you have heard on the previous 14 discs.
The Sony set contains some truly legendary recordings, led very much by Rubinstein, whose recordings take up nearly half the entire set. The Rubinstein versions are mainly 1960s recordings so the piano sound isn’t as good as some of the more recent offerings, but they still sound so fresh and musically instinctive. He was a great artist and his Chopin is still much revered. The rest of the set features artists like Gilels, Horowitz and Emanuel Ax so there is much to recommend here.
My overall pick though has to go to the DG set which is a complete reworking of their 1999 Chopin Edition (which was done to mark the 150th anniversary of the composers death). This new set includes a number of newer recordings and also several from the Decca catalogue. BBC Music Magazine summed up the quality of this new set in their February issue:
The quality, both of DG's chosen recordings and the set's general presentation, is just about as good as it gets. To have in one box such wonders as Zimmerman's Ballades, Pollini's Etudes, Pires's Nocturnes, Ashkenazy's Mazurkas and Waltzes, and the Cello Sonata incandescently performed by Rostropovich and Argerich is a treat indeed and could scarcely by bettered.”
We have just started a Chopin special offer where you can save up to 40% on some of the great recordings of his works. The box sets mentioned above are all included, and so are a large number of individual discs so it is a great opportunity to fill any holes in your Chopin collections.
Browse Chopin Special Offer:
Stephen Hough (piano)
Stephen Hough joins the celebrations for Chopin’s 200th birthday with a disc containing much of the composer’s most extraordinary music, written in the last years of his life where the expressive possibilities of his art were constantly unfolding as he imbued his favoured forms with previously unknown levels of complexity and emotional depth.
Available Format: CD
Nelson Freire (piano)
A celebration of Chopin Year - 2010 being the 200th birthday of the sui generis Polish genius - Nelson Freire, a Chopin interpreter of unique discernment, records the beloved Nocturnes 1-20.
Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC
A completely reworked version of the 1999 DG Edition, now split between DG and Decca recordings. Pollini recordings form the backbone of collection (Etudes, Sonatas, Polonaises, Scherzos) and new DG Highlights include Zimerman's Concertos, Blechacz's Preludes and Pires's Nocturnes. Coupled with Decca recordings of Arrau and Ashkenazy this set is the top recommendation.
Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC