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Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (Despax)

Emmanuel Despax (piano); Chineke! Chamber Ensemble (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (arr. for piano and string quintet)
Emmanuel Despax (piano); Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Signum Classics SIGCD 700   75:09 mins

New versions of Chopin’s two concertos are still being added to the catalogue. Even the chamber versions – right from the start, these works were performed in intimate settings – are now being recorded more frequently, so these performances by Emmanuel Despax and the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble come up against stiff competition, falling a little short not for the brilliance of the pianism but as chamber music per se. In the long opening of Concerto No. 1 in E minor, the string quintet is not ideally blended (and perhaps too closely recorded); that might imply a certain domestic authenticity about the music-making were it not for the feeling that these performers sound less like chamber musicians than one-to-a-part orchestral players.

Despax is an arresting soloist, well worth hearing – but he sounds as if he’s projecting into a big concert hall rather than a chamber partner. From his grand entry in the E minor work, he brings virtuosic authority and a good sense of Chopin’s style, leading the performers so that the all-important rubato (in the F minor Second Concerto’s first movement especially) seems natural. Despax shines in the bel canto flourishes of the F minor’s slow movement, but the magic of this work’s finale is compromised when the violins and viola sound clunkily exposed in the col legno passages. It’s in those few moments without piano that the shortcomings show up.

John Allison