Chopin: Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35; Nocturnes, Opp. 27/2 & 55/1

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35; Nocturnes, Opp. 27/2 & 55/1
PERFORMER: Josef Hofmann (piano roll)
CATALOGUE NO: NI 8803 DDD
Those responsible for this project to record great pianists’ piano rolls apparently neglected to ask a crucial question before launching it: namely, do these performances actually sound like the playing of masters of the keyboard? These are among the best piano roll reproductions I have heard, but the answer must nevertheless be a resounding ‘no’.

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All of these pianists left disc recordings that verify the syntax of their playing. In particular, although Friedman, Hofmann and Paderewski each had his own distinctive musical personality, all three were colouristic wizards, employed a flexibility of tempo and gesture that was based on mastery of timing, articulation and subtle dynamic gradations, and projected the melodic line as the centrepiece of the texture to a currently unfashionable extent.

Alas, these reproductions utterly subvert such qualities. (Whether Duo-Art rolls can be more effectively presented is a matter for engineers to take up.) Accompanimental patterns are relentlessly loud and often drown melodic lines. One longs in vain for any delicacy of touch or use of the softest third of the dynamic spectrum. Legato is an unknown commodity. Tempi and note-to-note connections lurch rather than bend. Rarely do chords sound convincingly voiced. Lines, phrases and filigree take on either monochromatic or distorted contours. The expressive dissynchronisations of chords for which these pianists are famous here sound like gaucheries, and often it seems that additional unevennesses are created or exaggerated. Hofmann, owner of one of history’s most effortless piano techniques, sounds laboured even in his most celebrated display piece, Moszkowski’s Caprice espagnol (on NI8802) – and without him there to adjust to the piano, the repeated notes never get on track.

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In short, at every moment one is forced to question whether what one hears was either intended or actually achieved by the pianist involved. Despite their numerous inadequacies, disc recordings remain an incomparably more reliable resource for those who wish to enjoy and study the wonders of Golden Age pianism. David Breckbill