Chopin: Ballade No. 1; Ballade No. 2; Ballade No. 3; Ballade No. 4; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Ballade No. 1; Ballade No. 2; Ballade No. 3; Ballade No. 4; Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49; Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45
PERFORMER: Maurizio Pollini (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 459 683-2
Chopin’s four Ballades and Fantaisie are among his noblest works, each defying pre-conceived forms in favour of a mould created uniquely for the expressive purpose in hand. It’s quite common for pianists to lose the thread in these pieces, but Pollini is never in danger of that – architectural sense and a feeling for the long line are his special strengths. But it comes at some cost. In the first and fourth Ballades in particular, Pollini underestimates Chopin’s range of expression, so that lyrical flights are prosaic, delicate decoration dull, and powerful climaxes reserved. And though he launches the coda of the last Ballade at enormous speed, it becomes a bit gabbled. The slightly damp recording hardly helps.

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The Ballades are well served on disc, with Zimerman, Gavrilov, Demidenko, Perahia and Kissin all lining up for attention. Yet I would choose Valerie Tryon on CBC above all these if the recording weren’t so appalling, so perhaps the benchmark should be Emanuel Ax, for his balance of sensitivity and formal strength, even though his recording isn’t the most gleaming either.

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Of the above, only Zimerman couples the Ballades with the Fantaisie. He’s much more brilliant than Pollini, and offers many more lingering beauties, but he’s also affected, taking the opening section so deliberately, there’s a real danger you may not wait for the main tempo to arrive. That’s the sort of thing Pollini would never do – he’s much too sensible. Adrian Jack