Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2

COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau (piano); LPO/Eliahu Inbal
CATALOGUE NO: 68 391-2 ADD/DDD Reissue (1970-84)
These recordings date from 1970 to 1984, by which time Arrau (born in 1903) may have been past his days as an outright virtuoso. Nevertheless, he brings much deeper qualities to Chopin’s masterpieces through his exceptional understanding of musical structure in its purest sense.

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There is something almost Schenkerian about Arrau’s emphasis on bass lines and the way he works towards and through the crucial harmonic pivotal points. I don’t know whether he might have picked up some influences stemming from Schenkerian analysis during his studies in Berlin, but his particular brand of musical intelligence often brings out inherent qualities in the music that remain too often buried alive by others.

For example, in Arrau’s hands the A flat Prelude is not just a song without words, but a duet between treble and bass voices which resolve their differences on the repeated tonic towards its close. The E minor Prelude is both an abstract improvisation on chromatic harmonies and a cry of absolute anguish – for Arrau gets the balance between emotional content and musical purity just right, never sacrificing either on the altar of the other. The second subject of the First Ballade is one of the tenderest and most beautiful renderings I’ve heard; and the Nocturnes are particularly wonderful, dark-hued and sultry in atmosphere, brimming with love and wisdom through the intense songfulness of Arrau’s distinctive ruby-red sound.

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It is perhaps not surprising if his Scherzos and the final movements of the concertos are slightly low-key by comparison, nor if the more virtuoso moments of the Ballades are slower than others take them, and certainly more effortful – Arrau was, after all, past 80 when he tackled the Scherzos. Some of the waltzes can sound over-deliberate and lacking in fun – it would be difficult to dance to them – but they have other fine qualities instead. There is still plenty of impetus and grandeur in the F minor Fantasie and a very moving, valedictory quality in the Barcarolle. Overall, Arrau’s attention to musical detail and his depth of empathy with Chopin’s intentions mean that one can forgive him a few less satisfactory moments. Here is a master at work.