Chopin: Mazurkas (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Mazurkas (complete)
PERFORMER: Frederic Chiu (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907247-48
Nothing is more elusive than the rhythm of Chopin’s mazurkas – triple-metre works which under his hands sometimes gave the impression of a duple metre. More importantly here, perhaps, than in any other branch of his output, two of his most celebrated pronouncements have particular importance. One is his motto ‘souplesse avant tout!’ (suppleness before everything!), the other is his insistence that the left hand should maintain a strict tempo, with rhythmic liberties confined to the right.

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In many of these often miraculous pieces, Chiu is exemplary. He’s a very superior pianist indeed (as anyone will know who has heard his stunning recording of the Op. 10 Studies). But there are some curious lapses, where the melody gets locked in by the metre as a result of excessive symmetry. On the whole, there’s so much to admire and enjoy in these highly intelligent performances that it seems ungenerous to carp, but there are two aspects of Chiu’s playing here that exclude it from my own personal pantheon. One is its relatively limited dynamic and colouristic range, the other is a lack of the almost Shakespearian breadth and depth of characterisation that you get from Rubinstein (especially in his earlier, EMI set from the Thirties). I can find little trace here of the wild, even aggressive side of Chopin (and some of these mazurkas are positively fierce), nor do I find the terrible loneliness of such pieces as the B flat minor Mazurka, Op. 24/4, whose tragic dimensions are out of all proportion to their brevity. But these things, of course, are notoriously subjective. Jeremy Siepmann