Chopin: Etudes Opp. 10 & 25

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Chesky
WORKS: Etudes Opp. 10 & 25
PERFORMER: Earl Wild (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD77 DDD
No mere exercises in prestidigitation, Chopin’s two sets of piano Etudes Opp. 10 & 25 offer a range of expressive challenges that make the pieces of absorbing interest to the listener, if considerably more difficult for the performer. As each set of 12 studies unfolds, we marvel not only at the virtuosity of the executant, but also at the skill of the composer in investing a pedagogic form with captivating poetry.

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That, at least, is how it should be. But there’s not much poetry in evidence in Peter Donohoe’s roller-coaster ride through the Op. 10 set. ‘A very virile composer’ is how Donohoe describes Chopin. Wherever has he got such an idea? We do not need sentimental biopics to tell us that Chopin was a sensitive, delicate consumptive: his music proclaims it clearly enough. We also know that as a performer, Chopin eschewed heaviness and displays of power in favour of a discriminating touch and subtlety of nuance.

Despite his unpromising name, Earl Wild brings more of these qualities to his performance of the two sets. Where Donohoe bulldozes his way through the opening C major arpeggio study, bringing to bear a glassy brilliance (reinforced by an aggressively forward recording), Wild (notably recessed) achieves an iridescent play of colours with no diminution of virtuosity.

In the celebrated E major study (Op. 10/3), Donohoe makes the ‘con bravura’ marking in the central section an excuse for some unpleasantly oppressive note-bashing; Wild also plays with bravura here, but catches a tone more consistent with the pensive, melancholy one of the rest of the study. In Op. 10/10, again, the study whose challenge Hans von Bülow described as ‘the highest peak of the pianist’s Parnassus’, Wild achieves a genuine dolce and is the more successful in turning the formidable technical difficulties to expressive advantage.

If you like your Chopin muscular and macho, you may enjoy Donohoe’s undeniable keyboard prowess more than I did. For more poetic playing, try Wild, or Louis Lortie on Chandos, or Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca.

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Barry Millington