The Real Chopin: Complete piano works, Vols 1-12

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: National Institute Fryderyk Chopin
WORKS: Complete piano works, Vols 1-12
PERFORMER: Fou Ts’ong (Vol. 1); Ka Ling Colleen Lee (Vol. 2); Nelson Goerner (Vols 3 & 9); Dang Thai Son (Vol. 4); Tatiana Shebanova (Vols 5 & 7); Wojciech Switala (Vol. 6); Janusz Olejniczak (Vols 8 & 11); Kevin Kenner (Vol. 10); Dina Yoffe (Vol. 12); Orchestra of the 18th century/Frans Brüggen (Vols 4 & 9)
CATALOGUE NO: 001-012 (12 discs, available separately)

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Amid the Chopin bicentenary CD re-releases and re-packagings by major international labels, two rather more significant new recording projects have emerged from Poland, a country which celebrates its most famous figure with a loving fervour that would be hard to imagine of other nations and their composers.

One is from Dux, reviewed on page 81; then there is the collection from Warsaw’s energetic Fryderyk Chopin National Institute, the organisation running everything from the 1 March gala birthday concerts to a state-of-the-art new Chopin museum and even this year’s 16th International Chopin Piano Competition. That collection is The Real Chopin, a hugely significant series of recordings made on instruments of the composer’s day.

To be precise, it features a couple of pianos dating from the last two years of his life, an 1848 Pleyel and an 1849 Érard. Beautifully captured on disc, their warm tone conjures up a mid-19th-century soundworld better than any other ‘period piano’ recordings I know – proving once again that, at their best, period instruments are not an end in themselves but a means to understanding music better.

The Real Chopin features an impressive though not necessarily always ‘big name’ parade of pianists, mostly winners at different editions of the International Chopin Competition. The line-up goes as far back as the veteran Fou Ts’ong (class of 1955), whose album of mazurkas – teased out with an idiomatic freedom few achieve – was the first in the series to be released (NIFCCD 001). Every pianist here offers something special, but I’ve particularly enjoyed the mixed recitals by Janusz Olejniczak (NIFCCD 008 & 011) and Kevin Kenner (NIFCCD 010), and the narrative lyricism and drama Nelson Goerner brings to the Ballades (NIFCCD 003).

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The works for piano and orchestra, recorded with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Brüggen, inspire some of the most revelatory performances. Goerner finds a freshness in such pieces as the Rondo à la Krakowiak (NIFCCD 009), and Dang Thai Son’s approach to the concertos is full of lively imagination and poetic delicacy (NIFCCD 004). Twelve volumes have been released so far; the final ones, coming soon, include the chamber music and songs. John Allison