Chopin: 12 Études, Op. 10; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35; Barcarolle, Op. 60

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Chopin Piano Works
WORKS: 12 Études, Op. 10; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35; Barcarolle, Op. 60
PERFORMER: Nelson Freire (piano)
It is good to hear an imaginative pianist playing Chopin’s Etudes. So often they are treated primarily as finger-crunching exercises, their musical potential sidelined – Pollini’s famous DG recording, for example, is markedly unexploratory. Nelson Freire, the brilliant Brazilian pianist who for years was Martha Argerich’s duo partner, has both the temperament and technique for this music, and one of the striking features of his playing is the way he contrasts strident sonorities with delightful feathery passagework. Sometimes he allows the texture to become too notey and right-hand dominated (typically the right hand has the technical work, but the left hand drives the music); nevertheless, this is a very fine version. Perahia’s complete Etudes (recently reissued by Sony at mid-price, reviewed in March) remain a safe bet, although I urge anyone to track down the exceptional account by Juana Zayas (Music & Arts).

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Freire’s Barcarolle mixes eloquent poetry with passionate ardour, but most convincing is his powerfully dramatic account of the Second Sonata. The first two movements are brooding and intense, with growling bass lines and finely judged pedalling. Some will find his added bass octaves in the ‘Funeral March’ overbearing – although, coupled with his controversial overruling of Chopin’s piano dynamic, they make a dramatic impression and enhance the contrasted effect of the whispered moto perpetuo finale. This searching interpretation complements but doesn’t supplant old favourites, whether the feverish energy of Argerich (on DG) or the aristocratic poise of Horowitz (on Sony).

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The sound is bright and well ventilated; the added depth and clarity of the SACD version is noticeable, although a warmer middle range would offset the glittering treble. Tim Parry