Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; Grande valse brillante in A minor, Op. 34/2; Variations on ‘La ci darem la mano’

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COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor; Grande valse brillante in A minor, Op. 34/2; Variations on ‘La ci darem la mano’
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax (piano); Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Charles Mackerras
CATALOGUE NO: SK 60771
Emanuel Ax appears on the cover of this CD in the guise of a rotund and genial Victorian gentleman, something like Mr Pickwick, and to complete the conceit plays on a Victorian piano, an 1851 London Erard restored by the Piano Period Company. Would it be too sweeping to suggest that this piano’s period has come and gone? Perhaps in its day the last word in piano technology, on this rather musty, backward-looking recording it illustrates more than anything the improvements wrought in piano manufacture since then and why we should be grateful for them. Compare the range of emotional and dynamic expression now available with the Erard’s saloon bar sonorities and one might think Ax and the orchestra originators of a Henry Ford principle of musical performance, offering any colour as long as it’s black.

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All of which, its supporters would argue, is not the point, and at its best the instrument’s quaintness does manage dimly to evoke the sunlit drawing rooms of the last century; but elsewhere the effect is one of bathos and the crankiness and creakiness more reminiscent of an elephant trying to waltz. One can still make out what a fine pianist Ax is, his phrasing supple and intuitive, his gestures apposite and timely, but the recording seems more concerned with documenting a curiosity of the past than providing a living interpretation. For an interpretation that fizzes with life, try Martha Argerich, who recently showed what Chopin’s concertos could be when not subjected to nostalgic time travelling. Christopher Wood