Chopin: 200th Anniversary Edition

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Chopin
LABELS: EMI
PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau, Daniel Barenboim, Andrei Gavrilov, Yvonne Loriod, Garrick Ohlsson, Cécile Ousset, Alexis Weissenberg etc
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 967 1172 (16 discs)

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An EMI 16-disc Chopin set arouses considerable anticipation, given the quality of the company’s available material, but these hopes quickly vanished into a morass of confusion. The booklet does not say who plays the concertos and the cardboard sleeves do not hold information about who is playing any of the pieces at all.

The press office confirmed that the concertos’ soloist is Garrick Ohlsson, but iTunes had meanwhile decided that it was Jorge Bolet, which had me chewing my nails over the memory of Joyce Hatto. Beware, too, the promises of ‘exclusive online content’: it is merely general EMI stuff including photos of Philippe Jaroussky and Joyce DiDonato, but little to do with Chopin.

In short, this set is a bit of a mess, which is a great, great pity because some wonderful stuff does lurk inside it. The best surprise was Ronald Smith in the Mazurkas, recorded in 1974-5. The sound quality is poor, but the springiness of his rhythms, the immediacy of his response to the folksy melodies and his richness of imagination combined with evident delight in the music makes this a very special recording. 

Other performances are not always in the same league. Garrick Ohlsson’s accounts of the Preludes, Nocturnes, Polonaises and Concertos are perfectly respectable but often lack an extra edge of elegance and imagination. Agustin Anievas is genial but splashy in the Waltzes – and EMI could have chosen Lipatti, Kovacevich or Fliter instead.

Andrei Gavrilov’s Etudes could almost raise a speeding fine. Cécile Ousset is hard-hitting and unsubtle in the Sonatas and Scherzos, and Alexis Weissenberg bashes the hell out of the La Ci Darem Variations and the orchestral Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. The songs are presented hootily by mezzo Eugenia Zareska (recorded 1955).

Awkward placements of pieces abound – the Fantasy-Impromptu is removed from its siblings and precedes the Etudes. Different recorded sound qualities are often awkwardly juxtaposed in what feels like a cut-and-paste collage.

But the set’s other secret weapon is teenage British wunderkind Benjamin Grosvenor, whose ‘Rarities’ disc was recorded just last year and reveals a sensitivity of touch, general musicality and affection for the music that is staggeringly absent from some of his older colleagues. 

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The booklet is graced by a fine essay from Roger Nichols, but is nevertheless thin given the supposed significance of this 200th anniversary edition. The set, in short, has its merits but is otherwise rather a squandered opportunity. Jessica Duchen