PERFORMER: Claudio Arrau, Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy, Rafa√ Blechacz, Yundi Li, Luisada, Maria João Pires, Mikhail Pletnev, Maurizio Pollini, Anatol Ugorski, Lilya Zilberstein, Krystian Zimerman etc; LClaudio Arrau, Vladimir & Vovka Ashkenazy, Rafa√ Blechacz, Yundi Li, Luisada, Maria João Pires, Mikhail Pletnev, Maurizio Pollini, Anatol Ugorski, Lilya Zilberstein, Krystian Zimerman etc; London PO/ Eliahu Inbal; Polish Festival Orchestraondon PO/ Eliahu Inbal; Polish Festival Orchestra
CATALOGUE NO: DG 477 8445 (17 discs)
Deutsche Grammophon’s Chopin Complete Edition consists of 17 CDs, while EMI has squeezed everything onto 16 (see review, p85) – but it is not only the quantity that is more substantial here. The quality, both of DG’s chosen recordings and the set’s general presentation, is just about as good as it gets.
First, and most importantly, Chopinophiles will find themselves rejoicing in the number of classic performances herein. To have in one box such wonders as Zimerman’s Ballades, Pollini’s Etudes, Pires’s Nocturnes, Ashkenazy’s Mazurkas and Waltzes, and the Cello Sonata incandescently performed by Rostropovich and Argerich is a treat indeed and could scarcely be bettered.
DG has a back catalogue like Aladdin’s Cave, and they have made the most of it. Pollini is represented strongly with magisterial accounts of the Sonatas and Polonaises, his Scherzos as diamond-tipped as his Etudes. Argerich, though, is not as prevalent a presence as her prominent picture would suggest – apart from the duo with Rostropovich, she’s heard only in the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise solo version.
There are some fresh and exciting choices to revisit. Claudio Arrau is a wise and gutsy soloist in the rare pieces for piano and orchestra – the Fantasia on Polish Airs, La Ci Darem Variations, etc, recorded in the early 1970s.
The Concertos are Zimerman’s second recording, in which he directs his own Polish Festival Orchestra from the piano; recorded for the last Chopin anniversary in 1999, it is gorgeously romantic, with every string slide cherished and each note turned like wrought gold. It proved controversial at that time, for its very lavishness and attention to detail; but full marks to DG for choosing an interpretation that nails its colours to such a strong mast, rather than one-size-fits-all blandness.
Other surprise reissues are notable in the rarer pieces. Lilya Zilberstein does her very musical best with the early Sonata No. 1, among other works, and there’s some fleet-fingered beauty from Anatol Ugorski (remember him?) in the Trois Nouvelle Etudes and Ecossaises. The songs are sung with freshness and ardour by the lively-voiced soprano Elzbieta Szmytka, and the Beaux Arts Trio approach the somewhat ungrateful Piano Trio with devotion.
Of younger contributors, Rafa√ Blechacz plays the Preludes mellifluously, with classic poise, a lovely tone quality and some personal, imaginative touches; Yundi Li is delicate and pleasant in the Impromptus.
The sole awkward juxtaposition is that Anner Bylsma and Lambert Orkis perform the Grand Duo Concertant for cello and piano on what sound like original instruments, sandwiched between two recordings of Rostropovich and Argerich.
The contrast of sounds is almost as unkind as expecting a sheep to hold its own next to an elephant.
The pieces are sensibly arranged through the CDs, the repertoire and performers made clear at most turns, and the booklet is equipped with a substantial and superb contribution by Chopin expert Jeremy Siepmann. This is a set to treasure: when you can have all of these delights in one go, why would you want anything else? Jessica Duchen