PERFORMER: Artur Rubinstein, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels etc
CATALOGUE NO: Sony 88697577072 (15 discs)
Given the combined legacies of the Sony and BMG back catalogues, one might think that those responsible for compiling a 15-CD boxed set with title Frédéric Chopin Great Recordings would be faced with an embarrassment of riches. Yet the selection seems rather curious. For example, what should one make of the first disc which offers an absurdly short duration of just over 35 minutes and features only half of the 24 Études (nine from Op. 10 and only three from Op. 25)?
I have absolutely no qualms about the decision to share the performances of these works between the mercurial Vladimir Horowitz and the somewhat more stolid Sviatoslav Richter, but under the circumstances, would it not have been more logical to opt instead for the extraordinarily compelling if occasionally controversial recording of the complete set from Murray Perahia, one of the company’s major pianists whose complete absence from this collection appears quite inexplicable?
Likewise, if the intention here was to highlight the work of as many great Chopin interpreters as possible, it seems odd not to have included at least some other RCA and Sony stalwarts such as Alexander Brailowsky or Robert Casadesus.
Still, the current set has a major trump card with a very generous conspectus of performances from Artur Rubinstein. A random sampling of Rubinstein’s 1960s versions of the Ballades, Scherzos, Impromptus, Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes, taking up nearly half of the entire set, confirms that in almost every case his fresh and musically instinctive approach to the composer has stood the test of time and remains the benchmark by which all subsequent performances must be judged.
Apart from Rubinstein there are other treasures here, none perhaps more compelling than Evgeny Kissin’s riveting 24 Preludes and equally insightful Second Sonata. There’s also much to admire in Van Cliburn’s strongly defined account of the B minor Sonata, though the recording lacks a bit of bloom.
Cyprien Katsaris, who made a number of Chopin recordings for both Sony and Warner, also features here providing us with an occasionally wayward survey of the Polonaises as well as a good deal of Chopin’s juvenilia and other lesser-known miniatures, much of which is not exactly essential listening.
The final three discs feature chamber and concertante works with orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax present a highly impulsive and excellently balanced Cello Sonata and although the Piano Trio (where the duo are joined by violinist Pamela Frank) is hardly top-drawer Chopin, the performers make the most persuasive case for its revival.
More bizarre is the juxtaposition of the very beefy American orchestral sound and power-house playing of Gilels and André Watts with the lean textured and somewhat dimly recorded Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who accompany Ax playing on a period instrument keyboard in the Variations on La Ci Darem la Mano, Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. Erik Levi