The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: New York Times music critics name the best Chopin recordings — just a bit late

June 5, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

As they say, better late than never.

So I suppose almost three months late isn’t too bad. But I expect better from  The New York Times.

You may recall that Chopin’s 200th birthday was celebrated on March 1.

Then a week ago Friday, the NewYork Times classical music critics finally got around to publishing their best Chopin recordings. (They often do something similar when it is an anniversary or special event — I remember the ones published for the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death in 1806 and for Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday last year — and I find it  very useful and entertaining kind of journalism to read.)

I wonder if the writers had the story ready to go and the editors just delayed it because of space?

Anyway, here’s hoping they do their picks marking the 200th birthday of Robert Schumann on June 8, the actually birthday, and not in September. Last I checked, timeliness remains a top news value.

In the meantime, here are their Chopin picks:

Of course it is all a matter of taste and subjectivity. So here is the same late mazurkas played by Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Martha Argerich. If you compare and contrast –and read other listeners’ comments — it will help you to decide on your own preferences:

Let finish by remarking that– to my taste —  some things are missing.

The Ear personally likes Arthur  Rubinstein’s second recording of the Mazurkas (done in the 1950s, below). They generally have faster tempi and more swing, more dance-like energy. I find them more Dionysian than Apollonian, more visceral than cerebral or intellectual, if you will, that the third and last version he made. The second set became available again when the complete Rubinstein recordings were released.

Much as I admire Murray Perahia’s or Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Etudes, I can’t  imagine anyone playing them better than Maurizio Pollini. It is simply his kind of finger-precision and muscular repertoire.

If you’re looking for bargains and convenience, I also suggest the 2-CD set of Emanuel Ax — a very great Chopinist who won the first Arthur Rubinstein Competition in 1973 and who combines tone, technique and  interpretation — playing all the ballades and scherzi as well as the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, the three Nouvelles Etudes, some mazurkas, a nocturne and the Polonaise-Fantaisie.

Finally, EMI has unfortunately let it go out of print, but I loved the sampler of short works — mazurkas, nocturnes and waltzes — that the arthritis-ridden Byron Janis put together a decade ago. It deserves to be reissued.

So, do you have a favorite Chopin player?

A favorite Chopin recording?

The Ear wants to hear.

And maybe the New York Times critics want to also.

Posted in Classical music

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