INKPOT#55 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: CHOPIN Piano Concertos (chamber versions). Shiraga/Yggdrasil Qt/Hauks (BIS)

Fryderyk (Frdric) CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, op.11
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, op.21
– Chamber Versions –
The Yggdrasil Quartet

Henrik Peterson Per man violins
Robert Westlund viola Per Nystrm cello

Jan-Inge Hauks doublebass

This review is generously sponsored by HMV Singapore.

[72:14] full-price

by Johann D’Souza

When I heard about this CD I was extremely excited – why on earth wait 168 years to premier a chamber version of these concertos? While these works must be one of the most famous and most recorded in the piano repertoire, this new “version” will definitely catch on with other pianists and we should have more recordings for comparison soon.

Research sources say that the First Piano Concerto in E minor was actually meant for piano and string quartet. While it is not known for sure what Chopin’s true intentions were, one can take the example of Mozart, who wanted to sell some of his concertos to the average pianist, who could take home the score and play it with a couple of friends. Did Chopin have similar intentions?

Chopin There is another theory suggesting that Chopin’s rehearsals with a quartet were for the string section to have a better understanding of their role as accompanists. However I am of the opinion that in all practical terms, a chamber version score would be the closest the ordinary pianist could get to playing the orchestral version.

One stark difference from the orchestral version is the solo parts – now the pianist is not just a soloist but a partner to the quartet. From the onset of the usual tutti that starts the E minor concerto, the pianist comes in together with the quartet. Shiraga launches into the opening with exemplary fashion with the strength of a titan and never lets up all the way to the end.

One pertinent observation in this “new” work is the fact that now the solo instruments represent a whole section. E.g. The viola starts of the second movement representing the whole string section in the original score. While there is no horn solo entry anymore the cello is an adequate replacement. This allows greater sensitivity to be portrayed as the cello is a “emotive” instrument, allowing one to reach the depths of the soul. I also find that the solo passages are further intensified. The string quartet brings more to the pathos of the various passages than normally achievable with the large orchestral string section.

Shiraga is never rushed and plays well, though she still lacks the sensitivity of playing achievable by “great” pianists like Zimmerman or Argerich. This on the other hand could have been due to the recording, which blurs the piano a little.

Chopin The Second Piano Concerto was written first in 1829. It is a dreamy and mournful F minor work which characteristically commences with a melodic figure that sinks into melancholy – this was probably Chopin’s testimony of his adoring love for Konstanze Gladkowska. What is interesting in the chamber version is that due to the intimate sound of two instruments (violin and cello) starting the concerto, there seems to be that added sense of pathos, with the piano already playing in the background. Although I feel that the horns in the orchestral concerto have a better say than the same part played by the piano. (Well you win some, you lose some).

I felt that Shiraga could have played with a little more restraint in the opening forte tutti, thus giving the piano a clear and definitive role. However, at 6’08” (track 4) in the first movement, Shiraga then comes on strongly with introspectiveness matching the great interpretations of this concerto.

The sleeve of this disc gives some really important pointers which should be thoroughly read – “one of the most interesting aspects of the performance in this setting concerns the pianist’s participation in the tutti parts. Practically no guidelines exist for the performer in this regard; in the chamber setting Chopin probably played along with the solo string players – not for ensemble, particularly to fill in voices and to add weight to louder passages. The tutti interplay that Fumiko Shiraga has conceived for this recording, then, should be taken as suggestive for the style and period, but not binding.”

Whatever the case, upon hearing this recording you will find that her phrasing is worthy of comparison to the gracefulness of a swan. Listen to the slithering whisper of the violins in the second movement at 5’40” (track 5) and the short solo cello at 7’50”, which help bring out the naturalness of the piano parts and give the listener a clear understanding of the beauty of this particular movement.

Above/right: The performers on this recording. Picture taken from CD sleeve.

The last movement is played with impressive iron-clad discipline all the way to the finishing line. Shiraga is always in total control despite assuming the role of soloist and accompanist. I have to say that one part of the scoring which I have a slight bone of contention with is at 6’55”, where the horn solo is played on the piano. In the orchestral version, the whole orchestra is halted and the horn is echoed. I feel that it could have been scored such that the violin is echoed by the cellos or vice versa, giving it a bit of versatility. But this is just my opinion!

Shiraga is an individual personality, and yet has all the good assets of both a soloist and a good chamber accompanist. The Yggdrasil Quartet perform admirably: they are lyrical, attentive to details and very confident.

I have to say that this disc is definitely a disc worthy of any collection. It will especially appeal to connoisseurs of quintet music or lovers of chamber music, in addition to fans of the concertos.

A full catalogue of BIS records is now available in Singapore at HMV (The Heeren).

Johann D’Souza has fallen in love with Noriko Ogawa, which he reckons is the prettiest Japanese pianist he has ever heard and seen.

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207: 13.6.98 Johann D’Souza

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