Fryderyk (Frdric) CHOPIN (1810-1849)

The Complete Etudes


CHESKY Records CD77
[66’15”] mid-price

On Baldwin piano, recorded in Fernleaf Abbey, 8-12 June 1992

by Soo Kian Hing

Anecdotes abound that, when the great piano virtuoso Franz Liszt gave recitals, young Victorian ladies in the concert hall would gasp and faint from the sheer intensity of passion that emanated from his playing. Which would serve as a great dramatization to exemplify Liszt’s dazzling technique, until – yes, I admit – it actually happened to me. While listening to this recording.

Chopin was the master of writing for piano: short character pieces like preludes, etudes, rondos, scherzos and bacarolles; longer epic pieces like the ballades and sonatas; dances like the waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises; and blah… blah… blah. You get the idea. Here I shall not try to describe each etude for there are 26 in all; the liner notes by Annette and Jeffrey Chesky give an informative breakdown of each one.

Many are known by their descriptive names, eg. “Black Key Etude” (Op.10 no.5), “Revolutionary Etude” (Op.10 no.12), “Butterfly Etude” (Op.25 no.8), “Winter Wind Etude” (Op.25 no.11), “Ocean Etude” (Op.25 no.12) and so on. Yet, Chopin himself never gave his etudes any such descriptive names; nor any other character pieces for that matter. (Yes, even that “Raindrop Prelude”.)

Chopin All these picturesque names were coined by inspired listeners after hearing these etudes; for, though “etudes” means studies for improving technical mastery of a particular instrument(!), Chopin’s etudes transcended all before him and anteceded those after him by infusing supposedly dry and trivial technical studies with wit and emotion, not unlike giving blood, flesh and skin to a dry skeleton (eg. this one on the right).

Earl Wild, long accomplished as a Romantic virtuoso with a career spanning six decades, comes along at age 77, dusts off this body of flesh and bones and makes it dance. And the effect is just that: we hear Chopin in these Etudes, swirling and twirling Wild-ly around the keyboard effortlessly. No rickety joints here, but pure motion and artistry, with the fluid technique and musical depth of a seasoned artist.

Right from the very first etude, the bass resonates while the right hand runs up and down with endless arpeggios, and Wild very convincingly opens up the breadth of the keyboard. It is as if, spatially speaking, the listener has been drawn into a sonic equivalent of a huge meadow stretching into the hills beyond the horizon. As Wild goes on relentlessly and surprisingly effortlessly about the chord progressions and thumb-twisting arpeggios, you may try groping around for an object to steady yourself on while falling through the virtual space that Wild has created!

Earl Wild And if you have not gotten a tight enough grip on your heart, it may just race out of your mouth through the rest of the Opus 10 etudes, ending with a rather anti-climatic “Revolutionary Etude” which, we have all been told, was written with all the angst Chopin felt for Warsaw, capital of his motherland, which was then under the occupation of Russia. (Of course Chopin didn’t indicate that.) Yet Wild somehow didn’t seem to identify with the patriotic fury and all that stuff, playing the piece rather drily.

The upper register tinkles brightly in this recording and the bass drones deeply; Wild accentuates the technical wizardry and sparkling effects of the etudes by judicious use of the pedal and letting notes run cleanly and clearly. And if your heart has somehow slowed after the cool “Revolutionary Etude”, start worrying about your guts, for it would soon vibrate and churn to the “Aeolian Harp Etude”, nickname courtesy of Robert Schumann for the first etude of the Opus 25 set.

As the etudes continue, all your insides would soon be writhing in peristalsis [the writer has been diagnosed as a medicine student and the editor disclaims all responsibility for the rash of anatomical and physiological imagery : ) – Ed.] just as Wild’s fingers are crossing and uncrossing over the keyboard; the virtuosity just keeps coming and coming. To top it off, this later set of etudes has greater emotional depth. The liner notes describe the last three etudes as “three of the most powerful etudes”, and truly so.

Detail from 'In Caernarvon Bay' by Thomas Rose-Miles Op.10 no.10 has dramatic octave runs in both hands that swell and drop; the middle Lento section provides brief respite and builds up to climax with the octaves-theme again.

Op.10 no.11, also called the “Winter Wind Etude”, has a chromatic motif that swirls continuously around a central syncopated melody; like the winter wind, notes blow across your mind and the A minor mode freezes your attention to the performance, only to dunk you merciless into the ocean with the opening waves of Op.10 no.12, the closing and possibly the most dramatic and breathtaking of all the etudes. It is like a poem, describing the strength of the waves of the ocean, the way they rise and ebb; the white caps that ride on the crest of each wave; the endless depth of the ocean; and the bountiless borders of the turbulent water.

The Trois Nouvelles Etudes, simple and sweet by comparison with the vastness of emotions of the preceding etudes, are added at the end perhaps for completeness’ sake; somehow they bring you back to earth and sets you by the fireplace, and lets you bask in the armchair adventures that you have just experienced.

For Earl Wild fans, get this one-in-a-lifetime experience. (well, not so one-in-a-lifetime if you press “play” again on your CD player). For die-hard Chopin fans, get this one-in-a-lifetime experience. For pianophiles who do not have a recording of the Chopin etudes and don’t know which version to get, get this one-in-a-lifetime experience. For pianophiles who have the Chopin etudes already, get this one-in-a-lifetime experience. For music lovers who just love great music, get this one-in-a-lifetime experience. For… okay, you must have gotten the idea by now…

This disc is available at, or can be ordered from, Tower (Pacific Plaza), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren) or Sing Music (Raffles City).

Soo Kian Hing is rightly now trying to *gasp* lift his finger from *gasp* the replay button *gasp* of his *gasp* cd player *gasp gasp gasp* “We’re losing him, doctor!” “Crash cards quick! Clear!” Zap!…

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Wild about Chopin

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