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Chopin on Chopin's Piano, Almost

available at Amazon
Chopin, Sonata No. 2 / Ballades /
Preludes / Nouvelles Etudes, E. Stern

(released on April 27, 2010)
Naïve AM 197 | 1h04

Chopin's First Editions Online

available at Amazon
Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger,
Chopin et Pleyel (2010)
The hope of truly knowing a favorite composer, artist, or writer by going to the places he lived and worked is a folly, but as someone who has dragged Mrs. Ionarts to Montaigne's chateau, Proust's room at the Grand Hôtel in Cabourg, and the île de Saint-Pierre in the Lac de Bienne, where Rousseau wrote the fifth promenade of Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, I can tell you that it can be obsessive fun. So what would Chopin's piano pieces sound like on one of the pianos that he owned and played on every day? Well, the Musée de la Musique has the Pleyel piano that Chopin had for a couple years in his apartment in Paris, but it is only for looking, not for playing. Chopin met Camille Pleyel soon after his arrival in Paris, gave his first recital at the piano manufacturer's showroom (in a building now called the Hôtel Cromot de Bourg at 9, rue Cadet): the relationship is the subject of a new book, by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, that just came out in France. So Edna Stern plays the next best thing, an 1842 Pleyel grand piano thought to be as similar as possible to Chopin's piano, the very instrument on which he composed some of the pieces recorded here.

After recording this disc last December, Stern played a concert on this piano as part of a Chopin marathon at the Cité de la musique, in connection with the exhibit Chopin à Paris, l'Atelier du Compositeur, well worth an online look (or on site in Paris, but only through June 6). The hammers of this instrument, found still covered in their original leather, have been restored, and the surprising thing about its mellow sound is how it can veer from a thunderous boom to a surprisingly transparent piano. The almost brittle sound of the high treble range, as at the fifth measure of the "Presto con fuoco" section of the second ballade, for example, is used by Stern to surprising effect. The same is true of the enigmatic fourth movement of the second sonata, which sounds here like a murky wash of notes. The Pleyel has a single-action mechanism, which Stern admits forces her to slow some passages down to make them technically possible -- it also "requires a wide variety of touch" to draw forth all of its possible colors. Perhaps partially as a result, Stern plays with a rubato that can border at times on the extreme, perhaps in line with what Matthew Guerrieri recently described as Chopin's own peculiar way of stretching the rhythm in his own works.

Stern, whose recent Bach recordings have been impressive, is a thoughtful and assured pianist, not necessarily driven only by the desire to impress with a technical blaze of glory. In her career she has avoided competitions, focusing instead on periods of advanced study -- with Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Leon Fleischer -- and on her discovery of the fortepiano, which she says "has transformed her approach to music." This disc is not recommended for listeners who prefer their Chopin on the modern piano, but as a possible peek into the sonic past, it is more than a curiosity.


JRD said...

Mr. Downey:

Have you, by any chance, heard Alain Planes' new harmonia mundi disc of Chopin, recorded using an 1836(?) Pleyel piano?

In that recording, he "gives" the listener a hint of how or what Chopin might have "sounded" like in one of his famous salon concerts given to the gliteratti of Paris.

If you have, I'd like to know what you think of it.


Charles T. Downey said...

Have not heard that disc yet -- I have to look on my shelf to see if I received it for review or not.

John said...

I'd like to counter that the disc is also very much for people who prefer their Chopin on the modern piano. What's important in any interpretation is exactly that, the interpretation, and Stern's interpretations are masterful! Perhaps some of the notes are mushy, but the playing is anything but and goes contrary to the mushy interpretations we have grown accustomed to of Chopin.

It's true that listening to fortepiano is not the same as listening to a modern piano, and we lose some technical facility, together with gaining a certain sound, but more importantly this cd presents a novel and masterful way of playing Chopin, which is very rare even among the hundreds of recordings of him. It is a work of a grown-up artist.

I'd also like to recommend, Mr. Downey, her writings which are interesting in their own right: