What better CD homage to Frederic Chopin on his 200th birthday could there be — besides more great recordings of his music — than the tribute at hand, offered by the outstanding British pianist Jonathan Plowright and the Hyperion label? Plowright has chosen works by thirteen composers, as varied as Balakirev and Villa-Lobos, which either quote music by the Polish master directly (as in sets of variations) or aim to be generally Chopinesque in some way: nearly a full 80 minutes of music, with sound as warmly rich as the performances.
There are several ways of structuring a survey of the music on this CD — perhaps by nationality of composer or date of composition (the latter ranging from 1867 [Bendel] to 1957 [Mompou]), or by grouping music based on specific Chopin pieces in contrast to freer allusions to Chopin's style or favorite forms like the mazurka. I've listed the composers alphabetically above, but will comment on the pieces in the order chosen by Plowright and Hyperion, doubtless for musical variety in shaping an entertaining program.
Mili Balakirev is known outside
Bendel's extremely Chopinesque piece would be a malicious choice for a game of "Name That Composer" with friends. In contrast, it's highly unlikely that anyone would think Edvard Grieg's short but haunting Studie (Hommage à Chopin) was by Chopin, though the very clever might sense the pen of the Norwegian master. Next, Ferruccio Busoni's Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin in C Minor of 1922 is a distillation of his reportedly more spectacular, perhaps excessive, eighteen variations and fugue on the same Prelude (Op. 28, No. 20) of 1884. Like most of Busoni's piano music, this 11-minute piece is intellectual but exciting, on the cusp of modernism but rooted in tradition. It opens with an eerily re-harmonized portion of the theme, then the whole Chopin Prelude (the same somber music that inspired Rachmaninoff to write his own set of variations) followed by some highly original and absorbing elaborations.
Another nocturne follows, this one by the now mostly forgotten composer/conductor Eduard Napravnik, who led the St. Petersburg Imperial Opera for 47 years. It's certainly tuneful, but is outshone by the mazurka by Tchaikovsky that follows. Titled Unpocodi Chopin and written in the last year of the composer's life, it has some tricky rhythms that give its main tune a halting or lurching effect; the piece seems melancholy and playful at once.
We move forward to the 20th Century with Arthur Honneger's wistful waltz-like Souvenir de Chopin, adapted from his 1946 film score for Unamiviendracesoir (A Friend Will Come Tonight). (Since the film is reportedly about Nazi soldiers invading a French insane asylum, I can only speculate about how the music fits.) Next are three mazurkas by Sir Lennox Berkeley, the last two written for a 1949 concert honoring Chopin. Their astringent harmonies and strong dynamic contrasts make them stand out, especially granted the flair of Plowright's performance. Written for that same 1949 concert, Heitor Villa-Lobos' own Hommage à Chopin is in two movements, Nocturne and Ballade. The night is certainly a sultry tropical one in the first piece — one could say that Villa-Lobos is doing with Chopin what he did with (or to) Bach in his Bachianas Brasileiras. The Ballade is hyper-dramatic, telling some mysterious and violent tale; booklet annotator Jeremy Nicholas hears "strong references to Chopin's First Ballade."
Catalan composer Federico Mompou provides the longest work on the program, a 21-minute set of variations on yet another of Chopin's Op. 28 Preludes, in this case No. 7, the gentle ¾-time one in A major that is surely one of Chopin's most famous creations (and is featured in the ballet Les Sylphides). This is music for late-night listening: several of Mompou's variations are even more gentle and introspective than the original Prelude, and every once in a while the harmonies made me think of a near-deserted piano lounge long after midnight. One curious moment occurs in Variation 10, "Evocation," when a direct quotation of the melody of Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu is heard (yes, the one sometimes identified as "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"), evidently evoked by the A major Prelude.
The last three homages to Chopin on the program are all waltzes of sorts. Benjamin Godard's piece is the lightest in texture and breeziest in motion. Leopold Godowsky, best known for his spectacularly demanding piano transcriptions of others' music, begins straightforwardly enough but soon calls for challenging embellishments of his tune. And Theodor Leschetizky offers an extravagant Waltz-Mazurka that serves as a fittingly grand finale to the program.
Jonathan Plowright brings superb technique and grace to this anthology of Chopin tributes. Besides his lyrical renditions of the Bender nocturne and other "dreamy" Romantic-era evocations, I was especially impressed by the flintiness and grandeur of his Busoni Variations, by the swagger of his Leschetizky Hommage, and by the contrasting moods of his Villa-Lobos renditions: the damp exoticism of the Nocturne and the flaring melodrama of the Ballade. Hyperion captures the sound of his Steinway with satisfying realism.