CD Number: Virgin Classics 7243 5 45619 2 4
CD Number: Various (See Above)
If you want to know just how independent-minded these three pianists are, consider this: not one of them has recorded Rachmaninoff's Second or Third Concertos, or (are you sitting down?) the Tchaikovsky First Concerto.
In fact, Anderszewski began his career with a daring gesture. Dissatisfied with his playing, he walked off the stage in middle of a performance during the 1990 Leeds Competition. A year later, he reappeared in London's Wigmore Hall for a recital that featured a boldly and imaginatively conceived Diabelli Variations that created a sensation and established his career.
Hough has indeed recorded familiar pieces -- the Brahms concertos, the Liszt B-minor Sonata--but he has also mined unfamiliar 19th and 20th Century piano repertory for treasures. Scharwenka, Sauer, Mompou, Lowell Libermann, and York Bowen have all been well served by Hough's devotion.
German-born and Vienna-trained, Vladar has, at least until this disc, cultivated that tradition in a single-minded way. His fresh-sounding, honest, completely unmannered recordings of Bach and Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann suggest a pianist trying to follow in the footsteps of Kempf and Backhaus. If ever there was a non-Volodos, an un-Lang-Lang, it is Vladar.
It certainly says much about Anderszewski, Hough, and Vladar that they have waited so long to take on the daunting challenge of a Chopin recital, and as you'd expect from their backgrounds, each has something very different to say about the composer.
Anderszweski's program is an artful arrangement of late Chopin that begins with the Op. 59 Mazurkas and ends with the Mazurka in F Minor, Chopin's last composition. Anderszewski plays this music in the grand manner of a bygone era. In his leisurely tempos, improvisatory turns and surprises, the sudden bursts of color and virtuosic brilliance, Anderszewski most closely resembles the playing of another famous countryman, Ignance Paderewski. Though Anderszewski avoids the extreme (and sometimes melodramatic) use of rubato that characterized "grand manner" playing, the freedom he demands for himself, the risks he takes, even an occasional trace of willfulness summon to mind an approach to the piano that's been out of favor for almost a century.
free as he is, Anderszewski always seems in touch with the complex and
sometimes contradictory spirit of the music; and it is his ability to hold
in balance the warring aspects of Chopin's personality -- gaiety and
nostalgia, nobility and deep melancholy -- that makes this recital so
memorable. And besides, the boy can really dance. In both the Polonaises and
the Mazurkas, he displays a rhythmic authority that lets the music flow
naturally, even when he is being most adventurous.
Ever the scholar, Hough is interested in chronology. I hadn't realized that the Ballades were written almost in tandem with the Scherzos (check the opus numbers in the header), and Hough's program, which alternates Ballades and Scherzos, invites us to consider the developmental relationship between the two while we're listening.
Of all these pianists, Hough is the one who takes the idea of narrative most seriously. Both Ballades and Scherzos are presented as intensely dramatic structures; at every turn Hough emphasizes the sturm und drang, the conflicting moods that give this music a sometimes unnerving (dare I say, diabolical) character. In his hands, even the lyric moments are subject to nervous, sometimes despairing tremors. Though Hough can't quite match lightning-bolts with a Horowitz (who can?), his playing has an impetuous, reckless, edge-of-the-chasm quality that seems entirely appropriate given his ideas. One caveat, though: you cannot listen to this recital straight through without risking blurred vision, nosebleeds and a splitting headache. Given Hough's unrelenting intensity and single-mindedness, you'd best do a Ballade/Scherzo pairing, then wait a few hours before trying another. This CD should come with a warning: Danger! Explosive Materials!
Vladar brings a Beethoven-like (Beethovian?) gravity to the Ballades. In contrast to the ghost-ridden, unashamedly Romantic conceptions of Anderszewski and Hough, Vladar's classicism and straightforwardness can seem positively refreshing.
Vladar gives each Ballade an almost symphonic development. Where Anderszewski lives for the moment, and Hough to set irreconcilable opposites clashing, Vladar is all about proportion and restraint. In his playing the animating force is a sense of inevitability that makes every episode the natural consequence of the one that precedes it. Though Vladar does not employ as wide a dynamic range as either Anderszewski or Hough, he can sing and thunder when the music requires.
The problem here is his Preludes. It gives one pause to find an artist of Vladar's obvious talent so completely flummoxed by a score, but it often sounds as if Vladar doesn't really have a clue how this music should sound. What he does instead is to underplay the more lyric preludes and overstate the more dramatic ones. So his playing tends to be either too soft and passive or too loud and insistent. Worse, there is a four-square quality to his rhythms that gives the music an earthbound feel. Since Vladar seems to do better with material capable of extended development, I would respectfully suggest that his next Chopin recital include the Second and Third Sonatas and that, for the time being at least, he forget about the Etudes.
I liked the sound on all three of these discs; but since my editor is paying me to be finicky, let me voice two complaints. Anderszewski's piano is too set back (which produces a trace of boom); Vladar's is too up-close (which sometimes produces a hard edge on top). Hough sounds to me just right: the realistic image of a grand piano floating between the loudspeakers.
guess it all comes down to this: if you've only got the price for one of
these CDs in your pocket, which do you choose? In the final analysis, I'd
go with Anderszewski. He's the most spiritually adventurous pianist here,
the most willing to take risks. (But I'd hate to live without Hough's
Performance: (Ballades) / (Prelude)
Enjoyment: (Ballades) / (Prelude)