Not too many years ago, it became stylish to treat the piano literally as a percussion instrument. The approach--viewing the piano as something to be hit--may have been realistic. But what is good for Bartok proves unbecoming to Chopin. A decade ago the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini drew little distinction between the two. Which gave us a splendid anachronism: Chopin influenced by Bartok.
Times have changed, and Pollini with them. In his terrific new recording of Chopin's B-flat- minor and B-minor Sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon 415 346, CD or LP), Pollini tempers his percussive instinct with a considerable degree of Romantic stroking.
His interpretations remain propulsive and trim, rhythmically strict, perhaps, by the standards of an older generation. Yet there is room for the occasional sigh, as in his exquisitely long-drawn rumination on the Largo of the B-minor Sonata.
Murray Perahia gives us the same music (on CBS-Sony 409, CD; LP previously released) with a bit of poetic haze floating around the piano, more rubato, a dollop of anguish in place of Pollini's clarity and incisiveness. Still, Perahia's readings show him to have been a more passionate, certainly a less calculating artist in 1974--when this coupling was first issued on LP--than he is today.
One of only two commercial recordings of Chopin's music made by the Romanian-born, French-educated pianist Clara Haskil, who died in 1960, has been re-released after a decade's absence from the catalogue: Chopin's F-minor Concerto, with Igor Markevitch conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra (Philips 416 443, CD or LP). Her playing, so limber and bracing in Mozart, is colorless, earthbound, deadeningly literal here as well as in the accompanying "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" of Manuel de Falla.
The Philips recording does, however, have some curiosity value as it employs Alfred Cortot's revised edition, made during the 1930s at the instigation of Wilhelm Furtwaengler (one can't escape that name anywhere these days): an attempt at "rectifying" the lengthy orchestral preamble, commonly regarded as the prime example of Chopin's orchestral ineptitude.
Cortot certainly succeeded in lightening texture--removing some of the instrumental doublings and bass clumping, while providing a brighter treble through transposition of violin and woodwinds parts. But one quickly perceives his efforts as superfluous when confronted with Chopin's original--whatever its inherent shortcomings--as treated with rare sensitivity and without condescension by Carlo Maria Giulini in his 1980 recording of both Chopin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, now generously coupled on a single compact disc (Deutsche Grammophon 415 790).
The soloist is the immensely likable young Pole, Krystian Zimerman, a pianist not afraid to linger over a phrase or explore the softest dynamics, yet one who can play the extrovert as well.
The tragically short-lived Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950), like Haskil Romanian-born, French-trained (by Cortot, among others) and the object of considerable cultish hoopla since his death, is introduced to the compact-disc generation with his celebrated interpretation of the 14 canonic Chopin Waltzes, recorded in the year of his death (Angel 47390, CD only).
Considering the almost mystical reverance in which Lipatti is held in some circles, the actuality of his playing is startling. For Lipatti was neither an eccentric nor a hyper-Romantic, rather an artist of lively temperament, whose work was marked by fleetness, dynamic restraint and the subtlest, most expressive of rubatos. Not a keyboard sufferer by any stretch of the imagination.
In Lipatti's hands the Waltzes are lightly textured and fast-moving, guided by an overview that forms these disparate miniatures into a tightly-woven concert suite.
The continuity is provided not only by Lipatti's mastery of the idiom but by his imaginative, non-chronological ordering of the Waltzes, beginning not with the overly familiar "Grand Valse Brillante" (which comes next to last here) but with the unhackneyed and no less commanding Waltz in F, No. 4 in the actual sequence of composition.
Lipatti's mesmerizingly delicate, sensual way with Chopin's D-flat Nocturne, Opus 27, No. 2, is also included, as is a rather wispy interpretation of the Barcarolle, and a peppery reading of the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Opus 50, No. 3.
The recorded sound is remarkably clean and natural sounding, except in a distant and fuzzy Barcarolle.