SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

CHOPIN: “Grand Chopin” = Krakowiak – Grand rondeau de concert; Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brilliante; Grande fantaisie sur des airs Polonaise; Variations sur “La ci darem la mano” de Don Giovanni de Mozart – Janne Mertanen, p./ Turku Philharmonic Orch./ Jani Telaranta – Alba

Janne Mertanen brings the instinct of the poet to these works of the young Chopin.

Published on December 15, 2012

CHOPIN: “Grand Chopin”  = Krakowiak – Grand rondeau de concert, Op. 14; Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brilliante, Op. 22; Grande fantaisie sur des airs Polonaise, Op. 13; Variations sur “La ci darem la mano” de Don Giovanni de Mozart, Op. 2 – Janne Mertanen, p./ Turku Philharmonic Orch./ Jani Telaranta – Alba multichannel SACD ABCD 335, 58:33 (10/7/12) [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:

These works for piano and orchestra often show up as fillers to recordings of Chopin’s two piano concerti, but here, refreshingly, we have them collected together in a program that will charm. Chopin’s concerted works are usually criticized for lackluster orchestration that is fully subservient to the orchestra, in the manner of other pianist-composers of the time, such as Frederich Kalkbrenner or Henri Herz. But that’s just the nature of the beast: after all, these pieces were written to showcase Chopin’s talent at the keyboard, not his chops as orchestrator. That said, in these shorter works, without the further complication of sonata form to be dealt with, the young composer was able to integrate solo instrument and orchestra to better advantage, and his orchestration is effective if not always brilliant.

In the Grand fantaisie and Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brilliante, the orchestration is better than that: nicely colored, with deftly handled commentary from horns and woodwinds. A first version of the Grande polonaise, minus the Andante introduction, was written in 1830–31, the introduction added in 1835. The work shows Chopin making progress as an orchestrator; something that Schumann, who had been following Chopin’s career since hearing Variations sur “La ci darem la mano” in 1831, must have been thinking of when he later took the Polish composer to task for not branching out into other musical genres, including purely orchestral music.

And even in the work that caught Schumann’s attention, Chopin’s orchestration shows similar promise, though mostly the orchestra still mostly acts as the magician’s lovely assistant. Incidentally, this is the Chopin work that Schumann found magical enough to exclaim, in his most famous bit of prognostication, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” The piece does reveal a pianist-composer not merely bent on delivering endless razzle-dazzle as was the norm; the variations are well sorted, including the Sempre sostenuto third variation, with its Rococo trills and filigree work, and best of all the fifth variation, divided between a brooding dark-hued Adagio and an Alla polacca that pays glittery tribute to Chopin’s homeland.

Antti Häyrynen’s notes recount the humorous story of the Krakowiak’s debut at the Kärnertor Theater in Vienna in 1828. Chopin was so cavalier about the messily-notated orchestral parts that the members of the band were on the verge of mutiny, though following the performance, Chopin was able to report to his parents that “one and all. . .were amazed at its beauty. The piece starts in a dreamy haze that underscores Chopin’s own unique brand of Romanticism. Like the slow movements of the piano concertos, this is Chopin at his most characteristic, though the folk-inspired music that follows is just as true to his cultural roots.

The Grand fantaisie is also folk-inspired, though here the composer quotes actual folk song, again festooning the melodies with intricate filigree work in the piano. The piece ends with a rousing Kujawiak, a Polish dance with the rhythmic accents of a mazurka.

To make this music live, a pianist has to have the instinct of a poet, peppering the solo with ever-so-subtle caesurae and other rhetorical flourishes. Finnish pianist Janne Martanen, who has successfully recorded Chopin solo piano music as well as the concerti, has that kind of poetic rapport with the composer. These are beautifully articulated performances in terms of interpretation and dazzlingly executed as far as pianistic technique’s concerned. Only the final pages of the Grande polonaise seem too breathless to me, clear articulation sacrificed for sheer virtuosity. Otherwise, I have no reservations, only much respect.

Excellent work from the Turku Philharmonic under Jani Telaranta as well, and Alba’s sound presents a very natural perspective yet manages to capture all the coloristic orchestral touches that Chopin is not often given enough credit for. This disc is the perfect way to get to know these works, which are really more characteristic of the composer than the two concerti.

—Lee Passarella




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