This list was triggered by a very interesting thread on a discussion forum I participate in, on Computer Audiophile. The thread is called “My Essential Classical Albums” by a forum participant called Sphinxsix.
The entire thread is very much worth checking out, I found a lot of recommendations on there already.
But with this specific question regarding Chopin, I noticed that I already pretty much had all the recordings I recommended covered on my blog. So in part, this is also a “best of list” of my Chopin blog posts. But there are also quite a number of albums I haven’t featured yet.
For those albums previously covered, you will find links in the entries below to the original blog posts. In the original blog posts, you’ll also find their respective download links.
1. The Nocturnes – Moravec
To me, the Nocturnes are the quintessential Chopin, even more than the Preludes or the Etudes. And when we talk Nocturnes, the legendary Ivan Moravec version really is unbeatable. It is not by coincidence that I’ve ranked Moravec in my in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists for this album alone. I’ve also mentioned this Album in My 25 Essential Classical Music album, as it is so important to me.
2. The Preludes – Blechacz
Right after the Nocturnes, the Preludes are my favorite Chopin, both op. 10 and 25 are oustanding achievements. Here again I could have listed dozens of recordings, but for a Top10 list I’d really like to restrict myself to the young Polish pianists Rafal Blechacz, who recorded this as one of his first albums on Deutsche Grammophon after winning the Warsaw Chopin competition. Another “triple winner”, as he also shows up in My Top 10 Classical Pianists and My 25 Essential Classical Music albums with this recording.
3. The Scherzos – Grosvenor
Some readers may be suprised that I rank these so high, but these little gems are very close to my heart. Completely different, each one of them is a world on its own.
Here, my favorite version comes from the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.
Grosvenor is also a part of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists.
4. Piano Concertos – Krystian Zimerman
The legendary Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, himself also winner of the famous Chopin competition, has recorded the concertos twice. Once with the LA Philharmonic under Giulini in the late 1980s. Knowing that Zimerman is one of the most perfectionist pianists out there, if he records something twice, you can be sure, he does it for a reason.
This second recording from 1999 with a hand-picked “Polish Festival Orchestra”, and while the Giulini recording is already excellent, this one really is a true benchmark.
A must have.
My rating: 5 stars
5. Ballades / Barcarolle – Krystian Zimerman
Zimerman (also one of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists) is also my recording of choice for the Ballades.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Zimerman perform some of these live, including the beautiful Barcarolle that you’ll also find on this outstanding 1988 album. Don’t miss it.
My rating: 5 stars
6. Etudes – Pollini
A Chopin list without Maurizio Pollini wouldn’t be complete. I could have easily mentioned him for the Preludes, and several of his other Chopin recordings are legendary. He, like Blechacz, Zimerman above and Argerich below, is also a winner of the Warsaw piano competition (Not that this competition is held only every 5 years, winning it is truly a big deal).
The Etudes are technically extremely challenging. Apparently even a true master like Pollini needed cuts in recording (hundreds of them if you believe some reports). In spite of this piecemeal type recording, the result is just fantastic, and can be described with only one word: fantastic.
Perahia would have been a nice alternative, but Pollini really remains the reference.
My rating: 5 stars
7. Argerich Legendary Chopin
Marta Argerich won the Chopin Competion 5 years after Pollini.
This was one of her first recordings. You will never hear Chopin’s sonata no. 3 played more passionately. Argerich (another member of my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists) is in a way the complete opposite of Pollini. Pollini is typically the perfectionist, rational architect, and Argerich is known for her energy and fire. Check out her recording of the piano concertos for another example of her extraordinary talent.
My rating: 4 stars
8. Cello Sonata – Argerich / Rostropovich
Chopin really isn’t well known for his chamber music. So I must admit that until recently I only knew one recording of this, by Sol Gabetta. In preparation of this blog post I checked out several versions, and end up again with the great Martha Argerich, joined here by the cello giant, Mstislav Rostropovich.
My rating: 4 stars (excellent playing, but the music is not as essential as the piano pieces)
9. Mazurkas – Rubinstein
No Chopin list can be complete without the name that is most closely associated with this composer: Artur Rubinstein.
This recommendation is following up to a recommendation in the forum thread that I should check out his earlier recordings. I ended up liking this version most:
Yes, it truly is a historic pre-war recording, but the playing really makes up for it. I usually didn’t care so much about these little dances, but Rubinstein really gives these little pieces such a very special meaning, it is a pleasure to listen to.
My rating: 4 stars
10. The Complete Chopin Edition on Deutsche Grammophon
I typically don’t recommend box sets. Even the better ones are typically hit and miss, as they are typically just “recycling” of older catalog material.
But you probably have noticed the large number of yellow covers above, and DG really did a great job on this 17 CD box.
You’ll get the Zimerman piano concertos in the Polish Festival version, the Ballades again by Zimerman, the Pollini etudes, and the Nocturnes by Maria João Pires (my second favorite after Moravec), the Preludes by Blechacz, and the Cello Sonata by Argerich
In a way, you could think that for this blog post pretty much all I did was copy this box set. Well, actually no, I got all of these albums individually over many years (and also I’m not getting any incentive from DG here). But I’m truly impressed by the selection that DG did here (having all this in their archives obviously helped).
On top, you’ll also get the Mazurkas and Valses well played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, some individual pieces with Anatol Ugorsky, the Scherzos by Pollini again, and the piano sonatas by Lilya Zilberstein and Pollini again.
So if you want to kick-off your Chopin journey, this box really is all you need for a start with truly outstanding recordings.
My rating: 5 stars
You can find the recordings either in the respective original blog post or here:
Concertos / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical) (note that Presto has a special offer on Zimerman recordings until the end of 2017)
Ballades / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
Etudes / Pollini: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
Argerich Legendary 1965 recording: here (Qobuz)
Argerich Rostropovich Cello Sonatas: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
Chopin Mazurkas Rubinstein here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
The Complete Chopin Edition here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)
14 thoughts on “Musicophile’s Top 10 Chopin Albums”
Interesting selections… I once listened to 20+ recordings of the Nocturne op.27, No. 2, in a row. By far and away, Leon Fleisher’s version on his album “Two Hands” was the most satisfying. Any list of Chopin recordings that omits Garrick Ohlsson’s complete recordings of Chopin has a huge hole in it. He is a spectacular interpreter of Chopin’s music and his vast knowledge of the composer can be seen in his lecture and demonstration at UC Berkeley available on You Tube. I also think that Alexandre Tharaud and Ingrid Fliter could join this list, as can the sacd recording of the etudes by Murray Perahia. For the most nuanced touch and dynamic range, no one beats Ohlsson.
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Great feedback! Thanks a lot!
I’m a big fan of Fleisher in Brahms and Beethoven, but have never heard his Chopin, will really have to check it out.
Ohlsson is really not top of mind for me. I know he won the Chopin competition like many of those on my list, but for whatever reason Ohlsson here in Europe is relatively unknown. I like his Brahms, so I really need to check out his Chopin. Thanks for flagging!
Tharaud is good, I agree. Agree on the Perahia Etudes (he’s mentioned in the post, as direct alternative to Pollini).
However, I tend to disagree on Ingrid Fliter. Her Chopin really leaves me cold. I’ve checked out all her albums as they get regularly recommended by Gramophone. But I don’t get her.
I confess that I am also making my assessments based on recorded sound quality. I have a pretty sophisticated sound system and I strongly respond to the nuance and the immediacy of the sound itself, not just the interpretation. I think Fliter has a rather quirky take on a lot of Chopin’s music, but it seems valid to me and mostly unique to her. Pollini used to be my go to modern pianist for Chopin, but as I get older, I find that speed and precision satisfies me less and touch and emotional resonance is of greater significance. Still, I own a ton of his recordings. I got interested in your posts because I saw that you have a heavy European bias, and that you don’t limit yourself to recorded music. Though I love my recordings, I see a great deal of live music here in the Bay Area and in NYC when I get there. Despite the geographical distance, we have a great deal of overlap in our tastes. The European jazz scene is hard to get a hold of over here, though I have loved the work of Jiri Stivin (who I got to see in Prague many years ago) and Gianluigi Trovesi (who I know only through recordings and his work with L’Arpeggiata). It’s fun reading your blog.
Agree, a highres Linn record of Fliter beats the heck out of the 1970s and 80s DG shoe box sound. That said, although I do appreciate good sound quality and at least on the headphone side have a system to appreciate it (Sennheiser HD800), I still will always prefer musical performance over recording quality.
It’s obviously ideal if you can have both, which is increasingly often the case these days.
Regarding EU jazz, I’m also surprised that in the 21st century there is still very limited overlap between what’s happening on both sides of the pond. I guess Jazz is just such a niche genre that only few musicians have sufficient exposure (and funding) to perform on both sides of the Atlantic. Add to this the medieval geographic restrictions of music licensing rights, and we’re far from a globalized world in terms of Jazz.
I haven’t heard yet about Stivin, will check him out.
And thanks for your feedback and kind words overall.
Thanks for this list – certainly useful and insightful.
I’d like to throw in the wacky giant – Ivo Pogorelich – sadly in recent years he seemed to have disappeared from recording studios , but his recordings for the Preludes and, especially, the 2nd sonata are the perfect way to get a completely different view of how Chopin can sound, and I have to admit that I find his interpretations quite captivating.
Another pianist that I found interesting in his Chopin recordings is Demidenko, whose recording of the Ballades, has emerged as a dominant force, when I compared about a dozen performances (including all the names on your list) in a “blind testing” of the 1st and 4th Ballades.
Much encouragement to continue writing this blog!
Thanks Markus for the feedback and the kind words. Fully agree on Pogorelich especially for the works you mention.
However I really didn’t have Demidenko on my radar. Will check him out!
I just found this thread so forgive my late post. I’m listening to performances of Sonata #2 reading “Chasing Chopin” and discovered Vlado Perlmutter on Nimbus. A perfect marriage of pianistic poetry and sound quality. For Sonata #3 I have to plug Emil Gilels on DG. His mastery of this piece is such that it elevates the composition into the top of Chopin’s output, in my opinion, where many others prefer the more famous #2.
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Thanks Lewis for your feedback. I agree with you on Gilels, he’s great, and I like his sonata 3 as well very much. However, I wasn’t at all aware of Perlmutter. Will have to check that out!
I’m reading this whilst listening to Gilels. I have a confession – he’s my favourite pianist. Chopin is one of those composers like Bach, Haydn and Schubert where he left us morsels. He had a pretty wide discography (I have 52 composers in my collection and some of these are quite extensive in coverage) but compared to Richter it’s relatively modest! A favourite pianist does not have to be the greatest at everything they play but the best of what they do touches you like nothing else. I sincerely believe that Gilels possessed the most beautiful tone of all pianists. I was listening to the Eroica variations (op.35) last night, and the way he sculpts the lines in the finale is beauty itself. I listened to Richter right after and whilst Sviatoslav does some remarkable things throughout the course of the piece, his tone does not melt in the same way as Emil. He’s a God – my God – but no pianist brings me more often to tears. And of course the morsels he leaves us in the repertoire that he only touches is just sublime. I’ve never heard the Gigue in the 5th French Suite played quite like it (referring to the live recording of 1959) including Gould. Too romantic? Maybe for some tastes but it’s not the authenticity or accuracy of a performance that wins me over – it is the transportation i.e. where a performance will take one. And Gilels whisks me off to parts hitherto unknown.
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Thanks for sharing. I must admit I haven’t explored Gilels enough beyond Brahms. I definitely need to discover more.