My Favorite Versions of Chopin’s Nocturnes

Another post on Chopin? Why not, given that the Chopin competition in Warsaw is going on right now, and I’ve mentioned in my previous post on the Préludes how important this competition is.

The Nocturnes

Furthermore, I’ve just had an interesting discussion on the Nocturnes on a forum, which triggered me to listen to several of my Nocturnes again.

The Nocturnes actually are not one single opus, they are individual or coupled words Chopin wrote over nearly 20 years. They share however a common character,  not surprisingly, nocturnal.

Chopin is the name everybody associates with this “genre” these days, but actually other composers (e.g. the Irishman John Fields) have used this title previously.

They are less focused on virtuosity and glamour, but are much more intimate. So you don’t need all the pianistic firepower to shine here, you need delicacy and insight.

Moravec

The are many good recordings out there. Rubinstein has recorded them at least 3 times (my preferred version dates from the 1930s), the Chopin legend Samson François has done a version, Claudio Arrau, Nelson Freire, and many others are worth considering.

However, my personal favorites are Ivan Moravec and Maria  Joao Pires.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

Moravec’s Nocturnes are legendary, are rightfully so. I’ve never heard the Nocturnes played with more intensity and emotion. The recording is from the 1960s with only average sound quality but you’ll quickly for get that listening to this album. Just outstanding.

Chopin The Nocturnes Maria Joao Peres Deutsche Grammophon

I haven’t been very friendly to Pires in my recent review of her album with Gardiner, but there  is absolutely no fault to be found with this recording. Less intense then Moravec, but even more intimate. You feel like you’re sitting at home late at night in front of your fireplace, having a nice glass of wine in your hand, and she’s in the room playing just for you. This is the image that ever always comes up when I listen to her version.

I wouldn’t want to miss either one of these two outstanding recordings.
My rating for both albums: 5 stars

You can find the remastered Moravec here (Prestoclassical).

Rafal Blechacz’ Magnificent Chopin Préludes

The Chopin Piano Competition

It feels like these days there are so many competitions out there for young musicians. One one hand, that is a good thing, increasing their exposure, on the other hand it is hard for the outside to judge the quality of the different competitions.

Well, there is one competition that clearly has proven its relevance over time, the Chopin Piano competition in Warsaw. First of all it is only held every five years. Furthermore, it’s been around for nearly a century. Several times, the jury was critical enough not go give a first price.

And then, most importantly, are the winners. What is the common ground between Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, and Yundi Li, beyond the fact that they are all recognized world-class artists today? Well you’ve guessed it.

In 2005, after Krystian Zimerman, another Pole won this competition (you probably know that Chopin, in spite of his French name, was Polish by origin), Rafal Blechacz.

I have added below a link to a Youtube video from Polish television of the recital of the winner. I suggest you ignore the poor image and sound quality and skip the introduction, and go directly to the music. Amazing isn’t it?

(Update Jan 31, 2016: see also my blog post on the winner of the 2015 competition, Song-Jin Cho here)

Rafal Blechacz

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Blechacz live two years ago, he still looks rather shy and is not your flashy Lang Lang-style virtuoso at first sight. But then he sits down at the piano and you cannot be but amazed but how beautiful he plays.

Chopin’s Préludes

Chopin’s préludes, especially op. 28, are among his most famous works. And in my opinion, they are among the most beautiful pieces for piano ever written. Don’t get me wrong, Beethoven sonatas are amazing, Schubert’s late works are very beautiful, etc. But there is a certain intensity in the Preludes that makes them very special to me.

Obviously, they’ve been recorded many times, both Argerich and Pollini, Blechacz predecessors in Warsaw, have done excellent versions. You also wouldn’t go wrong with Rubinstein (obviously) or Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

But my favorite these days is Rafal Blechacz recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Particularly beautiful are no. 13 in F sharp minor, and the Raindrops no. 15 is so delicately played it really reminds you of a light summer drizzle.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prestoclassical), both physically and as download.

And as promised above, the Polish TV show on the winning recital at the 2005 Warsaw competition.

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part I – Instrumental

Gramophone Award Nominees

The Gramophone awards nominees are now officially declared. This award is probably among the most prestigious award in classical music (beyond the obvious Grammy), so it is always interesting to see who’s in.

As said before, I don’t always agree with Gramophone but their opinions are always worth checking out.

If you have an iPad, you can download the Gramophone magazine app (the primary way I read the magazine these days, no shipment, no paper wasted) and get the Gramophone awards nominee issue for free. It’s worth checking out.

Let me comment on some recordings I know well and also play Oracle of Delphi who will eventually win.

Instrumental

There are four album in here I own or have heard, three of which I’ll be talking about here.

Bach’s English Suites with Piotr Anderszewski

Piotr Anderszewski Bach English Suites 1 3 5 Warner Classics

Well this one is a typical example where I don’t agree with Gramophone.  I can’t really put my finger on it but this album just doesn’t excite me. Maybe it is the tempo, maybe it is the touch, don’t know. Bach on a modern piano is always tricky, you really need to justify these days why you’d use the “wrong” instrument (instead of a harpsichord or similar).

My rating: 3 stars

Bach: Partitas – Igor Levit

Igor Levit Bach Partitas Sony Classical

This album, however, is a typical example of getting it just right. I don’t mind one second not hearing a harpsichord. Levit is an extraordinary talent; his previous recording of the late Beethoven sonatas was outstanding as well.

I’ve been listening to this times and times over, it’s been replacing even Perahia as my go-to version. So this album to me is a hot contender to win this category.

My rating: 5 stars

However, if I had to bet, I’d say the following will be the category winner (and not only because let’s say Gramophone sometimes seems to have a certain preference for their countrymen):

Benjamin Grosvenor – Dances

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

5 years younger than the still very young Levit (years of birth 1992 and 1987 respectively), Grosvenor could be qualified as a Wunderkind. What a horrible term.

Actually, it really goes beyond this, he is just a truly brilliant artist who just happens to be very young. His previous album Chopin/Liszt/Ravel was truly fantastic, and his new release with “Dances” from Bach via Granados to Scriabin is another example of what he can achieve. With him, even relatively useless (sorry) pieces like Schulz-Evler’s questionable version of An der schönen Blauen Donau become enjoyable. (Ok, he could have skipped the Boogie-Woogie…).

An absolute must have!

My rating: 5 stars

Also nominated are a live recital of Mahan Esfahani (haven’t heard), Sokolov’s Salzburg recital (his Chopin Preludes here really aren’t my cup of tea, 3 stars), and La Fauvette passerinette by Peter Hill (haven’t heard either).

So what are your thoughts and ideas? Who would you have chosen?

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