A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

A wonderful new Chopin Concerto recording by Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor is still only 27. But what an amazing trajectory he’s already had.

I pretty much recommend every single one of his albums (see here or here for examples). I’ve even listed him in my Top 10 Classical Pianists, and he’s also featured in My Top 10 Chopin Albums.

So, obviously when he recently released the Chopin piano concertos, I was all ears.

So was Gramophone (Editor’s Choice March 2020), and the French magazine Diapason, who gave a Diapason d’or, their highest rating.

So far, my favorite versions of these were the great classics (Zimerman and Argerich), so do I agree with the praise this album got?

Chopin Piano Concertos – Benjamin Grosvenor – Elim Chan – Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Decca 2020)

And the simple answer is: Absolutely!

I must admit in the past when listening to the Chopin concertos I often skipped directly to the 2nd movements only. They are obviously the true peak of these works. But here with Grosvenor even the 1st and 3rd movements are highly enjoyable. I

One of the favourite pieces of the first movement starts from the 10 min mark. Here you really hear what an exceptional pianist Grosvenor is. He plays with the melody, keeps it singing all the time.

I must admit I didn’t know what to expect from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. With the exception of a few recordings from the Neeme Järvi time this orchestra had never made it into my library.

And this album cover was the first time I’d ever heard of Elim Chan. One of the reasons is simply that she’s only 33, a very young age for a conductor. I’m very happy to see we’re finally getting more female conductors! Let’s watch her career closely.

The orchestra in any case isn’t the highlight of any Chopin concerto recording, many critics over the last one and and a half centuries dismissed it as mere “background” and claimed that Chopin didn’t know how to orchestrate. Whatever truth there is to this claim, in any case in this album, soloist and orchestra really complement each other, in a beautiful intensity.

So, while I presume you may already have a recording of the Chopin concerti, get this one anyhow. And if you don’t, get it now! This one is up there (or at least pretty close) with the Zimermans and Argerichs of this world.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Musicophile’s Top 10 Chopin Albums

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

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

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

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

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

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

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

Chopin Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2 Krystian Zimerman Polish Festival Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 1999

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

Chopin 4 Balladen Barcarolle Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Grammophon 1988

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

Chopin Etudes Maurizio Pollini Deutsche Grammophon

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

Martha Argerich The Legendary 1965 Chopin Recording Emi

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 Cello sonata op. 65 Polonaise op. 3 Schumann Adagio & Allegro op. 70 Mstislav Rostropovich Martha Argerich Deutsche Grammophon

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:

Great Pianists Rubinstein Frederic Chopin Mazurkas 1938-1939 Naxos

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

Deutsche Grammophon Complete Chopin Edition 2009

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)

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