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) and here (Prestoclassical)

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)

Krystian Zimerman plays Schubert sonatas

Krystian Zimerman

Krystian Zimerman is a living legend.

He is without doubt one of our most important pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and has produced a huge number of reference recordings.

I only saw him live once, couple of years ago in Lucerne, and was utterly impressed with his Chopin.

He obviously features in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, and when I heard that he’s about to release his first solo album since 1994 (!) I really couldn’t wait for it.

Franz Schubert’s late sonatas

And then he plays Schubert! D959 and D960!

The late piano sonatas are among my absolutely preferred works of him  (together with the late chamber works), and I’ve even written a blog post comparing 11 versions of D959. At the time, I selected Perahia, Brendel, and Uchida as my reference versions.

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas D959 and 960 – Krystian Zimerman (DG2017)

Franz Schubert Krystian Zimerman Piano Sonatas D959 & D960 Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

So, maybe it is a mistake to get too excited upfront. I really expected miracles here. I mean, take his Chopin Ballades, his Debussy, his Lutoslawski, his Brahms 1, his Liszt b-minor sonata. All miracles.

So you will have guess by now, that I was underwhelmed here.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very fine recording. Obviously. It’s Zimerman after all. And he really makes these recordings very much his own.

But I’ve now played them over and over again, and I’m still waiting for the “wow”. I simply doesn’t come. I still don’t know what it is. Is it his rubato, his tempi? Is it maybe “too romantic”? I really don’t know.

There are so many subleties in his recording that I all appreciate individually. But the total doesn’t work for me. Well, hold on, “doesn’t work” is a silly way of saying I’m not blown away. It really all boils down to expectations.

Check it out, you have to, this is Zimerman after all. And I won’t be surprised if many of you disagree with my very personal opinion here. But for the moment, I’ll stick with the “cleaner” versions of Brendel and Uchida.

What do you think? I really appreciate your feedback here!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

UPDATE Oct 1st, 2017: the French magazine Classica is less hesitant and gives this album a “CHOC”, i.e. 5 stars.

UPDATE Oct 7, 2017: Gramophone also is fully convinced, giving this album a “recording of the month” for October. The only more critical review I’ve seen so far is by Elvire James on the French site Classiquenews.com, saying this album has nothing new to offer. Well I really wouln’t go as far as that.

UPDATE Oct 9, 2017: ClassicsToday Jed Distler is in the same range as my rating, with an 8 out of 10 points, quoting some micromanaging.

Your turn to judge! Let me know what you think.

Musicophile’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists

Top 10 and Best-Ofs

I don’t do top 10 lists often. I probably should to them more often, as if you’re a blogger you know that they tend to generate higher than average traffic, somehow either Google or more likely the average reader tends to like this kind of lists (and I must admit, I tend to click on other peoples “best of lists” as well), but I usually prefer to write about individual albums instead.

My Personal Top 10 Pianists

That said, the idea for this particular blog post came along while doing some comparative listening for a future blog post on Schubert’s piano sonatas. I noticed I always keep going back to a certain number of pianists, that I love and respect, and that usually always have something to say.

Obviously, this list is highly subjective. This is not supposed to be “Great pianists of the century” or Top 100 pianists of all times, you’ll find plenty of those on the internet already.

So obviously, there will be great names missing, Schnabel, Arrau, Rubinstein, Brendel, Trifonov, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll be listing them in alphabetical order, as there is absolutely no way I’ll try to rank them.

So, here we go:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes

Not very suprisingly, given that I’ve already listed him here for my all time favorite version of Grieg’s piano concerto, and have praised his recent Beethoven cycle with the Chamber orchestra of Europe.

I’ve seen him live playing Beethoven’s concerti 2-4 in a row, without a conductor. An amazing experience.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Andsnes has also recorded an excellent version of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos with Antonio Pappano, which I have yet to review.

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I guess that covers such a large range of the romantic piano concertos that it is pretty clear why I’m choosing him. Note I could have mentioned many other beautiful recordings, including solo piano or chamber music.

 

  • Martha Argerich

Well I said I’m not going to rank the pianists, but Martha clearly makes it all the way to the top of the list.

With her, you can really start at the beginning, with her legendary debut album following her winning the 1965 Warsaw Chopin competition. 

Or go to a very recent recording around 50 years later of Argerich playing Mozart’s concertos, as mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Or, for the sake of it, pretty much everything she has recorded in between. The only exception are some of the live recordings from her beloved Lugano festival, not all of them are necessarily must haves. But beyond that, you can be sure that her energy to enchant you!

Here is another example:

Martha Argerich Rachmaninov 3 Tchaikovsky 1 Riccardo Chailly Kirill Kondrashin

There are several “complete”, “best of”  and “collection” boxes out there. All are highly recommended.

 

  • Rafal Blechacz

Together with Benjamin Grosvenor and Igor Levit, among the youngest on this lists.

I had to list him already for his outstanding Chopin Préludes, as reviewed previously.

Another recording I can recommend is his Debussy and Szymanowksi album from 2012.

Debussy Szymanowksi Rafal Blechacz Deusche Grammophone 2012

I’ve seen him live play Chopin and Szymanowski, and I was really impressed by this timid young man and the intimacy of his playing. Somebody to watch.

 

  • Ronald Brautigam

Playing on an “authentic” piano that sounds like the composer would have heard the piece is a relatively recent trend, as techniques in the reconstruction of the fortepiano, and alongside the specific playing skills for these instruments have evolved.

I’ve already mentioned his beautiful version of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (review of part I here, part II here).

However, what I recommend most often is his outstanding complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Obviously this doesn’t replace the efforts on modern piano from Schnabel to today, but you really owe it to yourself to discover how Beethoven can sound on a piano of that time, exceptionally well played by this amazing artist.

7318599920009_600

 

  • Emil Gilels

Why Gilels as a representative of the great pianists of the 1950s-70s, and not Rubinstein, or Richter, or Horowitz?

Well, honestly, all of them would have deserved to be listed here. I’m just having a very special attraction to his Brahms concertos, be it with Jochum (reviewed here) or with Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

Another album that is his outstanding recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, an all time classic.

 

Edvard Grieg Lyric Pieces Emil Gilels Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

 

  • Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve just recently praised his latest album, Homages (review here), and given 5 stars to his Chopin Liszt Ravel album here. He was also nominated for the Gramophone awards for his album Dances in 2015, which he should have won (IMHO).

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

He is probably the youngest of my list (note to self, do some fact checking), and among his few recordings, all are just amazing. This is one of the most outstanding talents I’m aware of.

 

  • Igor Levit

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve praised this great young artist several times already.

Most lately for his Gramophone Album of the Year: Bach / Beethoven /Rzewski, see here for my review, and here as well, as well as in my article about the top 5 classical albums of 2015.

Back in 2015, his Bach Partitas album was also nominated by Gramophone for an Award in the Instrumental category.

But there is one album I haven’t mentioned yet on my blog, which I also like very much, his debut on Sony.

And no, he didn’t start easy, he tackled immediately Beethoven’s late piano sonatas.

Igor Levit Beethoven The Late Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24 96 2015

And how! This is not only technically impressive (the Hammerklavier always is) but such a high level of musicality. Again, watch this artist!

 

  • Ivan Moravec

Very simply, for the most beautiful Chopin Nocturne recording there is, see my review here. But basically, his other Chopin is also excellent. I actually don’t have any recording from other composers by him. I’ll investigate!

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

 

  • Murray Perahia

No idea why I haven’t written more about Perahia. I’ve mentioned him as one of my favorite Goldberg players, and his Bach in general is excellent (will need to write about his new French suites at some point).

But fundamentally, this is one of the pianists that really adds new insights to whatever he touches. Never flashy, never show-off, but always nuanced.

As an example, let me take his Schumann, which is among the best recordings I know of these little gems:

Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke Murray Perahia CBS Sony

 

  • Krystian Zimerman

Again, an artist I haven’t mentioned enough. A living legend to me, winner of the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw (he’s the third from this illustrous list, together with Argerich and Blechacz).

Which album to mention? Usually he records relatively few albums, so you can pretty much trust them to be top notch in general.

My preferred is probably his Chopin Ballades:

Chopin: 4 Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Gramophon

I’ve heard him play live couple of years ago, including the Barcarolle. He maybe the most intellectual pianist I’m aware of, and you can hear the cerebral approach he takes. That said, this isn’t to say that his music isn’t full of emotion.

I could also have mentioned his Chopin piano concerto recordings, be it with the LA Phil or the Polish Festival orchestra, both are among the best there is for these works.

 

What do You think?

So, here we go. What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Did I miss anybody (I’m sure I did, with this artificial cut off of 10). Please let me know?

You can find the albums mentioned here in the respective links to previous posts, or below: