, February 2011
It’s odd and more than a bit ironic that jazz masters spend a lot of time coming up with spontaneous improvisations that they hope will sound like finished compositions. On the other end of the spectrum, many classical composers spent considerable effort in crafting music which they hoped sounded like it had been written on the spot, with that same sort of instantaneous creativity that is the hallmark of the best in jazz. Certainly at the head of that latter category would be Chopin, a composer almost always thought of as a composer of “miniatures” for the piano, with very few orchestral pieces in his overall oeuvre. As any pianist who has attempted to tackle any given Chopin masterpiece can tell you, saddling Chopin with the perhaps dismissive “miniature” description is outright deceptive at least and, arguably, incorrect at its very core. Chopin may indeed have written on the relatively smaller canvas of 88 keys, but he is one of the few composers who so radically reimagined the keyboard that it’s hard to believe there is anything less than several hundred ivories over which a pianist’s hands pass as they interpret the delicate filigrees of Chopin’s best work. Something also arguing against “sizism,” albeit in a different way, is the obviously huge reach that Chopin must have had with his own hands. Chopin seemed to be able to easily make a twelfth or more, much like another composer fascinated with altered dominant seventh chords who came along around a century after the Polishman—George Gershwin—was. Chopin in fact seems to have had both a huge span available to him as well as an inerrant ability to find sometimes seemingly impossible chromaticism within the bounds of a fairy traditional harmony. Large hands and fingers don’t always make for the most nimble piano compositions, but Chopin seemed uniquely well developed in both delicacy as well as huge voicings, and as (again) any pianist who has played his pieces will affirm, he was an absolute master at unusual, but highly effective, fingering.
It might seem the height of hubris for a pianist, even a master pianist like Daniel Barenboim, to come to the heart of “Chopin country” to perform an evening consisting entirely of that country’s “national composer.” And yet, who better, really? Barenboim is that rare interpreter who is able to meld a precise Classical intellectualism with a fiery Romantic emotionalism that never tips over the edge into the maudlin or hyperbolic. Barenboim is perhaps uniquely positioned to bring forth the full flower of Chopin’s gorgeously wrought “miniatures,” able to reveal their incredibly detailed overall architecture while losing none of the “spontaneity” which often took Chopin years to fully articulate.
For a composer who is too frequently shunted into the sidelines as “only” a writer for piano, Chopin’s complete oeuvre for keyboard is a remarkably varied and potent affair, and for the most part Barenboim exploits the many forms and idioms which Chopin utilized to draw out virtually every color the piano is capable of producing. With an output as large as Chopin’s for the piano was, it’s probably impossible to cover everything with suitable intensity, and so things like the Ballades and Preludes, not to mention well known warhorses like the Revolutionary Étude, get short shrift in this concert, but what is presented gives a remarkably diverse overview of the wealth of pleasures which Chopin’s piano music offers.
Barenboim begins his concert with one of the longest pieces of the evening, the Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49, a towering piece of the piano repertoire which immediately and decisively puts the lie to the claim that Chopin’s writing is “small scale.” This incredible piece is like a breathless tour through the virtuoso mind and fingers of Chopin himself. Beginning with Chopin’s dotted martial theme, Barenboim extracts both the rhythmic propulsion and harmonic complexity of this piece with apparent ease. It’s remarkable to note (no pun intended) Chopin’s harmonic genius in this piece, even within the confines of mid-19th century harmony. Within 17 measures of the opening, Chopin is flirting with the distant key of E major (though he cheats a little, spelling it enharmonically as both E and Fb, something rather odd in and of itself). This is just the tip of Chopin’s harmonic iceberg, though, and Barenboim’s precisely articulated approach reveals the incredibly panoply of colors which Chopin had at his disposal.
The rest of the evening moves through a startling variety of Chopin’s other forms, including the gorgeous four movement Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35, a piece which once again displays not only the composer’s mastery of form but his inerrant genius for modulation and impeccable voicing. The third longer offering of the evening is the gently rolling majesty of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60, which Barenboim brings delightfully to life with a generous elegance of tone and grace. Aside from the somewhat longer and well known Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, the rest of the evening is given over to Chopin’s charming shorter pieces, including a number of Waltzes, including the famous C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2, and a nimble and brisk reading of the so-called “Minute” Waltz (Op. 64 No. 1). Just for good measure, Barenboim throws in one each of a Nocturne, Berceuse and Mazurka. Chopin was especially facile with dance movements, and Barenboim’s athleticism handles the vigor of the writing easily and stylishly.
Barenboim is sometimes faulted, rightly or wrongly, for being too intellectual in his approach, but in a concert such as this he reveals himself to be a passionate player of some declamatory skill, despite a perhaps innate reserve. There are too many modern “artists” who consistently wear their heart on their sleeve, and believe that grimacing, grunting and twitching their way through a recital is the only way to prove how intimately involved they are with their music. Barenboim lets his fingers do the talking in The Warsaw Recital, and that’s more than enough conversation for any Chopin lover to listen to.
Accentus Music joins the impressive lineup of labels distributed by Naxos, and this new Blu-ray augurs well for the label. With an AVC encoded 1080i transfer in 1.78:1, The Warsaw Recital is one of the sharper looking concert Blu-rays in recent memory, with abundant fine detail that reveals everything from Barenboim’s weathered face to (like it or not) the hair on his hands. Contrast and black levels are both excellent throughout the concert and fleshtones are nicely saturated and accurate looking, though Barenboim looks just a little pallid, perhaps due to staying inside practicing too much. The only brief artifact on this Blu-ray is some persistent shimmer on close-ups of Barenboim’s hair (the stuff on his head, not his hands).
Though there obviously isn’t a huge orchestra bellowing out from the surrounds on either of the lossless tracks featured on this Blu-ray, within the relatively staid confines of a concert grand recital both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and the LPCM 2.0 tracks sound wonderful. There’s no hint of brittleness or tinniness in either of these tracks, and indeed Barenboim elicits an incredibly fulsome tone from his instrument, a tone which is relayed to the lossless audio beautifully. For once the surround treatment of a solo instrument doesn’t overly disperse the music, giving it a too thin quality. In fact, there’s little focal difference in the surround track when compared to the standard stereo track, and that’s a good thing. Both tracks feature a nicely natural hall ambience, with the 5.1 track obviously giving a bit more breadth and space for the tones to waft and hover in the air.
Special Features and Extras
No supplements other than trailers are included.
Overall Score and Recommendation
2010 was both the centenary of Chopin’s birth as well as the 60th anniversary of Barenboim’s stage debut as a concert pianist. That dual celebration is perfectly located in Warsaw as Barenboim brings a wonderful assortment of the Polish composer’s pieces to life in this well modulated and variegated recital.ACC-10202A