Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo N° 1 in B minor, opus 20 – Ballade N° 1 in G minor, opus 23 – Twenty-four Préludes, opus 28 – Scherzo N° 2 in B-Flat minor, opus 31 – Ballade N° 2 in F major, opus 38 – Scherzo N° 3 in C-Sharp minor, opus 39 – Prélude in C-Sharp minor, opus 45 – Ballade N° 3 in A-Flat major, opus 47 – Fantaisie in F minor, opus 49 – Ballade N° 4 in F minor, opus 52 – Scherzo N° 4 in E major, opus 54 – Berceuse in D-Flat major, opus 57 – Barcarolle in F-Sharp major, opus 60 – Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-Flat major, opus 61
Burkard Schliessmann (Piano)
Recording: Teldex Studios, Berlin (June 22-24, 2009; August 15-16, 2012; April 24-25, 2013; April 8-10, 2015) – 159’18
Divine Art # ddc 25752 (3 SACDs) – Booklet in English, German and French
In recent decades there has been increasing appreciation among scholars and performers that Frédéric Chopin’s music is important for the symphonic structure of his larger works and his exploration of ever-evolving sonata form, which was not limited just to his Sonatas. Even a few of his shorter works such as the Nocturne in C-Sharp minor, opus 27, N° 1, the Etude in C-Sharp minor, opus 25, N° 7 and the late Mazurka in C minor, opus 56, N° 3 function on a rarefied and sophisticated level in taking deceptively simple melodic materials and developing them with ingenious and grandiose imagination.
Perhaps it is this perspective which prompted the noted German pianist, Burkard Schliessmann, to undertake his ambitious three-disc project, Chronological Chopin, presenting the complete Scherzos, Ballades and Préludes, and the Berceuse, Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantaisie in their order of publication. Since Chopin worked on some of these concurrently (e.g. the Barcarolle and Polonaise-Fantaisie), there’s no such thing as strict creative chronology for them. Similarly, the Préludes, opus 28 were composed roughly from 1836 to 1839 when the composer was in his late 20s and during the earlier days of his liaison with the novelist George Sand.
Nonetheless, it is genuinely interesting to hear these works more or less in their order of creation and to re-examine the development of Chopin’s compositional techniques accordingly.
The problem with this release is that Mr. Schliessmann is not really the pianist for this challenge. His playing overall sorely lacks rhythmic and melodic inflection and is similarly deficient in dynamic range. He never plays above a forte level, even when Chopin clearly specifies double, sometimes triple fortissimos. (Vladimir Horowitz once commented that Chopin seldom weighed more than ninety odd pounds “but on paper he was never ninety odd pounds”.) In certain works, such as the Ballade N° 2 in F major, Scherzo N° 3 in C-Sharp minor and the Fantaisie in F minor, Schliessmann almost seems to be sight reading.
In other works Schliessmann sometimes finds genuine detail and communicates this effectively. The Scherzo N° 1 in B minor gets off to a promising start with impressive definition and a fairly good sense of rhythm, accents and rubato. The middle section, featuring a Polish Christmas song, is less impressive, played in a humdrum style and without particular recognition of the repeated upper-register F-sharps intended to suggest bells. The Ballade N° 1 in G minor is one of Chopin’s few works which can be played legitimately as an out-and-out, even over-the-top showpiece (Josef Hofmann’s late 1930s recording makes even Horowitz’s numerous recordings seem positively austere.) Schliessmann takes a fairly literal view of the work’s opening, managing the ascending preparation in A-Flat major (the Neapolitan chord for G minor) with astute pedaling and quiet suspense, but as the Ballade unfolds, everything is at the same mood and tonal level and he actually slows down during the agitated coda and climax.
With the Twenty-four Préludes, the pianist seems to be trying for touches of originality, but very little really works. The opening Prélude in C major can be a lush arabesque, but Schliessmann plays it slowly and with such limited pedaling he almost hiccups from one bar to the next. On the other hand, for the Prélude in F-Sharp minor (said to have been composed during a thunderstorm), the pianist jams down the sustaining pedal and leaves it down for the entire piece. Hearing this recording, anyone unfamiliar with the work might assume the pianist is experiencing a plethora of wrong notes. The final, and very climactic Prélude in D minor, simply lacks definition, tension or intensity of any kind.
Schliessmann manages a competent reading of the Ballade N° 3 in A-Flat major; the opening pages are genuinely expressive, and he also copes nicely with the inner voices which are an important component throughout this grandly lyrical work. There are stretches of promise also in the Ballade N° 4 in F minor, widely regarded as among Chopin’s most complex and greatest works, though the pianist lacks the stamina and sustained concentration to unify the work’s later pages. And the Scherzo N° 4 in E major is a further extended study in hiccups and burps.
The release does finish on a stronger note, and Schliessmann does an excellent job with the opening pages of the Barcarolle though it becomes bogged down during the piece’s more complex later pages. The epic Polonaise-Fantaisie overall is not bad with many details that work well, though again, usually in the less demanding portions of this monumental, apocalyptic masterpiece which is almost a symphonic poem for piano solo. Mr. Schliessmann might wish to check out the 1982 San Francisco recording of the Polonaise-Fantaisie by one of his former teachers, the legendary Shura Cherkassky, who performed it often in his later years.
Charles Pope Jr.