Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Samson François (piano)
Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra/Louis Frémaux
Pierre Barbizet (piano) (Rondo in C)
See end of review for recording details
ERATO 9847172 [10 CDs: c.13:00:00]
As a young adult entering the world of classical music, I encountered some contempt for Chopin’s music among devotees who seemed more knowledgeable than I. They aggressively asserted their preference for the allegedly greater masculinity of Beethoven and other Austro-German stalwarts. Chopin was seen as insubstantial and weak. He could manage only a single instrument and ‘proper’ music, as written for the symphony orchestra, was clearly beyond him.
I kept my love of Chopin to myself, savouring his distinctive harmonies and empathising with his dreamy melancholy, without contesting the blinkered views of my contemporaries. It was only later that I thought the matter through and came to realise that the strength and narrative power of Chopin’s music, evident not only in extended works like the Sonatas, Ballades and Scherzos but also in the Nocturnes and even the miniature Préludes, rivalled that of the supposedly ‘bigger’ works of others.
I found Chopin to be as much a composer of tone poems as, say, Liszt or Smetana. His work transcends the limitations of the single instrument, creating colours with varied harmonies and figurations. The employment of a strong narrative strand and episodic construction conveys the story just as successfully as with a full orchestra.
It was from this point of view that I considered the present set of CDs. As a whole, it is a worthy memorial to a fine artist. If you remember François from his heyday - roughly 1945 to 1970 - you may want to acquire it for that reason. It is also an exhibition of how to bring Chopin’s storytelling to life.
The notes assert that “the height of François’ art is probably to be found in the Ballades”. This is where the epitome of Chopin’s ‘tone-poems’ is to be found. I would extend the assertion to include those works that share the qualities of the Ballade-style; the Scherzos, the Polonaise Fantasy Op. 61, the Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, several Polonaises, many of the Nocturnes and some instances from the other genres.
Overall, François is most successful in the above works and the set is worth having for those performances alone. The strength and intensity of the playing carries the music’s story along and involves the listener with it. With the F minor Fantasy, the contrasts between the tempestuous sections and the chorale-like still centre of the work are well-defined and make for a satisfying whole. Ebb and flow is an important ingredient - to be found in the G minor Ballade where sections melt naturally into each other.
Another success story is the B flat sonata, very darkly characterised here. The scherzo is suitably demonic, with a beautifully paced Più lento section; the dry clatter of the Presto, paints a picture of a mass of shapes in the graveyard rather than the oft-referenced wind.
The Préludes Op. 28, the touchstone for any Chopin collection, have a powerful impact as a whole with strongly characterised individual pieces and natural rubato in the slower item, The final Prélude is a tempestuous rant, the two hands battling for supremacy.
You can find better versions for any of the works in this collection. For example Benjamin Grosvenor on Decca gives technically and imaginatively fine performances of the Scherzos, producing a light and transparent quality as opposed to François’s over-emphatic treatment. François plays the Nocturnes as miniature tone poems, Op. 32 No. 1 offering intense coloration and Op. 48 No. 1 benefiting from a ballade-like approach. Pires on Deutsche Grammophon also emphasises the drama and, with far better sound quality, is to be preferred.
In the Études, the pianist appears less engaged; it is as if his imagination finds no story to tell; he is not helped by a muddy recording. Op. 10 No. 2 actually sounds like a study - not a compliment; in No. 3, the rubato is predictable and not as natural as in, say, the Ballades; No. 4 is garbled and No. 6 is a stop-start affair, lacking flow and warmth. This mysterious piece totally fails to make its disturbing impact. The Op. 25 set fares slightly better with an involving performance of the cello-and-violin duet of No. 7 - more there to stimulate François’s imagination? I turned with relief to Yuki Matsuzawa’s sparkling and more technically secure set.
The concertos are lyrically appealing but, though François may use an ‘exquisitely rippling touch - very French school’, as the notes suggest, I miss a dancing quality, especially in the third movement of the E minor concerto where some Slavonic fire is needed; you can find it in Zimerman’s accounts.
Perhaps François was not a dancer - as Chopin was - for I find he has a curious lack of sympathy with the Mazurka and Waltz sets. For the most part, he fails to catch the admittedly elusive spirit of the mazurka, and the waltzes are churned out efficiently rather than with the sparkle and refinement to be found in Stephen Hough’s wonderful recording - performance and sound-wise.
With the dance-derived Polonaises, on the other hand, François has a gentler approach than some in this generally less-performed area of Chopin’s output. A slight lack of sharpness in the polonaise rhythm is often outweighed by sensitive rubato and careful chord-weighting, though my preference here would be for Rafal Blechacz’s recent CD on Deutche Grammophon.
Overall, this is a worthwhile set to have alongside more recommendable individual versions of Chopin’s output, especially if you value the work of this pianist. The audio quality from sessions extending from 1954 to 1969 is mostly at least acceptable.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 *
1.I Allegro maestoso [19:59]
2.II Romanze: Larghetto [8:53]
3.III Rondo: Vivace [10:50]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21 *
1.I Maestoso [13:46]
2.II Larghetto [8:19]
3.III Allegro vivace [9:08]
rec. July 1965, Salle de l’Alcazar, Monte Carlo
1-7. Polonaise 1-7 [55:51]
8.Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat Op. 22 [13:41]
rec. December 1968-January 1969, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
1-3. Polonaises Op. 71 [17:17]
4.Fantasy in F minor Op. 49 [13:17]
5.Tarantelle in A flat Op. 43 [3:36]
6.Barcarolle in F sharp Op. 60 [8:28]
7.Rondo in C for two pianos Op. 73 ** [9:13]
1-3 rec. December 1968-January 1969, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
4-6 rec. March 1966, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
7 rec. December 1966, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
1.No. 1 in G minor Op. 23 [7:41]
2.No. 2 in F Op. 38 [6:49]
3.No. 3 in A flat Op.47 [7:03]
4.No. 4 in F minor Op.52 [9:21]
1.No. 1 in B minor Op. 20 [8:28]
2.No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 31 [10:11]
3.No. 3 in C sharp minor Op.39 [6:43]
4.No. 4 in E Op.54 [11:55]
1-4 rec. October 1954, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
5-8 rec. November 1955, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
1-14. Waltzes 1-14 [49:14]
15.No. 1 in A flat Op. 29 [3:05]
16.No. 2 in F sharp Op. 36 [5:35]
17.No. 3 in G flat Op. 51 [4:17]
18.No. 4 in C sharp minor Op. 66 ‘Fantasie-Impromptu’ [4:18]
1-14 rec. January 1963, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
15-18 rec. November 1957, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35
1.I Grave - Doppio movimento [5:22]
2.II Scherzo: Presto ma non troppo - Più lento - Tempo I [5:19]
3.III Marche funèbre: Lento [6:26]
4.IV Finale: Presto [1:28]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58
5.I Allegretto maestoso [9:41]
6.II Scherzo: Molto vivace [2:49]
7.III Largo [7:27]
8.IV Finale: Presto, ma non tanto [5:50]
9-25. Mazurkas 1-17 [35:06]
1-8 rec. March & May 1964, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
9-25 rec. February & March 1956, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
1-34. Mazurkas 18-51 [78:57]
rec. February & March 1956, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
1-12. Études Op. 10 [28:28]
13-24. Études Op. 25 [32:22]
25-27. Nouvelles Études [6:02]
1-24 rec. November and December 1959, Salle de la Mutualité, Paris, France
25-27 rec. March 1966, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
1-13. Nocturnes 1-14 [63:26]
rec. May & July 1966, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
1-6. Nocturnes 14-19 [28:48]
7-30. Préludes Op. 28 [36:30]
1-6 rec. May & July 1966, Salle Wagram, Paris, France
7-30 rec. February & May 1959, Salle Wagram, Paris, France