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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21 [32:36]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11 [39:54]
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Alexander Vedernikov
rec. July 2013, Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw
AMBROISIE AM212 [72:30]

I came to this disc not long after listening to the (excellent) recent version of the Chopin concertos from Ingrid Fliter and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and I suppose that the comparisons in my mind were inevitable. If that’s the case then Fliter and the SCO came across as broadly the winners, but Lugansky’s version has a lot going for it; not least the excellent playing of the Polish Orchestra. On the whole they play in a more vigorously symphonic mode than the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and that makes for an interesting point of difference between the two recordings. There don’t seem to have been any restrictions on vibrato, and so they take the opportunities to make the sound swell. While I can’t be sure, it sounds as though there are more players in the Warsaw orchestra than there were in the SCO recording. Whether you like that will broadly be a matter of taste, but the Sinfonia Varsovia still sound more carefully balanced than big symphony orchestras like the ones that accompany Rubinstein’s famous recordings. The recorded sound is also ever so slightly more “present” in the Polish recording: in other words it’s closer to the ear with less bloom and space. Again, though, whether you prefer this will be a matter of taste and, while I enjoyed the sense of closeness, I also loved the sense of spaciousness and room to breathe in Linn’s recording.
Lugansky’s playing style is a touch more vigorous and extroverted than Fliter’s, who I found more explorative and inward-looking. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and many listeners will thrill to the way he bounds fearlessly up and down the keyboard in the first movement of No. 2, or the sense of humour that he brings to both Rondo finales. The first concerto is particularly extrovert, with some wonderfully up-front winds and brass. I loved the way Lugansky seems to spar with them, as if they each challenge the other to spur onwards to something greater. The orchestral playing for the slow movement is gorgeous, too, with some meltingly beautiful string playing at the outset and a lovely sense of flow. I also loved the controlled recklessness that Lugansky, in particular, brings to No. 1’s finale, revelling in the Polonaise rhythms but keeping the whole thing on the light side.
This recording might struggle in an already crowded marketplace, but Lugansky’s playing and the orchestra’s muscular vision deserve to win it some friends. I’d still go for the understated brilliance of Fliter if forced to choose, though.
Simon Thompson