François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Ombres Errantes
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Op.7/3, Opp.17, 24, 30, 33, op.41/1,4, op.50/3, op.63/2,3, op.67/1, 2, 4, op.68/2,4, KK IV/1, KK II/5
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata No.39 in D major, Hob.XVI:24
Sonata No.38 in F major, Hob.XVI:23
Sonata No.54 in G major, Hob.XVI:40
Sonata No.59 in E minor, Hob.XVI:49
Iddo Bar-Shaï (piano)
rec. Villefavard Farm (Limousin), France, January 2006 (Haydn) September 2012
(Couperin), September 2008, Fontevraud Abbey (Maine-et-Loire), France
Released separately as MIR014 (Haydn) MIR075 (Chopin) & MIR195
MIRARE MIR 292 [70:00 + 78:00 + 76:05]
This collection brings together the three recordings that Iddo Bar-Shaï has made for Mirare so far and all at a price of less than one and worth it, so much up front, for the Couperin alone. A terrific bargain - assuming you covet the contents - since it’s just a little box around the individually wrapped original releases.
I only recently reviewed Iddo Bar-Shaï’s Couperin disc, his latest. This elicited the statement that if only I “had come across Iddo Bar-Shaï’s 2006 Haydn recording, or maybe his 2008 Chopin recording (both on Mirare), I might have been less surprised at the fleet and playful excellence of his Couperin where he Tic-Tocs all the right boxes in the more famous pieces and surprises with all the lesser known among the 234 keyboard pieces Couperin wrote.”
The big hits like “Le Tic-Toc-Choc” and “Les Baricades Mistérieuses” are included, as are 23 more selections. In playing Couperin, Bar-Shaï steps into territory well-covered by the likes of Angela Hewitt, Alexandre Tharaud (among my favourites in 2007), and, hiding in his encores, Grigory Sokolov. He does and he emerges just as triumphant. On “Le Rossignol en amour” Bar-Shaï writes: “I think that Couperin, given what he wrote, never heard a nightingale, but this takes away nothing from the charm of the piece.” True that. This disc — as any well-played Couperin piano recital … and there aren’t that many — is a gem.
His Haydn, from what is now ten years ago, is delightful without exceeding that. That’s not bad at all, because Haydn should be delightful. It’s also to say that it will add to a good Haydn collection, not replace it. The sonatas are well chosen in that I’m not aware of a single CD that duplicates that programme. For comparison I listened to a wildly differing variety of performers from some favourite recordings: Tzimon Barto, Alfred Brendel, Glenn Gould, but also Sviatoslav Richter, Tom Beghin (on original instruments) and a recent arrival, Olivier Cavé; the latter an instant favourite of mine; not so favourably reviewed on MusicWeb International by Dominy Clements. One easily noticeable point: The sound here is better than with all but the Barto/Ondine and Cavé/Æon releases. That struck me especially in comparison with the Gould recording which I hail in my memory as one of the great, if idiosyncratic accounts. Boy, memory sure does add a golden glow to these things, don’t it. It didn’t sound quite as good, this time around.
Brendel remains at his witty best; Barto is more distinct with his sneaky-tiger-pawed approach to Haydn. Cavé, though interspersing his CD with Scarlatti, also includes Sonatas 39 and 38, and here, not with the other pianists, did direct comparison make me think in terms of “better/lesser”. Cavé’s assertive liveliness is astounding and compares well to the slightly more reticent Bar-Shaï. Still, because I love these sonatas which are so deserving of greater attention and greater exposure in recitals — and not as the first-played, warm-up pieces — I want a heterogeneous and vast selection of good such recordings to which this decidedly belongs. Hence a keeper, even without being as distinctive as the Couperin.
The Chopin Mazurkas are the least memorable of the three discs. There is something facelessly pleasant about them. Comparing them to other versions, there were never any complaints that could be had about Iddo Bar-Shaï’s Mazurkas, only that I often — though hardly always — found other pianists more interesting, for a variety of reasons. Then again I find it surprisingly difficult to pin-point, in these pieces especially — and perhaps Chopin in general — what quality makes me like a performance or take note (and when) and what makes me go “meh”. This is odd, since I thought that especially the Mazurkas might be the Chopin pieces where it is easiest to tell the wheat from the chaff. After having listened to a slew of renditions, I think I respond best to a no-nonsense, rhythmically varied, graceful touch — none too heavy, with a hint of spunk. Annoyingly, for the purposes of neat categorization, Iddo Bar-Shaï ticks all those boxes, except perhaps for the spunk bit. This vain search for my ears’ likes and dislikes in Chopin Mazurkas went something like this:
Not like Klara Min (selection, Delos) who could be playing Beethoven, the way she forcedly and tempestuously plays the Mazurkas; perhaps it’s rustic and appropriate, but it’s decidedly not my cup of tea. I prefer instead the light and whimsical, Scarlatti-esque spirit (op.24/2) of Emanuel Ax (selection, Sony), or Cédric Tiberghien’s account (selection, Harmonia Mundi) which is full of graceful nuance. I care less for the hardness in Frederic Chiu’s touch (Harmonia Mundi), nor the speedy rigour of Benedetti-Michelangeli (selection, DG), but certainly Maria João Pires’s headlong hurl of a performance is catchy (selection, DG). I was most enchanted by the lively, beguilingly syncopated Mazurkas of Halina Czerny-Stefanska (selection, out of print of course, DG), and turned out enthused-at-first, but then more ambivalent about the nearly symphonic, marginally heavy impression made by Jean-Marc Luisada (near-complete, DG). I feel negatively-ambivalent about the heavy-handed, dreamy Alex Szilasi (Hungaroton), who reminds me of Mompou in his Mazurkas; Gábor Csalog (complete, Hungaroton) is variously pedal-heavy, streamlined, rushed, dreamy and doesn’t hold my interest … whereas the nonchalantly debonaire ways of Janina Fialkowska (ATMA) do, and very considerably so. Rubinstein’s RCA recordings were always at hand, too, in the undoubtedly misguided attempt to establish ‘how it ought to be done’ … after all, popular discographic wisdom is that Rubinstein had a direct link to Chopin. When I landed back with Iddo Bar-Shaï, after this tour, I found that I liked his quite a bit, mixing as he does the soft-hued with the bold, the coy with the understated. Interestingly, I found that this disc, unlike the other two, made a significantly happier impression on a very good stereo system than it did on somewhat lesser equipment.
Since these Mirare collections/re-issues are the original CDs, popped into a simple cardboard sleeve which is easily discarded upon reception, it allows the discs to be filed properly under composer, as they should, in the best and only acceptable of all worlds. To the dedicated collector, that’s a considerable bonus.
Jens F Laurson