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Autumn 2020: Recordings

Frederic Chopin's music is among the most performed and oft-recorded of its genre. This presents an interesting challenge for modern pianists: how might one approach the music of a composer whose performance traditions are so well-established? Here, Viv McLean invites us to explore the complex and sometimes competing facets of Chopin's musical personality. The album title provides some insight. It doesn't simply describe the works included on the album—other types of pieces are included as well—but also suggests a lens through which the works are to be viewed. If the nocturne signifies Chopin's love for the human voice and the polonaise represents his love for the national dance of his homeland, McLean's approach seeks to marry the two, finding songs in the dances and dances in the songs. As a result, the performances are richly textured. His playing is improvisatory yet logical, sensitive but confident. This is a worthy addition to any collection.—Jason Sifford 

It is not surprising that this award-winning pianist—already recognized for his impressive interpretations of Chopin —has released a third collection devoted to this beloved composer. Brought together in a single volume, the Ballades and Impromptus encompass many of Chopin's most captivating musical traits. In the hands of this sensitive artist, armed with an arsenal of solid technical faculties, and a beautifully resonant and responsive instrument, these performances are sure to move and engage the listener. Fiendishly difficult passages—such as the codas of the Ballades—are deftly executed, and soulful melodies sing with restrained and elegant grace. While maintaining the integrity of the musical narratives of the Ballades, the artist pushes beyond the boundaries of many previous recordings with his contrasts in tempi, dynamics, and color. Ranging from languorous and pensive sections through intensely electrifying climaxes, the pianist immerses the listener into breathtaking tumultuous journeys. The more improvisatory-sounding Impromptus are stunningly performed with panache and spontaneity.—Thomas Swenson 

This album showcases Pisarev's meticulous attention to details of texture, warmth of sound, length of melodic line, and a commitment to allowing musical events to unfold organically, and at their own pace. His vivid realization of counterpoint in Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58, presents the work with the seriousness it requires. The slower tempo chosen for the scherzo movement allows the music to breathe and highlights rhythmic quirks in the left hand —something one does not often hear. Similarly, his slower pace in Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Op. 54, prioritizes the vocal element of this music above the virtuosic. But Pisarev can summon great technical firepower at command, as evidenced in the coda of Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 39. The highlight, to me, is the Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7, where the two melodic lines are layered and contrasted with delicate care, to tremendous expressive effect.—Scott Cuellar 

Andsnes's first Chopin recording in over twenty years is centered on the four Ballades, with three Nocturnes serving as entr'actes. In the First Ballade, Andsnes produces sotto voces that are unusually hushed and effective. There is also great élan in the più animato, but many accents in the score are not observed. The Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, is paired well with the Second Ballade, via shared major key lyricism juxtaposed by turbulent minor key episodes. This Ballade's opening is taken at a faster tempo than we usually hear, amplifying its lilting character, but the final Agitato tends to lose steam now and then. In the Fourth Ballade, Andsnes produces not only truly cathartic climaxes, but also lingers more often during extraordinary musical moments than he does elsewhere on this program. Throughout, the transparency of counter-melodies and independent accompanying figures are exquisitely rendered, accomplished via meticulous pedaling as well as digital acuity.—Geoffrey Burleson 

While listeners may frequently hear Baroque music on period instruments tuned to a historical temperament, the opportunity is less common with the music of Chopin. This release challenges assumptions and biases listeners may have in many ways. Swigger performs on an 1841 Erard—tended by historic keyboard specialist Anne Acker. Amazingly, the hammers and action are original, and the clarity of the instrument is most striking. The pitch sounds almost a half-step lower than our modern standard as well. In addition, Jonathan Bellman, author of "Toward a Well- Tempered Chopin" (in Chopin in Performance, Fryderyk Chopin Institute, 2005), contributed his historical unequal temperament formula. Swigger's performance of Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 is energetic and bold, much like her approach to this recording which also embraces a sprinkling of her own embellishments. In turn, she exhibits playfulness, sparkling brilliance, and guiling charm. It is always a privilege to hear Chopin, yet the opportunity to simultaneously rethink and renew is moreover appreciated.—Elizabeth Moak 


RECORDINGS REVIEWS

GEOFFREY BURLESON is on the piano faculty of Princeton University, and is Professor/Director of Piano Studies at Hunter College-CUNY. He is currently recording the complete solo piano works of Saint-Saëns for Naxos Grand Piano.

SCOTT CUELLAR received the gold medal at the San Antonio International Piano Competition. He holds degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory
of Music, the Juilliard School, and Rice University. He now teaches at
Oberlin Conservatory.

ELIZABETH MOAK is a pianist and recording artist who performs as soloist throughout North and South America, Asia, and Europe. An Associate Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Moak studied at Peabody Conservatory with Fleisher, Martin, and Schein.

NICHOLAS PHILLIPS is Recordings Editor for the Piano Magazine and Professor at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. He has performed in solo recitals across the United States and abroad, is an active recording artist,
and is a regular presenter at national and international conferences.

JASON SIFFORD is a freelance teacher and pianist based in Iowa City. He is also a frequent presenter and adjudicator and serves as composer/clinician for the Willis Music Company.

THOMAS SWENSON is currently the Southern Division Director-Elect for MTNAandservesontheNCKPCommitteeonTeachingAdults.Heteachesat the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Music Academy of North Carolina. 

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Autumn 2020 Book Reviews: Yoga in the Music Studio
Autumn 2020: Life in Music
 

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