Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Tatiana Shebanova: Chopin's Complete Works for Solo Piano

Frederick CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Works for Solo Piano
Tatiana Shebanova – piano
Recorded at the Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio No.2 of the Polish Radio in Warsaw STEREO DDD
DUX 0640-0649 [719:52]
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Chopin’s 200th anniversary in 2010 is unlikely to pass the record industry by, and the number of pianists, both newcomers and established names, who have major Chopin releases due for imminent release, can only be guessed. The Dux label, a Polish independent, has staked their claim early with a 10 CD box set of the composer’s complete works for solo piano played by Tatiana Shebanova. The results are impressive, for these are deeply felt, skilfully executed and well recorded discs. They are unlikely to be significantly bettered by any subsequent releases in Chopin’s anniversary year.

Of course, this is far from the first complete-works type Chopin recording project, but the innovation here is that the pieces are programmed in opus number order. This is both practical and sensible, practical because the diminutive length of individual works allows them to be grouped neatly into 70 minute units and sensible because it allows the avid listener to take a chronological overview and the less committed to dip in without being deluged by whole CDs filled with works of a single genre. The publication history of Chopin’s music also vindicates the approach to a degree. With the exception of the first 20 or so opuses and the posthumous publications, they were published (and therefore assigned opus numbers) in fairly strictly chronological order. Unpublished works are omitted, but as these are mostly juvenilia, this unlikely to alarm any but the most fanatic of collectors. The posthumous works are presented in the order of opus numbers assigned by Julian Fontana up to Op.70. No explanation is given for the omission of the Four Polonaises Op. 71, or the Op. 72 Nocturne and Funeral March. Again, these are works of Chopin’s early years, but the Nocturne in particular deserves inclusion, if not for its significance to Chopin’s development, then purely on the basis of its considerable musical merits.

Listening to Chopin’s music in chronological order is a revealing experience. The early opuses are confident essays in their various genres, with lighter textures than the mature works, but clearly anticipating the greatness of his short adult career. And the gradual reduction of ostentatious decoration in the late works is also interesting to follow in the later discs. But the overall impression is of a consistently high level of inspiration, Chopin moving around his small group of genres, each time further developing the scope of the form he chooses.
The performances are of a consistently high standard, and are clearly the work of a pianist with a long affinity with this repertoire. The interpretations lean more towards the intimate than the overtly expressive, and there is a notable absence of bombast in the louder scherzos and etudes. It is an approach which pays greatest dividends in Chopin’s more relaxed works, and particularly his nocturnes. The Op.48 no.1 for example, opens with a tremendous sense of spaciousness in the bass progression, delicacy and precision of touch creating a spellbinding soundworld, while the fluid tempo creates natural continuity into the main theme. Similarly the Nocturne Op.55 no.1, in which an underlying lyricism creates continuity and flow, despite the very slow tempo.

Faster works are also well served by the precision of Shebanova’s technique and her ability to create a sense of flowing continuity, even in Chopin’s most complex passages. The Minute Waltz Op.64 no.1 and the Butterfly Etude Op.25 no.9, for example, are both at the fast end of the spectrum, but both are also played with greater delicacy than many versions on record. The combination makes for a sprightly reading, each note clearly articulated, and each phrase both sculpted and invigorated. The Revolutionary Etude Op.10 no.12, is not a work traditionally associated with delicacy, but again Shebanova gives a restrained account, at least by the more volcanic standards of some of her male colleagues, and the results are impeccable. Again, this is slightly faster than most readings, but the clarity of the left hand runs is exceptional and the logic of phrasing by which the right hand chrordal melody is structured maintains an admirable sense of control over the work’s melodic shape. Here, and indeed throughout the whole set, both rubato and pedalling are ever present but never excessive. The rubato in particular, in the waltzes for example, breathes life into the music despite its always being within narrow confines, the end of a phrase briefly held here, a climax anticipated there, but always with reference to a clearly perceptible underlying tempo.

The recorded sound is impressive throughout, the bass resonance of the piano a particular delight. If I have one quibble, it is an occasional feeling of remoteness, as if the microphones are set too far from the piano, but it is a very minor concern. The packaging is attractive, the opus numbers on the spines demonstrating another virtue of the chronological approach, in that the recording forms an easily accessible reference. More information in the booklets would have been nice, as each contains the same short essay, translated with a few jarring grammatical errors from Polish.

I have been unable to find out about the distribution arrangements for this recording in the West, but I can imagine a fairly substantial sum being charged for it. It is certainly worth paying proper money for, considering the exceptional standard of the performance and the high audio quality. A complete Chopin edition by Garrick Ohlsson (not just the solo piano works) on Hyperion and a slightly antiquated Ashkenazy set of Decca are likely to be the main competition to this edition. In my opinion, Shebanova is at least the equal of both of those pianists when it comes to Chopin. Her lack of bravura in the flashier works may not be to everybody’s taste, but it certainly endears the recording to me. These are distinctive and accomplished interpretations and the set is a major artistic achievement.

Gavin Dixon

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