AOM Logo July 1999
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1; Grande Valse Brilliante in A minor, Op. 34, no.2; Variations on "La ci darem la mano", Op. 2;

Emanuel Ax, piano
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Charles Mackerras

Sony SK 60771

David Aspinall
Cover Image

If the Promethean, heaven-storming aspect of musical romanticism is epitomised in the Titan-like restless experimentalism of Liszt and the gods-defying arrogance of Wagner, then Chopin, by contrast, is romanticism's aching acknowledgement of the ultimate ephemerality of all things mortal. If Liszt was the Byron of music, then Chopin was its Keats. Wagging a fist in the face of Deity was not the young Pole's style. Yet for all the image of effeteness which attaches to the image of the salon master, as Schumann pointed out early in that revolutionary age, Chopin's music was "cannons hidden beneath flowers".

The first piano concerto, of course, is actually Chopin's second. Both are of a piece: noble, copiously melodic and exquisite in ornament, with little if any display for its own sake. That is one distinguishing mark of Chopin's art in contrast to, say, Liszt's virtuosic pair. I have never been able to understand the disparagement of Chopin's orchestration among those who somehow manage to consign these works to the second rank. The orchestra, it is true, does little by Brahms standards, but who made Brahms the measure of all things? These concerti seem to me the perfect embodiment of the romantic spirit at its best - exalted human aspiration facing mortality without self-pity, sensitivity that never lapses into sentimentality.

I am pleased to report that this new performance is not at all redundant in its competitive field. Pollini/Kletzki, Perahia/Mehta, Rubinstein/Skrowaczewski are among the premier performances of No.1, yet Ax does not yield to any in passion or punctiliousness. This is, too, an original instruments performance, and when I first listened, admittedly not with full attention, I must confess I didn't even notice the difference in orchestral sound (perhaps, let's hope, as much a tribute to the modesty of Chopin's effects as to my ear's obtuseness). However, the 1851 Érard, Ax's instrument of choice, is quite a shock to one reared with Steinway's boldness. As our soloist enthuses in the notes, the sound is characterised by a "more brilliant and less sustained projection of sound in the treble and more mellowness and roundness in the bass". And I have to agree with Ax that this has the effect of making the decorative right hand figures more prominent. The net gains and losses may take longer to assess. I find myself wishing for more of that power to which modern instruments have accustomed my ear. The best interpreters (and my favourite remains Rubinstein) do not automatically submit to the clutter and clangour of the modern piano's top end. Nevertheless I shall listen often to this lovely performance, with its welcome supplementary retro-glance to Mozart.

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