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You Need This Release: The Early Romantic Piano by Schumann & Chopin

The MHS Review 409, VOL. 12, NO.13• 1988

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William Zagorski


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My reaction upon receipt of this release was to mutter, "Who actually needs yet another record of this stuff?" My fairly re­cent Schwann Catalog lists no fewer than nine versions of Schumann's Kreislertana. All right, I'll concede that there's a vast, vast world out there beyond the confines of my room, and it's probably peopled by literally dozens of music lovers, and given the freshness, nascent romanticism, and sheer poetry of these Schumann fantasies, perhaps a tenth version is marginally justified.

But of the Chopin on the flip side, Mr. Schwann lists 21 versions of the Ballade in F minor, and of the Ballade in G minor (ob­viously a favorite with someone out there) no fewer than 30 current performances. And much of this redundant pianism is pro­vided by such heavyweights as Anievas, Cortot, Rubinstein, Horowitz, etc., etc. Don't the record producers of the world know that gluttony can be terminal?

I can see poor Chopin, a diminutive man of frail constitution, being forced by some evil power or other to sit in a comfy chair and listen to all 30 current versions of his damned G minor Ballade back to back. At first it all seems a fairly pleasant prospect. The music is, after all, beautiful. But as the versions tick by, pleasure gradually but in­exorably turns to pain and Monsieur Chopin begins to beg for the proceedings to stop. His tormentors implacably con­tinue, and soon, in desperation, he starts confessing all sorts of feverishly invented sins: "Yes, I exceeded the 55 mph speed limit .... Yes, I was a member of the Com­munist Party, and probably still am .... Yes, I.. .I went through the express checkout lane with more than eight items ... perhaps more than once!" His tormentors, however, remain unmoved, and poor Chopin, seeing no escape, expires, his hands clasped firmly over his ears and his face in a hideous grin, somewhere in the midst of the 22nd version.

I fantasized all this as I began reading the notes accompanying this record, which in­formed me that these performances are played on a modern copy of an instrument produced in the early part of the 19th cen­tury by the Viennese instrument maker Conrad Graf, and in this sense the release is unique. Chopin, incidentally, used a Graf

instrument during his brief residency in Vienna and, indeed, sketched the infamous G minor Ballade on this very same instru­ment between May and June, 1831.

There is a significant difference between these pieces played on this "original" in­strument and on a modern Steinway or Bosendorfer. The sound of the Graf is smaller, more mellow, and tonally more variegated. Its lighter action affords the skilled player a more fluent, singing legato, and a greater variety of sonic nuance within any given register. Whereas modern piano makers strive mightily to produce evenness of timbre throughout all registers, builders during Graf's time strove for just the opposite. Each register emerges with its own "voice."

Keeping this in mind, one can see the logic behind, say, Schubert's constant treble-bass repetitions in his late piano sonatas. On a modern instrument, these merely add to the ''heavenly length'' of the piece. On Schubert's instrument, the repeated themes appears with different flavor, color, and character. The same thing happens splendidly in both the Chopin and Schumann works on this release.

Comparing Mr. Battersby's Chopin per­formances to several of the traditional superstar readings in my library, I found the results revealing. Mr. Battersby (who clearly has technique to burn) turns in far more lyrical, and far less rhetorical readings. Rapid legato runs, though still brilliant in effect, take on a more cantabile nature. Inner voices emerge more clearly, revealing an almost contrapuntal aspect to much of this music. This is a result of both the instrument, and the probing sensitivi­ty of Mr. Battersby's musicianship.

So now back to the initial question of who actually needs another record of this stuff. Well, if you own the combined 51 versions of these two Ballades, you need this release all the more, not only in order to hear your traditional performances with refreshed ears, but as a means to get a lit­tle closer to what both Schumann and Chopin had in mind.

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