BACH & CHOPIN: Josep Colom – Confluences – Eudora

BACH & CHOPIN: Josep Colom – Confluences – Eudora SACD 1703, 78:03 (12/1/17) *****:

A recital which delves deep into the adjacent musical universes of Bach and Chopin with intelligence and improvisational prowess.

(Josep Colom; 1957 Steinway Model D)

Readers of these pages might recall a 2016 review of Josep Colom’s debut on the audiophile label Eudora which involved a dialog between Chopin and Mozart.  This remarkable pianist is a member of the Chopin Competition committee and his own playing is both critically astute and meticulous without sacrificing the lyrical transcendence which is the heart of the music. Previously, Audiophile Audition had this to say of the unconventional “Chopinesque” treatment of Mozart.

If taken separately, the Chopin pieces sound conventionally good. They are gracious readings with command of detail and tone throughout. But the Mozart pieces have probably never been conceived or performed in this fashion. Well-known pieces such as the Fantasy in C minor, K. 475 and Rondo in A minor K. 511 are chosen for their abundant use of chromaticism. By judicious use of pedal and phrasing, we arrive at moment of ambiguity: Is it Mozart or is it Chopin? The graceful cantabile style of both composers amounts to a common tongue, and somehow Colom brings this out in a fashion which makes other stylistic features recede.

Now the ante has been raised as Colom undertakes a Chopin-Bach reckoning. It is one thing to play Mozart through a Chopin filter, but the same approach to Bach would be disastrous. Thus, from the outset, there is a feeling of puzzlement and risk, heightened by the most conspicuous feature of this recital: the improvised cadenzas that link the strikingly contrasted Preludes of each composer. By means of these miniature reflections, Mr. Colom inhabits the musical universe of these two geniuses, breathing the same air of inspiration. It is remarkable how well these modest tags work; one begins to look forward to each one as the main item of interest. Only at the end, though, does Colom allow himself a more substantial commentary, a summing up as it were, which follows the ultimate Etude in C minor.

We begin with the the serenely elemental Prelude in C major, which segues into the gusty Etude in C major op. 10/1. It is no small thing to relinquish the customary Fugue which is demanded by the Prelude. Chopin worshipped Bach and sought to model his own lyrical polyphony on Bachian models, yet when placed in this proximity, the 19th-century genius sounds jarringly out-of-context.

The formula plays out in this way: Bach Prelude →  cadenza/introduction →  Chopin Etude, 26 pieces in all, including the added Confluence at the end. Does it work? Mostly, yes. Once again Colom shows himself an authoritative Chopin exponent. However, the Bach is the real challenge. Colom strives to highlight the improvisatory flair of these pieces without weighing them down with Busoni-like Romantic expression. In fact, he inclines towards soft playing, often to great effect as in his sotto voce articulation of the weirdly dissonant BWV 889. The pedal is employed with great care. On the rapturous Prelude no 8 BWV, we feel a fresh wind, something new, the Transcendent has been brought closer to earth.

It is in the slower pieces, too, that we hear what a majestic instrument this Steinway is, and what an remarkably vivid and detailed recording has been achieved by the sound engineering wizardry of Gonzalo Noque.

In a recital of constant surprises, a nice one awaits at the midpoint. We avert from the Chopin Etudes to two rather longish Nocturnes with the Bach’s poignant Prelude in F sharp minor BWV 883 in the middle. (The pianist has the temerity to insert an improvisatory passage even here in this most austere contemplation.)  Up to this point, there has been some head-scratching to make sense of the incongruities, but now things start to fall in place. The listener is invited into the deepest musical thinking by this scrupulous interpreter, but ends up ensorcelled by the pure beauty of the music.

At over 78 minutes, this is a long recital. It should be taken at three sittings with total concentration and headphones if possible. Pianists might be challenged to try their hand at improvising a tag to connect a Chopin and Bach piece so as to see just how exacting Mr. Colom’s standards are. It is as if Bach is looking over the shoulder of his most promising student with an admonitory eye.

All in all, Confluences is a more ambitious project than Dialog. Josep Colom has achieved a unique distinction in carrying off this unusual notion and bringing something entirely new to the most familiar of repertoires. Again we must salute Eudora for this excellent recording. We look forward eagerly to yet one more collaboration like this, possibly with composers, (Rameau, Scarlatti, Schubert come to mind) that might connect to the pianist’s improvisatory inspirations informed by his Chopin sensibility.

—Fritz Balwit

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