Brailowsky: The Complete Polydor Recordings, 1928-1934, Vol. I = CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35; Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60; Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23; Mazurka in B-flat Major, Op. 7, No. 1; Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2; 3 Preludes; 4 Waltzes; 10 Etudes; Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat Major, Op. 29; Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66; Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 – Alexander Brailowsky, piano, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Julius Pruewer – Pristine Audio PAKM 078 (2 CDs) TT: 2:15:52 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
I have several recollections regarding the Kiev-born piano virtuoso Alexander Brailowsky (1896-1976) whose work I have reviewed prior. While I worked with the Atlanta Virtuosi in the 1980s, veteran pianist Frank Glazer (1915-2015) recalled having been in Germany in the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of WW II. Glazer attended a Brailowsky recital in Berlin; and as he gazed around to take in other attendees, he noticed a woman nearby, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the playing. “You are not enjoying him; you do not like him?” queried Glazer. “He plays for the ladies,” came the curt reply. Perhaps Brailowsky did sport himself as a “gallant” before the public, but his credentials in Chopin and other repertory could not be faulted for want of technique. His recording debut of the Chopin E Minor Concerto from the mid-1930s – like that he made later with William Steinberg for RCA (LM 1020) – would rate close to perfection were Brailowsky and his conductors willing to have taken the longer orchestral opening. The performance proffers no end of subtle alterations of tempo and inflection, sober rubato, and eminent, intimate poetry. The assimilation of roulades and grace notes occurs without mannerism, seamless, and always maintaining the underlying pulsation. The restored sound, courtesy of Mark Obert-Thorn, captures the persuasive Brailowsky tone, refined as it had been by studies with Theodor Leschetizky. I do not know the work of conductor Pruewer, who appears agile and competent for the most part. I find his opening of the Rondo: Vivace last movement prosaic and more inflamed only after Brailowsky makes his athletically nimble presence known. One might note the occasional “swoops” in the string line, a testament to old-school romanticism in style.
The 1839 Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata certainly has had its generous share of potent exponents from Rubinstein to Cortot, Horowitz to Hofmann, and the Brailowsky competes, often explosively, with those interpreters. The first movement Grave – Doppio movimento combines volatile poetry with studied lyricism, urging the line forward with velocity and a sense of inflected meditation. Brailowsky equally captures the polarity in the Scherzo, its dramatic contrast of E-flat minor and its melancholy trio in G-flat Major, whose passing trill might be a premonition of the cold winds of the last movement. The famed Funeral March pre-dates the rest of the sonata, conceived 28 November 1837, the anniversary of an outbreak of political resistance in Poland. Brailowsky’s transition to the D-flat Major trio possesses its own, tender magic. As naïve and childlike the music becomes, it does not dawdle in sentimentality. The march returns with an even more resolute, solemn dignity, forceful without having been forced upon us. The Presto, a fiendish etude that seems to nail shut the coffin of patriotic valor, a chromatic moto perpetuo whose emotional tenor hints at existential collapse.
Disc one concludes with two pieces which themselves provide the polarities in Chopin’s extraordinary temperament: the 1846 Barcarolle and the 1836 Ballade No. 1 in G minor. While the Barcarolle evinces traits of both nocturne and ballade, its organic fusion of the 12/8 gondola rhythm with Italian bel canto episodes provides us a grand scheme unique in such literature. Brailowsky imbues the A Major section with a palpable eroticism, perhaps meant “for the ladies,” as Frank Glazer reports. The more declamatory aspects of the piece may be overdone – too masculine – to some auditors. A darkly epic work, the First Ballade conforms to the program set out for the form by the poet Adam Mickiewicz, chivalric and strange, melancholic and dramatic. Brailowsky engages the recitative and the ensuing 6/4 undulations with a combination of angst and nostalgia, or better, tesknota. The E-flat melody assumes a Neapolitan air, but its tenor has dark overtones, capable of explosive passion. The development, rife with stretti and Chopin’s especial counterpoint, lose nothing of their robust momentum, perhaps sacrificing some poetry to the demonic impulse.
Disc 2 assembles twenty-one pieces, all of which lie easily under Brailowsky’s fingers: recall that he gave in 1924 six concerts in Paris that embraced the 169 keyboard works of Chopin, a feat he repeated 1936-1937 and again 1946-1947. The opening Mazurka in B-flat Major, with its elongated trill, makes us wish we had more of these most representative Polish dance forms by Brailowsky, whose natural ease rivals that of Horowitz. The famous E-flat Nocturne proceeds fluently but inflected, as it should be, a binary form whose genius lies in its subtle, ornamented variations of the repeated tune. Of the three preludes, each has its charm: the G Major presents a flowing figuration whose texture thickens and then dissipates; the B minor presents an erotic study in harmonic motion, almost a ballade in miniature; the D-flat Major “Raindrop” development exploits its enharmonic self in C-sharp, inverting the pedal point to the right hand while the melody sings in the left. Given the relatively brisk pace by Brailowsky, the piece retains its delicate drama and thoughtful lyricism.
Brailowsky addresses the four waltzes of his chosen group with virtuosic, salon brio: the A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1 has girth, lilt, and panache; the eternal C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 has bounce and rhythmic savvy, the tail’s becoming ever faster, ever lighter; the A-flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1 gives us autumnal wistfulness and moments of pained romance, a mood close to late Brahms; the E minor ambitiously addresses etude proportions, but whimsically, coyly, with sudden accelerations and ritards. Brailowsky imbues the piece with both liquid and muscular grace. The two impromptus explore the “formal” and “hybrid” examples: the 1837 Impromptu No. 1 moves from brisk arabesques into a more sedate F minor, an aria in honor of Bellini’s style. The strength and flexibility of Brailowsky’s trill warrants our admiration. The 1834 Fantasie-Impromptu receives a whirlwind performance, and Brailowsky’s inflected middle section (in D-flat) reminds us how much this compressed piece reflects Chopin’s admiration for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, especially its third movement.
Brailowsky chooses nine etudes with which to display his prowess: he opens with Chopin’s favorite, the E Major, Op. 10, No. 3, whose blissful, national song erupts into a “three-hand” study in powerful chords in fourths. The C-sharp minor proves satisfying and percussively volcanic. The G-flat Major, Op .10, No. 5 in the “black keys” has luster and deft polish. Brailowsky then shifts to the Op. 25, No. 1 in A-flat, with its “Aeolian harp” sonorities, a curvaceous song he plays with grace and authority. Brailowsky takes the F Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 very quickly, and I can only compare its fleetness with that of Arrau. The F Major, Op. 25, No. 3 gallops and cavorts in sober measures at first, but the Brailowsky soon adds a pesante quality to the figures that produces a competition in dynamics, quite fascinating. Perhaps only Josef Hofmann could play the G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9 with complete, elfin control, but Brailowsky does make it ring mischievously. The “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor has a stentorian bearing from Brailowsky, martial and thickly chromatic in color. The C Minor “Ocean” Etude, Op. 25, No. 12 demands 16th note arpeggios throughout, the rhythmic pulse seemingly divided between 12/8 and 6/4, rife with voluptuous chromatics. Brailowsky hurls himself into its passions with flair and unbridled passion, breathtaking as the Arrau performance, which has been my standard for ages.
The set concludes with the most “national” of all pieces by Chopin, his 1842 “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53. It begins in E, sucking us into the national vortex with a series of seven resolute chords, then bursting forward, forte and maestoso, into its especial world whose trio section whose cavalry never cease to make our hearts pound faster, and whose lyrical section laments a paradise lost. The potent trills, the epic fanfares, all bespeak in Brailowsky a natural Chopin player completely at ease in his element.
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