Another testament to the symbiotic relationship between Chilean piano master Claudio Arrau (1903-1991) and the music of Frederic Chopin, here inscribed by Arrau in 1973 for Philips. In the surround sound medium, the Preludes (1836-1839) carry a particular resonance of awesome power, Arrau’s close breathing sounds included. At several junctures in his long career, Arrau embarked on a “complete” Chopin project, none of which he ever completed. He recorded a set of the Preludes for CBS; then he collaborated on some Chopin for American Decca. He made some fine Etudes for EMI. The 1973 Preludes capture the seventy-year-old Arrau in aggressive, intellectually probing form, the tempos fleet (B-flat Minor) when he wants them; the gravitas palpable (C Minor) when required. Some gorgeous moments, as per expectation, in the E Minor, in the B Major and the E-flat (the most Schumannesque prelude), the insistent G Minor, in the glittering F Major, the demonic D Minor. As a set or cycle, the Preludes serve as a Rosetta Stone for the Romantic, rhetorical ethos: some preludes are mazurkas, etudes, abbreviated sonata-movements. Progressing along the circle of fifths, they still imitate Bach. All are eminently vocal, declamatory, bel canto exercises. The pedal, the trill, and the fermata collaborate to create a series of dramatic moments rife with passion and poetic sensibility.
The Op. 45 Prelude emerges as a pre-Brahmsian delicacy in the water mode; Debussy is not far away. The A-flat Prelude glimmers like a rainy-day intermezzo. Arrau recorded the Schumann in 1974. The twelve character-pieces reflect Schumann’s well-known divided personality, as well as his reactions to the novel Fleglejahren (Years of Indiscretion) by Jean-Paul Richter. Arrau pushes rather hard on these pieces, some played pesant and marcato, giving them a brilliant girth that other pianists eschew in favor of fairyland. But then I recall that many of Schumann’s figures are maerchen – march-ballads with a built-in moral. And since we don’t have an inscription of Rubinstein’s playing the grand waltzes that pop up, who better than Arrau to supply them? The recordings, made in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, reverberate the piano’s sometimes piercing but usually rich sound with acute directness.
— Gary Lemco