RCA 82876 72554-2 73:42; 61:37 ****:
Rather brilliant and occasionally exquisite Chopin playing by Emanuel Ax on this reissue set, recorded 1975, 1977, and 1985, and 1987, between venues in New York and London. Ax plays Chopin with a decidedly European, old-world flavor, a ripe, virile Chopin both songful and harmonically bold. The Andante Spianato receives a lavish reading, its arpeggiations and muscular polonaise rhythms rippling in manner reminiscent of Hofmann and the Polish-Russian school. The Ax G Minor Ballade is a stentorian, turbulent account, with many of the virtues we credit to his mentor, Artur Rubinstein. It’s Chopin’s version of the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven, we can savor its Neapolitan harmonies and its sullen momentum. No less Herculean is the Ax B Minor Scherzo’s fitful fever interrupted by a Polish Christmas carol. I like Ax’s way with the Polonaise-Fantasy – a curious hybrid if ever there were – daunts a pianist’s sense of structure since its episodes hang together through its opening series of modulations. Ax must carefully articulate when they appear, often in veiled form. The C# Minor Scherzo can become repetitious in its cascades, but Ax maintains a balance of lyricism and double-fisted tension, the double octaves in place, and a tender pedal for the D-flat chorale.
While many pianists play Chopin mazurkas with an “accent,” meaning somewhat un-idiomatically, Ax’s mazurkas enjoy a lilt and rounded sonority I associate with Horowitz. The C Major, Op. 24, No. 2 is a bucolic moment of tender simplicity. The C Minor, Op. 56, No. 3, is an experimental laboratory for harmony and counterpoint; even more so, the three mazurkas from Op. 59 (1846). Ax carries off the mazurkas for their intense, aristocratic nationalism. While I still favor Claudio Arrau in the Trois Nouvelles Etudes, Ax inscribes them with delicate poignancy. Ax makes the B Major Nocturne a Gordian Knot untied, a kaleidoscope of trills and ornamental figurations and a near cousin of the Impromptu, Op. 36. What most impresses me about Ax’s Chopin is his masterful handling of the bravura elements in the power pieces like the F Major Ballade, whose Presto con fuoco section in A Minor can rattle the most secure techniques. The patina for the B-flat Minor Scherzo bristles with excitement, as Ax spins out its triplets and crisp interjections of fortissimo on a broad canvas, with excellent piano sound, courtesy of Edwin Begley’s engineering. My only quibble with such a first rate production is that we traverse a group of familiar Chopin staples, leaving the rarities like the Op. 5 Rondo-Mazur and the E-flat Rondo, Op. 16, even the wonderful Op. 19 Bolero, untouched. More!