CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21: The 4 Versions – Cyprien Katsaris, piano/Queensland Symphony Orchestra/Edvard Tchivzhel/Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra Quintet – Piano 21 P21 038-N, (2 CDs) 60:31; 61:15 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Chopin arranged his F Minor Concerto (1830) in four versions to accommodate concert and salon venues. The most familiar remains the arrangement for piano and orchestra, here rendered in sensitive tones by Edvard Tchivzhel and the Queensland Symphony (25 June 2010) from the Concert Hall, Queensland Symphony Performing Arts Center, Brisbane.  Thanks to Sound Producer Hans May, the aural reproduction on this performance truly astonishes in detail, as well in the sheer digital articulation effected by Katsaris, who proves himself a Chopiniste of the first order. In both bravura and bel canto passages, Katsaris exerts–on a Hamburg Steinway D–considerable flair and deft poetry, particularly in the middle section “recitativo” declamations. The last movement brilliantly fluctuates between rondo and broad mazurka, a form Chopin had already introduced in his Op. 5. The flute and col legno effects contribute to the precious elegance of the collaboration, swift and intrinsically acrobatic, rife with delicate poetry and national style. The concluding chords reveal an otherwise dead-silent audience which has suddenly erupted in mass appreciation for  a marvelously fluent and athletic performance.

Chopin created the solo piano version of the Concerto himself, which Katsaris plays on a Bosendorfer Imperial from Tonstudio Teije van Geest, Sandhausen, Germany in July 2010.  The ‘symphonic’ tuttis prove just as ornate and colorfully scored as the instrumental version, although the occasional Alberti bass line becomes more exposed. Katsaris takes the solo version more broadly than his accompanied edition, drawing out the melodic flurries and roulades with singular, plastic subtlety and panache. The first movement explosion near the coda literally hurtles forward, much in the fashion of a Liszt rhapsody. The final pages of the first movement certainly ring as symphonic declamations, potent and feverishly exciting. The fervor of the Larghetto in the solo version seems more intensely focused, the dark plaints of the “orchestra” deep and harmonically resonant. A pearly moment comes in the form of the solo keyboard’s approximation of the last movement horn call, followed by ravishing fioritura from Katsaris in both hands.

It comes as no surprise, then, that for the 2-piano version arranged by Chopin, Katsaris–through over-dubbing–performs both parts on keyboards from Steingraeber & Soehne concert grands E-272, recorded in Bayreuth, Germany August 2010.  The arrangement comes from Chopin, but also from Jan Ekier and Pawel Kaminski in the first movement, and Chopin’s friend Jules Fontana for the latter two movements. Again, what luxurious playing defines these Katsaris readings of the F Minor Concerto! The last movement becomes even more meditative and introspective than the prior readings that involve the solo keyboard. The fanfare element Katsaris subdues, concentrating on the quicksilver interplay of the parts, the symphonic accompaniment now more pronounced in the manner of a Bach polyphony.

For the truly unique Piano and Quintet version made in Sandhausen, Germany in September 2010, Katsaris performs on a Yamaha CF111S whose bass tones prove notably rich, the top quite bright. The sound of the contrabass (Michael Tkacz) adds a piquant dimension to the sound, the arrangement courtesy of Franco-American pianist David Lively, given that adaptations by Chopin and his contemporaries have not survived. The concerto here sounds like an extension of works like Mendelssohn’s Sextet or the Schubert Trout Quintet, except that the color range of this work waxes more lush and fitfully dramatic. The tuttis–especially for their speed of execution in the opening Maestoso–virtually sizzle between violins Benjamin Spillner and Ariane Volm and the plaintive alto from Annette Hartmann’s viola. When Katsaris breathes his long phrases, the Bellini-inspired ariosi dance over the assorted instruments in an almost foppish nonchalance. The unusual sonority of instruments as it opens the Larghetto might be compared to the more stringent effects we hear lately in Vivaldi’s F Minor “Winter” Concerto, a novel dissonance that resolves into a love song of ardent rhetorical serenity. The reduced-orchestra tremolos of the middle section appear the more agitated and troubled, a summer storm of dire cruelty, until the clouds pass and the graduated trills dissolve into pearly tracery rife with hazy sunlight. To hear the Allegro vivace as a bravura chamber work aligns it with the Brahms First Piano Quartet or the Haydn “Gypsy” Trio for brash refinement and musically elegant sparks in the same breath.

A rare privilege to explore this familiar concerto in new guises, the set offers special merits in every sense.

–Gary Lemco