CHOPIN: The Late Mazurkas – Todd Crow, piano – MSR Classics MS 1629, 73:15 ****:

Just for reference: the “late” mazurkas begin with Op. 41, the two A Minors of KK IIb/5 and 4, opuses 50, 56, 59, 63, Op. 67 nos. 4 and 2, and the posthumous F minor work often considered the final Mazurka, but in reality composed before the G Minor Op. 67/2. Arthur Rubinstein said that the Mazurka, for him, was “Chopin at his highest”, and since this form runs directly through Chopin’s career as a composer from first to last, one cannot easily disagree with the great pianist. Rubinstein also stated that when he played these works it felt as if he were directly communicating with his audience in a very intimate manner, even though we know that as a composer preference, Brahms was his favorite.

Nevertheless, from the initial yearning of the mazurka fixated on folk elements, to the middle period when both tonality and its antithesis evolving around increased chromaticism seem to be equally emphasized, and finally again to the purely folk aspects of the genre, Chopin worked his magic in this form as no other. The dance element is never absent, yet the composer expanded the vision of this type of music to such an extreme that dance seems to fade away into something more esoteric and even dreamlike, as form dissolves into substance far more profound, and emerges only in rhythmic hints to keep us grounded in the remembrance of where we started.

The mazurka itself found its origins in the province of Mazovia, the place where Chopin was born, so it was in his blood from the beginning. The dance is a strange amalgamation of societal interaction of the sexes, yet Chopin’s vision revolves around the idea of poetic dancers as opposed to the dance per se. It took him a while to completely solidify his expressive capabilities in this form, and we and he owe it to lover George Sand, whose country estate Nohant in rural France provided seven consecutive seasons of productive composing activity wherein these works found gestation. Though only 22 when he composed his first mazurka, by the first Nohant summer in 1839 he was well established as a composer, albeit somewhat reclusive even then (never seeking Liszt-like audience opprobrium), and when 1846 was attained the world of the mazurka would never be the same. There would be others, as there had been before Chopin, but there would never be any quite like his.

On this CD—and I hope the “early” ones will be forthcoming—Todd Crow, currently Professor of Music on the George Sherman Dickinson Chair at Vassar College, shows a remarkable adeptness at presenting these miniatures in a highly communicative light. These are not the Etudes or even the Preludes, and the technical facility required does not match what is needed in those often barn-burning works. But sensibility, firmly established rubato, and an underlying sense of unyielding rhythmic stability are essential prerequisites in this music, and Crow has them all. Rubinstein is probably still the best bet in this music for a sense of authenticity and overarching understanding, but Todd Crow plays a lot like him, and has sound that Rubinstein never enjoyed—don’t let anyone ever tell you that sound on a piano recording is not important! Try this, whether ignorant of the Chopin mazurkas or expert in them. There is much to enjoy.

—Steven Ritter

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