CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 45; Prelude in A-flat Major, B. 86; Fugue in A Minor, B. 144; CHERUBINI: 3 Choral Fugues (trans. Chopin) – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 205 (76:19) (6/22) [www.cembaldamour.com] *****:
After my recent audition of this CD, with the seminal opus of Romanticism, the Chopin 1834-39 Preludes, I wrote to pianist Mordecai Shehori: “Musicians and the public at large will receive this performance either as a revelation or as a provocation.” Shehori breaks ranks with the establishment in this version, given his refusal to consider each of the 24 entities as separate units, often in dire conflict with one another, or what Shehori condemns as “psychotic episodes,” without architecture. Even with my old standby, the Ivan Moravec rendition from Connoisseur Society, musical taste and authenticity earned Shehori’s censure:
“I totally agree with the C Major, but after only 30 seconds, bad decisions, left and right. The cardinal mistake that all of them did, even Mindru Katz, was to play the slow preludes too slowly and without counting/meter and the fast ones too fast and super aggressive, which kills any possibility of continuity and fluidity from one to another, turning the preludes into a polar, psychotic experience.”
Shehori’s strategy, as it always has been, proceeds from a deep study of the scores and autographs that indicate the composers’ intentions, revealing (hidden) details that others ignore or overlook in their zeal or blissful ignorance, but most likely in a subservience to an ossified performance tradition. Shehori credits his teacher Mindru Katz with great insight, but perhaps more authenticity of execution to Stefan Ashkenase (1896-1985), the Polish-Belgium pupil of Emil von Sauer whose own mother had studied with Karol Mikuli (1821-1897), Chopin’s assistant. Despite such a distinguished pedigree, Shehori feels he sheds new light on these compositions, especially the Preludes, which he conceives in three groups of eight, so that the last of any such group culminates a gradual evolution to “a more powerful work.” In evidence of this tri-partite grouping, Shehori sees No. 8 in F# Minor, as an elaboration of No. 1, initiating a new group in the manner of a sonata’s middle movement. The bass lines of No. 9 in E Major, signal in funereal sonorities, an ironic call to a “revived” progression.
The idea that Chopin paired several of the Preludes had already occurred to me; for instance, the C Major and the A Minor, opening Chopin’s sequence following the circle of fifths, juxtapose a world of harmony and plastic symmetry immediately against a world of disorder, an unruly chromaticism not too distant from Schoenberg’s later universe. That the form ‘prelude,’ to quote Hurd Hatfield and Pedro de Cordoba in The Picture of Dorian Gray, is “a kind of name,” a designation for a nocturne, waltz, dramatic episode, mazurka, etude, or abbreviated sonata movement becomes obvious. The E Minor, built on three chords in linear motion, including fourths in the middle and bottom voices, from Shehori, reveals the melody; and the slowly articulated, repetitive intervals of No. 11 in B Major, sing in bel canto, what Shehori terms “vocal revelations.” Shehori avoids extremes and exaggerations, tendencies which Chopin abhorred in his many letters on the subject of interpretation. Shehori calls them “the extremes of banging and tempo,” opposed to the Chopin ideal of evenness of execution.
Shehori’s marcato approach to No. 12 in G# Major creates a folkish, stomping dance of bitter, national character. The lovely Lento, No. 13 in F# Major, evolves as a studied nocturne, its 6/4 almost a barcarolle. The left hand, chordal role has subtle color, nuances, what the German call stimung. The brutally terse No. 14 in E-flat Minor always unnerves one with its angst and strangeness, and Shehori does not smear the lines to soften the effect. In answer, the ubiquitous D-flat, No. 15 “Raindrop” Prelude (a title Chopin detested) offers soothing, Sostenuto consolation, here in a performance to rival that from Shura Cherkassky. The middle section, in C# Minor, casts shadows where sunlight formerly reigned. The No. 16 in B-flat Minor illustrates Shehori’s notion that other pianists consistently misconstrue its designation Presto con fuoco, since he believes the “fire” element requires a reduction in speed. The left hand, particularly, loses in this reading its “warrior” status and becomes a powerful, color element. This is no less true for No. 20, the C Minor, softly funereal in its five-note chords. The eternal challenge of No. 17 in A-flat Major lies in shaping its melodic contour, ever a mystery of bel canto expression. Shehori’s cantabile style certainly invests ardent passion into its haunted contours. Then, the dramatic contrast to No. 18 in Minor, a thrust in tormented parlando towards the Abyss. Shehori slows down the “wings” of No. 18 in E-flat Major to encourage this wide-spanned etude to glide in melodic, glistening gestures.
The last group of four preludes, opening with the “Sunday bells” of No. 21 in B-flat Major, reveals, more than the obvious cantabile of the upper line, the vaguely disturbed two-note intervals in the left hand in their give-and-take. The Molto agitato G Minor No. 22 reveals a jerky mazurka in the heavy, chordal octaves, a preparatory dance of death? The penultimate prelude, the “watery” No. 23 in F Major, no less projects a dance element, Shehori’s staggering the motion just enough to evoke a liquid calm before the mortal storm of No. 24 in D Minor, the epic climax of them all. Without undue force, Shehori coaxes a turbulent, agonized farewell from this surging piece, that now we hear with a fond adieu to actress Angela Lansbury. The polyrhythms and huge spans pose no technical obstacle, and the intended Allegro appassionato surges and plunges us to the final page, in which even the fermata sounds long after the tones fade away.
Chopin in a letter to his publisher Fontana called his 1841 Prelude in C# Minor “well modulated.” Shehori calls this prelude “an incredible work,” convinced that Chopin must have loved madly Countess Elizabeth Czernyszew, whose social position lay beyond Chopin’s reach. The double notes, the urgent base line, and the expressive cadenza near the finale testify to a fertile passion in this piece that here compels Shehori as it did Michelangeli. The liquid Prelude in A-flat Major (1834; pub. 1918) has clear waltz ambitions, despite its equally challenging etude status as an exercise in touch. The Fugue in A Minor (1841; pub. 1898), his solo such contribution, obviously pays a debt to J.S. Bach, but its passing dissonances and idiosyncratic trill give its angular contour a distinctive personality.
Chopin transcribed Luigi Cherubini’s Three Choral Fugues from the 1832-35 Cours de Contrepoint et Fugue in 1841, but published in 2017. Shehori offers their world premiere recording. Although dismissive of Cherubini as a creative artist, Chopin shares their love for J.S. Bach and a life-long devotion to polyphony, especially in reversible counterpoint that Chopin often incorporates into his late textures, such as the Op. 62 Nocturnes and the Cello Sonata. Shehori breathes shape and melodic life into the three fugues – in A Minor, F Major, and D Minor – with the same studied veneration that marks this remarkable recital as a whole. The F Major Fugue would grace any pianist’s program as an illuminated encore.
We call such a recording one of special merit.