How better to start the new decennium than with seven bargain reissues to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the greatest piano composer the world has seen, drawn from the greatest complete survey of his music ever committed to disc! Again, we are indebted to British Hyperion--first for reissuing Ohlsson's 13 complete Chopin volumes, recorded in 1989-2000 by American Arabesque Recordings, in a 16-disc box set, and now for making seven compilation discs available at Helios bargain price (only some £5 in the UK): the complete Etudes, Waltzes, Preludes & Impromptus, Mazurkas, Chamber music and selected Polonaises.
Chopin's Etudes set new standards for piano playing in the 1830s--technically, harmonically and above all musically. They have been recorded by such technical wizards as Gavrilov, Pollini, Berezovsky and Lugansky, whose technical achievements may be more outwardly spectacular than that of Ohlsson. However, where Ohlsson surpasses all others is when it comes to turning these pyrotechnical gems into unforgettable musical masterpieces: Listen to his magic calm in Op 10/3, his gracious rubato in the elegiac Op 10/6, the arpeggios of Op 10/11 transformed into a gorgeous Nocturne, the consummate carving of the aeolian harp melody of Op 25/1, or his heartbreaking double bel canto playing in Op 25/7.
The above paragraph almost makes it sound as if Ohlsson is merely technically decent. That is certainly not the case, though--quite the contrary. His command of these epoch-making pieces is so complete that their notorious difficulties seep into the background: The Op 10 C-major studies (Nos 1 & 7) leap off the keyboard at lightening speed, the extremely taxing Op 10/10 brims with crystal clear articulation, Op 10/12 bursts of real revolutionary passion, the pearly Op 25/2 glistens like a natural pearl, and the oceanic Op 25/12 sweeps across the keyboard with tsunami-like amplitude.
Overall, Ohlsson gives us the greatest set of Chopin Etudes on record--indeed, the most beautiful, particularly the Trois Nouvelles Etudes--even though Gavrilov is the more edge-of-the-seat exciting and Sokolov the more stunning, caught live in Op 25. As always, Arabesque's 1996 recording of the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand #33808 is in the demonstration bracket. No flaws whatsoever? Well, it might be coincidence, but both Op 25 A-minor studies come across as somewhat underpowered--especially so the stormy winter winds of Op 25/11.
As noted by the Hyperion editor, 'Sadly unacknowledged at the time of their original issue (very few of the original discs received much review coverage), these CDs include some of the greatest contemporary Chopin playing and include definitive performances of the complete etudes and mazurkas.' Let's pray that the Nocturnes, the very highpoint of the survey, will be added later. Next out is the complete Waltzes (Helios CDH55381).
REFERENCES: This One, Gavrilov, Sokolov (Op 25)