There is always a question about composers of the great pianoforte music as Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, those whose playing was not there when the sound recording was - how would he play his own music? How did Beethoven play "Waldstein" himself? And how did Chopin played his own mazurkas or ballades? Or at least, how would he wish it to be played?
Listening to this recording, one comes to a conclusion that it simply does not get any better; or that this is probably how CHopin envisioned, or heard his music playing in his mind. The indescribable elegance of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, coupled with such a sprezzatura technique that consequently you don't even notice it, you hear only the music, makes his playing miracle. Another miracle is that he passed his art on another great pianist, Maurizio Pollini, who was his pupil, and at this point I think this Italian school is superior to my long-time worshiped titan Vladimir Horowitz. While Horowitz is technically unsurpassed - yet Pollini is no less - the poetry of Michelangeli is far beyond, which he narrates in the Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. One can easily compare the two interpretations:
Horowitz Plays Chopin: Vol. 1
The mazurkas by Michelangeli simply evoke the atmosphere of an aristocratic salon, perhaps that of Georges Sand where some of them were surely played - by the maestro and maybe occasionally by Franz Liszt? When one tries to invoke that refined yet quite libertine and appropriately romantic environment, the loves Georges Sand and Chopin, of Countess d'Agoult and Liszt, elegant and well-supplied by the ladies' riches, a truly unique pictures emerges; and that special mood of making one's life as a work of art pours from Michelangeli's interpretation of Chopin's music. When in Berlin, it is interesting to contemplate on the subject in front of this picture in Alte Nationalgalerie - "Liszt at the Piano, 1840, Josef Danhauser" and it is easy to see Chopin in Liszt's place there, in such a quintessentially romantic pose, with his fair lady at his feet, looking up at the performing Orpheo in a state of awe, while other worshippers seem to freeze in adulation - they look like Schubert or Chateaubriand but in fact are Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo; the bust of Beethoven seems to smile from what he hears, and Lord Byron nods approvingly from his portrait...
My favorite mazurka on this recording is Op.68 No.2 - Lento, for a simple reason that although it is so deceptively simple, written in C major, I can never play it correctly, and for a long time Michelangeli playing of this piece simply mesmerizes me.
Yet it is unquestionably the ballade that is the most challenging, for both interpretive and technical reason. I have heard a few interpretations of this op. 23, including live performances, but this one is above and beyond all of them, including Horowitz, as I mentioned. How many more superlatives it is possible to give? I want to celebrate this recording by concluding with the history of this ballade which is as fascinating as the musical piece itself; my foreword would be - is it not another pleasant fact regarding Chopin's genius that he did not seem to share the Gothic Teutonic taste for ballades, and his ballades always sound luminous and optimistic, even if they are full of mysterious whispers?
Here is the story:
A "ballad," according to the Random House Dictionary, is "a simple, narrative poem of popular origin, composed in short stanzas, especially one of romantic character and adapted for singing." The term was derived from an ancient musico-poetic form that accompanied dancing ("ballare" in medieval Latin, hence "ball" and "ballet"), which had evolved into an independent vocal genre by the 14th century in the exquisitely refined works of Guillaume de Machant and other early composers of secular music. The ballad was well established in England as a medium for the recitation of romantic or fantastic stories by at least the year 1500; it is mentioned by Pepys, Milton, Addison, and Swift, often disdainfully because of the frequently scurrilous nature of its content. The form, having adopted a more elegant demeanor, became popular in Germany during the late 18th century when it attracted no less a literary luminary than Goethe, whose tragic narrative Erlkönig furnished the text for one of Schubert's most beloved songs.
Schubert Lieder Erlkonig Premium Poster Print, 24x32
Chopin seems to have been the first composer to apply the title to a piece of abstract instrumental music, apparently indicating that his four Ballades hint at a dramatic flow of emotions such as could not be appropriately contained by traditional Classical forms. (Such transferral of terms between artistic disciplines was hardly unknown during the Romantic era. Liszt, the first musical artist in history with enough nerve to keep an entire public program to himself, dubbed his solo concerts "musical soliloquies" at first, and later gave them the now-familiar designation, "recitals." --"How can one recite at the piano?" fumed one British critic. "Preposterous!"). Brahms, Liszt, Fauré, Grieg, Vieuxtemps, and Frank Martin all later provided instrumental works with the title Ballade.
In the Ballades, "Chopin reaches his full stature as the unapproachable genius of the pianoforte," according to Arthur Hedley, "a master of rich and subtle harmony and, above all, a poet--one of those whose vision transcends the confines of nation and epoch, and whose mission it is to share with the world some of the beauty that is revealed to them alone." Though the Ballades came to form a nicely cohesive set unified by their temporal scale, structural fluidity, and supranational idiom, Chopin composed them over a period of more than a decade. He once suggested to Robert Schumann that he was "incited to the creation of the Ballades" by some poems of his Polish compatriot Adam Mickiewicz (1798--1855), whom he met and played for in Paris around 1835. The English composer and author Alan Rawsthorne noted, however, that "to pin down these Ballades to definite stories is gratuitous and misleading, fur in suggesting extra-musical connotations the attention is distracted from the purely musical scheme which is ... compelling in itself and completely satisfying?' Rather than obscuring the essential nature of these pieces, the apparently opposing views of Schumann and Rawsthorne lead directly to the very heart of Chopin's achievement: the near-perfect melding of Romantic fantasy and feeling with an Apollonian control of form and figuration. By no other composer in the history of the art has the delicate balance between emotion and intellect been so finely achieved as by Chopin -- heart and head are weighed perfectly in his, the most precisely calibrated of all musical scales.
The first ideas for Ballade No. 1 in C minor, Opus 23 were sketched in May and June 1831, when Chopin was living anxiously in Vienna, almost unknown as a composer and only slightly appreciated as a pianist. By the time that the work was completed four years later, however, he had achieved such fame and fortune in Paris that he could dedicate the piece to Baron de Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France, whom he counted among his noble pupils. Breitkopf und Hartel published the work in Leipzig in June 1836. (Chalgrin's Arc de Triomphe and Meyerheer's Les Huguenots were also completed during that year).
Schumann called this Ballade "the most spirited and daring work of Chopin," and reported that it was inspired by Mickiewicz's Kon rad Velenrod, a poetic epic concerning the battles between the pagan Lithuanians and the Christian Knights of the Teutonic Order. The work exhibits both the ingenious conflation of sectional, sonata, and rondo forms and the voluptuous, wide-ranging harmonic palette that mark all of the Ballades.
This recording is a masterpiece.