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Brilliant performance let down by the recording quality
on 30 January 2015
I am a great admirer of Daniel Barenboim, both as a pianist and a conductor. This recording of Chopin’s piano concertos brings together Barenboim as a pianist with an orchestra for which he has been chief conductor for some 20 years. The conducting has been delegated to a rising star, Andris Nelsens.
The reviews both in the press and here in Amazon have heaped praise on this recording, in terms of sensitivity, energy, poise, phrasing, and rapport between soloist and orchestra as well as Barenboim’s remarkable accuracy and consistency in a live recording. I cannot disagree with this. However I was also left somewhat disturbed by something I could not quite understand, but possibly related to the extraordinarily bright and overbalancing sound of the piano in this recording. The problem of playing Chopin is to achieve the delicacy of touch and dynamic contrast that Chopin requires: marks like fortissimo and con forza have to be interpreted conservatively. The dynamics required by Chopin range from something like forte or mezzo forte down to vanishingly low yet perceptible levels of pianissimo, or at least it should sound like that. However, my discomfiture possibly does not have anything to do with the playing and interpretation. After listening to the CD, I decided to recalibrate my ear by listening to a vinyl recording with a great pianist of the past, Emil Gilels, as soloist, and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy (CBS 61799). As on the Barenboim recording, the orchestra remains firmly in its accompanying role, yet the piano is somehow softer and less aggressive in tone, while the fioritura passages are nevertheless sparking and clear.
So perhaps the problem boils down to the way the recording has been engineered: possibly the piano has been too closely miked. I am put in mind of a recording experience with French radio recounted by the late Charles Rosen in his book “Piano Notes”. He recalls recording almost an hour of Schumann, with reasonable recording results and then going back the next day to record Schoenberg’s opp. 18 and 25 and being astonished at the ugliness of the sound in the playback, although it was the same studio and the same instrument. When questioning this, he was told that they were using their usual setup for “contemporary” music. Rosen put his foot down and insisted on the same sound setup for Schoenberg as for Schumann. Rosen then goes on to describe the disastrous effect of recording Ondine from Ravels’s Gaspard de la Nuit too closely miked. Thus on grounds of recording quality, I’ve taken away two stars: sadly for me I doubt that this recording will bear much repeated listening.
Incidentally while a simple star rating system works fine for books, for classical music recordings separate ratings are needed for performance and recording quality.