Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chopin Etude op. 10#1

This evening I was introduced, by my friend and colleague Roberto Poli, to an unusual and wonderful performance from 1911 of the Chopin Etude in C major, op. 10#1, by the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann. I have never heard anyone else perform the piece this way - it is much slower, more poetic, not at all a virtuoso showpiece. And my first reaction, after realizing how beautiful the piece was in this "outside the box" performance, was that this celebrated pianist would probably not be accepted to a conservatory after performing the piece in this way. It is too, well, out of the ordinary. I am going to post the performance below, as well as a good number of other recorded performances I found on youtube. First, see what you think of de Pachmann:

Now for a few of the more "standard" performances. I don't mean that as a criticism - these are amazing achievements, and beautiful for many reasons. But you will probably notice how similar Pollini, Lugansky, Ashkenazy, and Ohlsson are. It brings to mind the book I read recently by chef Jacques Pepin (see my previous blog post) where he explained that when he was younger, a chef at a great restaurant in Paris was trained so that he and all the chefs could prepare a dish in exactly the same way, so that a diner at the restaurant would not be able to tell who had prepared it that evening.

Pollini (generally thought of as the gold standard in this piece):

Lugansky (fantastic - to his credit, almost imperceptibly different from Pollini,but it does beg the question - why record the piece when such a similar interpretation already exists?)

Ashkenazy (some differences of articulation, but otherwise basically the same approach - but he proves here he can do it live, like a tight-rope walker without a safety net):

Ohlsson (another live performance, with the pitch nearly a half step sharp - I assume it is the recording rather than the instrument, suggesting that perhaps this has been *slightly* speeded up)

Now a couple of more "poetic" versions of the piece, from Claudio Arrau, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Backhaus. Cortot is often cited for his wrong notes, but I believe that in his time it was not yet possible to splice recordings so this is basically a live performance, and honestly the standard of "cleanliness" is simply much higher today than it used to be (sometimes at the expense of other priorities like imagination, risk-taking, etc). As for Backhaus, it is no-nonsense, perhaps a shade Teutonic, but really beautiful.


Arrau, both astounding technique and a beautiful sound:


And the final three, all essential listening:

Richter is always recognizable - this is no-holds-barred, a bit rushed, anything but flowery - and it's live:

One more person who might be laughed at at a Conservatory audition, Georges Cziffra - but this is truly astounding technically (so that might win over the conservatory faculty) while being absolutely unique. It is probably closer in spirit to the Romantic approach in that the performer is unapologetically inserting his own ideas in to the piece. And this was the one where, alone in my room watching, I said out loud "Holy #$(*&#"

And finally, the pianist that all other pianists aspire to be, Martha Argerich. Probably my desert-island choice:

Now that you've seen all these performances, you might want to listen to de Pachmann again - is it refreshing to hear something different? Does it sound too slow to you now after hearing that everyone else plays it faster? And to those of us (I include myself) who make decisions about who should and shouldn't be accepted to conservatories, how can we make sure we don't close our minds to the beautifully unusual?


The Editor said...
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The Editor said...

It's been a lo-oo-oong day. I can't believe I ended it by listening to a string of pianists playing Chopin Etude op.10 #1. Actually a lovely finish. Thanks for sharing your part of the world today, Max.

Allan said...

Pachmann's son Lionel, a pianist, mentioned that his father used both hands to shape the right hand's line, humorously pointing out that when the hands were far apart, one resembled a monkey. The left hand's thumb was used to bring out the polyphony in the right hand's part, evident on the recording. Pachmann was one of the few to understand that the right hand's pattern contains more than one voice.

sachit said...

Max, thanks for your article and for the links. I'm glad I stumbled upon it. It's going to take me some effort to really understand all these recordings. There's enough detail in any given one to keep one occupied.

But for the past two months, I've been mostly listening to Argerich for the Op 10 no 1. There's a certain something in her playing that brilliantly conveys a kind of eternal grandeur in the piece, and a passion for perfection almost transcending human emotion - which is what I felt when I first heard this etude, even if it was played by someone practicing it at less than full speed.

I use that feeling to guide my interpretation with it. I took it up despite being a good bit harder than my current repertoire. It's possessed me. I'm sure that this piece means different things to different people, as it is with most of Bach's repertoire, and that will mean that everyone would have their own favorite interpretation.

And with reference to Allan's comment: the right hand is indeed polyphonic, but at Chopin's metronome marking, it's quite a feat to keep this piece together, let alone shape the different voices in the texture. The best we could do is to highlight the voice that seems most important at a given point.