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Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28

Andras Schiff plays a Pleyel/Fabbrini piano

Digital Classics DC10003

This is a strange production with important shortcomings, but it will give great pleasure to purchasers who don't know too much about Chopin and will enjoy hearing some of his music on unusual instruments.

That was the reason to request the DVD for review, but its presentation is unenlightening, despite the many people involved. Schiff's easy-going commentary goes smoothly, talking over his recordings of excerpts (only !) of the 25 items listed in the booklet, played on several different pianos, including a standard Steinway for comparison.

The Preludes are given complete in the "meticulously restored Concert Hall of the Ancien Conservatoire" in Paris, without an audience. The piano, with the name Fabbrini* emblazoned (tastelessly?) on its side, appears to be the same 1860 Pleyel featured in Schiff's 2001 series at Wigmore Hall:-

" - - the prime critical importance lay in the two pianos played, which brought an audience, most of whom were probably uninvolved in the 'authentic instrument' controversies, face to face with thinking about possible alternatives to the ubiquitous Steinway. As Schiff put it, with gentle good humour, we have been brainwashed into taking for granted that pianos should always be black and made by Steinway - - ".

Close ups in the film suggested that the frame and case are original, but that the felt of the hammers and dampers had been renewed. It would be good to know something about the strings; the playing suggested that the touch is considerably lighter that that of a typical modern Steinway grand, of which my most recent and nightmare experience was of Kissin at Lucerne:-

" - - pyrotechnic acrobatics characterised by sheer velocity and power - - He pounded the keyboard so that the fast ones thundered by with often idiosyncratic emphases, and the tiny slow pieces, some of which every child used to learn to play - - were expanded and distorted to the limit of self indulgence. One was left wondering if Kissin had ever interested himself to play instruments of Chopin's own time or to think about how the Preludes might have sounded when new? - - ".

Schiff's account of the Preludes is characterised, on the other hand, by inwardness and unshowy ease of execution, the sound sufficiently different from a Steinway as to encourage attentive listening to this so familiar music, a pinnacle in Chopin's oeuvre.

A further review from a piano specialist will follow.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*" - - Signor Fabbrini, an Italian piano technician who buys Steinways and regulates them in his own way - - he has a wonderful sense of sound, like a modern Stradivari."