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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 it is unenlightening in presentation, despite the many people involved. Schiff's easy-going commentary goes smoothly, talking over excerpts (only !) of the 25 items listed in the booklet.

The Preludes are given (without audience) in the "meticulously restored Concert Hall of the Ancien Conservatoire" in Paris. The piano, with the name Fabbrini emblazoned on its side, appears to be the same one featured in Schiff's 2001 series at Wigmore Hall, of which

" - - 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 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 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.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Further review:

This DVD is not unlike a French arthouse film, mysterious at the beginning, gradually making more sense after one has watched it. Schiff's first few preludes are excellent, but as the set progresses, he seems uncomfortable with both the virtuosic character of some preludes and the unfamiliar instrument (the later demonstrations on the modern Steinway are generally superior). Many preludes come over as over-stiff, over-classical. Some of the camerawork, often showing the hammers of the piano, is irritating. It is not a successful performance.

When the documentary starts, Schiff nails his colours to the mast. For him, Chopin's admiration of Bach and Mozart is crucial. He was an old-fashioned composer, his retiring personality and pianism are critical. So Schiff's stance and interpretation are quite deliberate. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Chopin alone of 19th century composers escaped Beethoven's influence.

The most moving passage of the film is the end. Schiff clearly loves and reveres Chopin; he is visibly moved by the composer's tragic life and death. The interiorised view of his music Schiff has is consistent with his attempt to explain and portray Chopin's overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness. We do well to remember this serious side of the composer when we play or listen to a sentimentally played waltz or a showy etude. Schiff is most convincing when demonstrating a mazurka, a dance embodying this sense of nostalgia, loss and dislocation. So, in the end, compelling watching.

Ying Chang