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The Pleyel Piano: A Key to Genuine Chopin Sound?

Hubert Rutkowski’s new CD is a portrait not only of Chopin, but of the composer’s favourite instrument: Rutkowski plays a Pleyel piano from 1847. In his search for a genuine Chopin/Pleyel sound he has also turned to historical recordings of Raul Koczalski and Moritz Rosenthal, students of Karol Mikuli, who was in turn a student of Chopin himself.

Chopin’s own Pleyel piano from 1848

Songful and spontaneous

The album offers a well-rounded view of Chopin the lyricist, and the selection of pieces presents the whole spectrum of sound possibilities available to the Pleyel. The piano has a songful tone, but without the density and weight of a modern instrument, which allows you to hear all the different layers of sound very clearly. Rutkowski also manages to create a big sound in the G minor ballade, but in the coda it’s clear that the Pleyel is approaching the limit of what it can convey in terms of power.

In spite of the great focus on history, there is a sense of fresh spontaneity in Rutkowski’s performances. From his early-20th century role models he has picked up a special sense of freedom, and a rubato that can be surprising to modern ears, accustomed to 21st century ‘standard Chopin playing’. So, is this the only true and genuine Chopin? Well, we might want to look at different portrait pictures of Chopin to get a sense of what he really looked like. In much the same way, historically informed performances like these can certainly give us a more nuanced picture.

Chopin Ballade no 1 – Piano score to download and print:

A highly sensitive instrument

The Pleyel has a so-called single escapement — a type of action which is less flexible than modern ones, but which at the same time offers a greater feeling of touch control. Rutkowski, in his detailed liner notes, agrees with Chopin that to play legato and with a singing tone on the Pleyel “is quite a challenge for the pianist. This instrument is highly sensitive to the smallest detail […] one might get the impression of a direct contact with the strings.”

From a modern perspective one is easily tempted to view the evolution of the piano in the 19th century as the steady progress towards the modern Steinway. Of course, romantic composers didn’t see it that way. Each of the major piano makes that existed in Chopin’s time had its distinct qualities, which could be used for different musical purposes. Chopin himself used to say:

“When i feel out of sorts, I play on an Érard piano where I easily find a ready-made tone. But when I feel in good form, and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.”

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Rutkowsky plays Chopin on Pleyel| Play album >> | Download CD cover >> |

Album content

(Click the links for piano sheet music to download and print.)

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Mazurka No. 2 in C Major, Op. 24
Étude No. 5 in G-Flat Major, Op. 10
Nocturne No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 48
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66
Mazurka No. 4 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 24
Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20
Mazurka No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 7
Nocturne No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 27
Polonaise in B-Flat Major, Op. 71
Mazurka No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 68
Waltz No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 64


The Women Behind Chopin’s Music

Chopin revolutionised the nature of piano music composed both technically and emotionally but the actual musical instrument that provided his greatest source of inspiration was the female voice.
Other important parts of Chopin’s inspiration came from the women in his life. For 10 years, George Sand exerted her powerful influence on him, and he also gleaned much from listening to such great singers as Jeanne-Anais Castellan, Pauline Viardot and even the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. Their exquisite tones and musicianship coalesced inside his mind’s eye, and he applied what he had heard to his compositions.

A documentary about Chopin’s unique piano style

In this documentary marking the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, pianist and trailblazer James Rhodes explores not only the Polish master’s music but also his complex relationships with women.

Rhodes’s film takes him from Paris to London and Warsaw as he delves, through exacting research, into the lives of the women who orbited Chopin’s star. Along with piano guru Jeremy Siepmann, Chopin specialists Adam Zamoyski, Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson lend their expertise to the film, and they comment on Rhodes’s playing and Chopin’s history. Opera singer Natalya Romaniw performs some of the arias that inspired Chopin and explores his cantabile piano writings by singing the melody of Nocturne opus 9, no 1.


Barenboim’s Decca/DG Deal Opened Up for Neglected Chopin

“… one of the few musicians in the world today who could accurately be described as legendary.”
— The Times

Daniel Barenboim marked his new affiliation with Decca and Deutsche Grammophon labels in 2010 with four releases. Two releases on DG were devoted to Chopin: a solo recital recorded in Warsaw, with Waltzes, a Polonaise, a Fantasia, a Nocturne and the B flat minor Sonata, as well as Chopin’s two Concertos, accompanied by the Berlin Staatskapelle under Andris Nelsons, captured live at the Ruhr Piano Festival in July 2010. The Chopin Year 2010 coincided with the 60th anniversary of Daniel Barenboim’s stage dĂ©but, and as a pianist he decided to devote this year to the great Romantic master of the keyboard. Chopin was born on 1 March 1810 in the small village Ć»elazowa Wola near Warsaw, and on the eve of the 200th anniversary of this date Barenboim gave this acclaimed Warsaw recital as part of an extensive European tour. Over the years, Barenboim has been criticised for neglecting Chopin and we have to go all the way back to 1981 in order to find his DG recording of the Nocturnes.

The Warsaw Recital

Recital repertoire:

Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49
Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 ‘Marche funebre’
Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60
Waltz A flat major “Grande Valse Brillante”, Op. 34 No. 3
Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57
Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53 ‘Heroique’
Mazurka in F minor, Op. 7 No. 3
Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 ‘Minute Waltz’

The Warsaw Recital — Philosophy of Emotion

Reader question:
What do you think about Barenboim’s Chopin interpretations?


Maurizio Pollini’s Chopin Etudes Astonish 50 Years Later

Why did we have had to wait over fifty years for this unique recording?

Maurizio Pollini withheld his permission for his first complete recording of the Chopin Etudes Opp. 10 & 25 to be released. While the legendary DG recording from the 1970s has long been acknowledged as one of the finest versions of the Chopin Etudes, the previously unissued version from Abbey Road Studios in 1960
– characterised by a lighter touch and greater musical freedom – is now available on Testament label.

Listen to samples here.

Eighteen-year-old Maurizio Pollini recorded the complete Chopin Etudes for EMI in 1960, right after his first prize victory in the International Warsaw Chopin Competition. EMI’s late producer Peter Andrys described Pollini’s playing of the Etudes as “a spine-tingling experience”. Pollini however did not permit them to be issued and further recording sessions produced personality clashes. Pollini abandoned recording for ten years. Eventually he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

It’s utterly superb: there’s a freshness about Pollini’s playing, a spontaneity that’s absent from his more magisterial later Chopin, and his technique is even more dazzling, too. If there’s a more naturally musical and immaculate recording of the Studies than this 1960 account, then I have yet to hear it. — The Guardian

This is very good 1960 piano sound. The instrument is recorded in close-up, as opposed to the concert hall acoustic Pollini has favoured since. Close scrutiny is no problem; indeed, it’s an asset for playing that is so controlled, expressive and phenomenally accurate. — Limelight Magazine

Technically, Pollini’s two recorded versions are equivalent in mastery and, although different in execution, musically they scale the same height. Is there too much gap between the last two studies? Once the final Etude’s semiquavers are unleashed, though, one can marvel at Pollini’s harmonic awareness and the way he shapes the music. His fingers ensure remarkable delivery. — Classicalsource.com

Chopin Etude in C major Op. 10 no 1:

Sheet music to download and print:

Hear samples from Pollini at the 1960 Chopin Competition in Warsaw


Chandos Records Running Complete Piano Projects

Chandos Records is presently recording the complete Chopin with Louis Lortie, the complete Brahms with Barry Douglas and the complete Haydn and Beethoven sonatas with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. From these ambitious projects we recommend two recent albums which gained critical acclaim.

Louis Lortie plays Chopin

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The first is volume 2 in Chandos’ series of solo piano works by Chopin, played by the French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie.
Recording exclusively for Chandos, Lortie is recognised as one of the finest interpreters of Chopin today. He first recorded Chopin’s Etudes for Chandos more than twenty years ago; the disc was named as one of the ’50 great performances by superlative pianists’ by BBC Music. Volume 1 of his current Chopin series also has received excellent reviews: the magazine Pianist wrote: “He is a pianist of our time when it comes to speed, energy and an unfussy approach to Chopin. His way of playing is like a sharply cut steel sculpture, super elegant and with not one single smudge.”
And in the words of International Piano: “These are full-blooded and eloquent performances, an auspicious start to what looks likely to become one of the finest of Chopin surveys.”

Barry Douglas plays Brahms’ Complete Works for Solo Piano

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Barry Douglas’ new Brahms series for Chandos has, rather than grouping pieces in their entire published sets as is the recording norm, instead chosen to mix things up. So, an intermezzo from one book might sit next to a capriccio from another. The series also marks the first major project of the internationally acclaimed pianist as an exclusive Chandos artist.
Since winning the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow, Douglas has established a major international career, and his reputation as a pianist and conductor continues to grow.
Listen to samples at All Music

“…a typically robust, strongly characterised performance.
— Guardian

“Scrupulous articulation to dynamics give energy and drama to the final cumulative momentum — his cycle will surely be fascinating to follow as it unfolds.”
— Gramophone

Louis Lortie plays Chopin – Etude Op. 10 no. 3
Barry Douglas plays Brahms – Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 4
Interview with Barry Douglas
Bonus clip: Danny Boy goes Brahms (with Barry)


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