Friday, May 5, 2017

Frédéric Chopin - Piano Concertos (Đặng Thái Sơn)


Composer: Frédéric Chopin
  1. Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11: I. Allegro maestoso
  2. Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11: II. Romance. Larghetto
  3. Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11: III. Rondo. Vivace
  4. Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21: I. Maestoso
  5. Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21: II. Larghetto
  6. Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21: III. Allegro vivace

Đặng Thái Sơn, piano (Erard 1849)
Orchestra of the 18th Century
Frans Brüggen, conductor

Date: 2006
Label: Fryderyk Chopin Institute



This is a very interesting recording of the Chopin piano concertos. It is part of a series on a Polish label dedicated to recording all of Chopin’s works on period instruments. The piano here is an Erard, made in Paris in 1849. Its restoration was completed using period materials and technology. The piano has a somewhat clangy tone, almost xylophone-like. It does not have as wide a dynamic range as a modern concert grand. The bass is firm but not deep. The CD must be played at rather a loud volume to hear all of the piano’s subtlest effects. The balance between the piano and the approximately 60-piece period orchestra is very good. This should quiet critics of these concertos who feel that Chopin was an inept orchestrator. Strings played without vibrato are an excellent match for the rather woody tone of the piano, as are the fluty sounding winds and the raspy brass. One could argue that a piano from around 1830, the time of the premieres, should have been used. Nevertheless, this Erard is a type of instrument with which Chopin would have been familiar.

Dang Thai Son is a Vietnamese pianist. He studied in Moscow. Among his teachers was the legendary pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov. In 1980, Dang won the Chopin competition in Warsaw, becoming the first Asian pianist to win a major international competition. Since then, he has made an international career, albeit with a limited presence in the United States. Dang’s interpretation of the Romantic hero as presented in these concertos is a portrayal of sensitivity and pensiveness. No Byronic elements are apparent. His tempos are rather flexible, and Brüggen does an excellent job of keeping together with his soloist. If you are familiar with the vibrato-rich Ormandy accompaniments to Istomin, Brailowsky, Gilels, Rubinstein, and Ax, you may be surprised to find how different Brüggen’s approach is. It is crisper and more dramatic.

By playing on the Erard rather than a Steinway, Dang has shifted the rhetoric of these concertos. Without the brilliant sonority of the modern piano, all the technical display seems less showy. It is more about temperament and Romantic inner psychology. The slow movements are exquisite. The softer, gentler sound of the Erard here adds both simplicity and expressivity. The orchestra’s first-chair players are especially good in these movements, notably the horn and the bassoon. The slow movement of No. 2 almost approaches the Rubinstein/Wallenstein version in sublimity. The final movements are still very brilliant where required. Dang’s mixture of reflection and virtuosity is highly beguiling. The live recordings are a benefit in excitement and spontaneity. The sound quality is excellent, although there are a few distracting coughs. The audiences’ responses are rapturous. Interesting program notes are also included.

The only other recording of these concertos on period instruments that I am aware of is Emanuel Ax’s. I do not own the CDs. I admire Ax’s artistry, but, for what it’s worth, I once attended an afternoon concert featuring Ax in a Chopin concerto, and I slept through his entire performance. I do have his earlier, modern-instrument recordings of the concertos with Ormandy, and they are quite good. I have two favorite performances of the concertos on a modern piano. One is the 1958 Philips recording with Adam Harasiewicz and Heinrich Hollreiser (whom I affectionately refer to as Heinrich Hellraiser). The other is Derek Han’s CD on Musical Heritage Society, which I was able to purchase from a vendor on Other CDs I enjoy are by Alexis Weissenberg and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Maria João Pires and Armin Jordan, and the DG CD by Tamás Vásáry. Two splendid recordings that haven’t made it to CD are Gary Graffman’s of No. 1 and Eugene Istomin’s of No. 2. Sony could make a fine CD by reissuing them together. Every Chopin fanatic should hear the 1930s recordings by Arthur Rubinstein and John Barbirolli, just to see how much expressiveness can be squeezed out of these pieces. As for Dang Thai Son, he challenges us to hear the Chopin concertos with fresh ears. As both a historical artifact and a winning interpretation, this CD is highly recommended.

-- Dave Saemann, FANFARE

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Frédéric Chopin (22 February or 1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for the solo piano. He gained and has maintained renown worldwide as one of the leading musicians of his era, whose "poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation". Chopin's music, his status as one of music's earliest superstars, his association (if only indirect) with political insurrection, his love life and his early death have made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era in the public consciousness. His works remain popular, and he has been the subject of numerous films and biographies of varying degrees of historical accuracy.


Đặng Thái Sơn (born July 2, 1958 in Hanoi, Vietnam) is a Vietnamese Canadian classical pianist. He was discovered by Isaac Katz, who helped him pursue his training at the Moscow Conservatory with Vladimir Natanson and Dmitri Bashkirov. He was the Gold Medalist of the Tenth International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland in 1980. It was the first time that a top international competition was won by an Asian pianist. Dang has received particular acclaim for the sonority and poetry in his interpretations of music of Chopin and the French repertoire.


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