Or: The Accidental Collection.

I love Chopin’s music. That’s not really a big confession, nor is it an unusual one. Name his big works, and I’m (almost) invariably a fan. The last two sonatas, the Polonaises, the Nocturnes, the Preludes, the Scherzi and Ballades, the Etudes. Even the Waltzes. But I’ve never really gone in for, nor have I actively sought out some of his individual, smaller works. Yet, when I peruse my collection, what do I see but a good number of a variety of pieces, most notably the Berceuse and the Barcarolle. All told, I have inadvertently built up a collection of a dozen different versions of the Barcarolle by eleven different pianists. I’ve listened to every version, of course, but I believe I’ve heard most of them just once. So, I figured, why not listen to all of them in reasonably quick succession to ferret out the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different versions, and gain an appreciation of the piece as a whole.

And a fine piece it is, the tripartite nocturne! The old gondolier’s song is transformed almost into a miniature opera for piano, with a fine, short prelude, if you will, and three distinct acts, or sections. Throughout is the rocking left hand, forming a basis from which to launch into flights of romantic (and romanticized) fancy. Much like one of the Ballades or larger Nocturnes, this piece is an entire musical world unto itself. Everything is perfectly structured and formed. No section lingers too long, no effect is out place. It’s another of Chopin’s flawless miniatures that isn’t really a miniature.

In prior comparative listening journeys, I went for the old chronological approach. I wanted to hear how the piece has fared over the years, and how piano playing has changed. This time I thought I should do it differently. Let caprice play a role, I thought to myself, and so I went through my collection randomly. The first pick?

Krystian Zimerman. I’ll state up front that I absolutely love Zimerman’s 1987 recording of the Ballades, but I rarely have listened to the rest of the disc. It now seems that was a mistake. Right away, one is caught up in a perfect example of romantic pianism. The opening chords are taken surprisingly gently, and the first of the three sections is played with a remarkably warm and beautiful tone, all accompanied by a gently rocking left hand. The segue to the second section is again light and almost ethereal, and Zimerman extracts such incredibly beautiful sounds that the entire build up to the section climax is a gradual process, with the towering, powerful end result a bewitching experience. After the tumult of the powerful forte passage, the third section arrives almost unannounced and playfully, Zimerman’s fingerwork a flawless example of flitting pianistic finery. The right hand figurations after the beginning of the section are all well nigh perfectly rendered, and the return of the main theme is a delicious aural treat. The conclusion of the piece contains such a satisfying recapitulation of the theme and its transfigurations – so succinct, clear, and blended – as to make one wonder just how he did it. That’s both composer and artist. An exemplary recording.

Immediately after listening to Zimerman, I snapped up Dinu Lipatti’s 1948 recording. Normally I eschew back to back listening, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. The immediate comparison was telling. From the outset, it was apparent that this was a vastly different conception. The opening notes are sharper and harder, and they slide effortlessly into an almost waltz-like first section. All is graceful, salonish, and, and, well, distant. The second section offers more of the same, and the forte climax is wonderfully controlled and tasteful. The third section offers yet more of the same. This is a brisker, smaller scale approach, and while it is good, it’s not up to the same standard as the Pole’s.

On a roll, I went straight to another recording: Alfred Cortot’s 1933 ditty. Three versions, three distinctly different approaches. The recording actually sounds better than Lipatti’s, strangely enough, and it allows Cortot’s inherently capricious but impeccably musical fallibility to shine through. The delicate opening moves to a gentle though mercurial, perhaps subliminally playful first section. As with Lipatti, there is an almost waltz-like feel, but this one is of a pianist who has partook in some libations. The second section is unabashedly romantic, in an almost Ballade-esque way, and Cortot throws caution to the wind in his recklessly swift concluding right hand run, clearing mangling a few notes and missing some others. But that’s irrelevant; what’s relevant is the musical message. Al believes this is a great piece. And after hearing his playing, it’s hard not to agree.

One more couldn’t hurt, I figured, so I decided to give Sviatoslav Richter’s 1961 recording on BBC Legends another shot. The harsh, cutting sound automatically detracts somewhat from the proceedings, but that’s about all that does. Richter’s is a model of flawless pianism almost as accomplished as Zimerman’s. The soft opening leads to a beautiful first section, a suitably delectable second section with a climax that is the model of power, and a third section that develops in a wondrous, ascending fashion, with Richter gently increasing the volume and intensity, until the dazzling conclusion with the dizzyingly fast right hand run near the end. It is a superb performance, to be sure, but it lacks that certain indescribable something that Zimerman and Cortot have. At least everything had been a success up to this point in the evening, but I decided to return to the piece later.

And the success continued! I started the next day’s listening with Ivan Moravec’s 1969 recording, and as with most of the other versions, the opening chords are disarmingly beautiful and gentle, despite the apparent lack of a piano dynamic marking. (Or so say the various bits I read about the piece.) No matter, the very closely miked piano sound afforded Moravec allows one to relish the most delicate nuances, and the whole recording is replete with them. The second section climax is somewhat stunted, sounding more like a mezzo forte than a forte, no doubt due to the close miking, but it is still effective. The third section is somewhat like Richter’s in that it builds up in ascending fashion, with three separate climaxes, though he never quite achieves the same impact that Richter does. The concluding bars are splendid, with a smooth, soft legato, and while the overall recording is not the hardest-hitting out there, it is satisfyingly warm and, well, nostalgically romantic. It’s certainly one of my favorites, though I do wish that the microphones were a bit further away.

I thought a more modern version was in order next, and so I grabbed Evgeny Kissin’s 1998 recording. It had been a long while since I had heard it, and I approached it with some reservation since Kissin can pulverize some pieces. The worries were unfounded. As with the others, the opening moments are beautiful and the overall effect is more or less right on. But he resorts to mannerisms relatively quickly. There are some odd little pauses in the left hand (a device he seems to use often) and minor but clear accelerations in the right where no one else does this. This reservation aside, it is in the second section where he reveals his stunning technical ability, building to a more powerful forte than even Richter without ever sounding harsh (though, occasionally, in the louder passages, a bit of the steel in the strings can be heard). He also allows another of those brief, fleeting pauses in the heat of the playing, and here it works. That written, both the second and third sections are a bit colder and more idiosyncratic than I like, with the third suffering from some odd rhythmic underscoring courtesy of some jagged chords. The concluding portion is a virtuosic flurry. Here is a performance that has some nice things, but as is so often the case, Kissin does not really live up to his remarkable potential.

Next up was a recording I approached with even more reservation: Martha Argerich’s 1960 version. Her playing has just never really clicked with me, as the powerful, sharp opening here did not. (Though I do believe her opening is closer to what is written.) From start to finish, hers is a version filled more with fire and virtuosity than romanticized sonic beauty. There is little to no subtlety to be heard: with quick, relentless trills here, lurching accelerations there, and hard, nearly pounding fortes throughout, this is hard to stomach at times. It’s more flash than substance. I don’t see myself listening to this version too many more times.

After two consecutive disappointments, I considered calling it a night, but I thought why not give one more a shot, and so I went with Vladimir Sofronitsky’s recording, also from 1960. This is a world away from what I heard. It’s hard to adequately assess this work. Pure pianistic luxuriance in the Zimerman sense is nowhere to be found, nor is the mercurial whimsy of Cortot, nor the delicate nuance of Moravec. Everything starts almost plain, and it stays that way. But something truly remarkable happens. The playing is essentially flawless. The tempi are all perfectly judged, the dynamic contrasts entirely suitable, and the color, touch, and coarser nuance (to differentiate it from Moravec) are all blended together in a singular way. To an extent, I was reminded of Artur Rubinstein’s description of Richter (and here I paraphrase): at first, there is nothing special, but then, without even realizing it, you are caught up and tears are streaming down your cheeks. While I did not weep, I was certainly caught up in the performance, hanging on every note. Time simply ceased to exist, and the music was all there was in this world. The second section climax? Flawless. The trills and rocking rhythm? As Chopin himself could have only dreamed. The concluding bars? Little musical jewels. This is how the Barcarolle should sound. No doubt about it. After such a towering performance, I thought better of continuing to another piece.

With memories of Sofronitsky still in mind from the night before, I started in on Maurizio Pollini’s 1990 version. Though Pollini is one of my favorite pianists, even in Chopin, here he just falls short. All one would expect is there: utterly clear articulation, perfectly controlled dynamics, an architectural view of the piece (that is, he considers every note in the context of the entire score rather than giving in to the moment). But what is lacking hurts the piece. There is no color, no delicacy, little nuance, no romantic abandon. One gets the feeling that Pollini really doesn’t love this piece, and the surprisingly weak ending just adds to that impression. The shallow, brittle sound certainly does him no favors. One to hear rarely.

Next up was Vladimir Ashkenazy’s Decca recording from the 1970s. (I don’t know the year as this is part of the 13-disc box which gives no specifics.) This is a definite step up from Pollini, though it falls short of the best. Ashkenazy’s dark, rich sound evokes a pleasantly romantic mood, and throughout he maintains a solid rhythmic base and dispatches the piece with a welcome romantic abandon. His playing is filled with a wide color palette, and the second section climax is driven home with great power. His soft playing is shaded and nuanced, and he his control of changes in tempi is up there with the best. Indeed, everything about this performance is excellent. It just falls short of the best because it ultimately lacks that certain intangible something that defines great recordings, but I rate this very highly nonetheless.

After the preceding ten versions, I was now ready to delve into Artur Rubinstein’s take. Or rather, takes. I have his 1946 and 1962 versions, and so listened to them consecutively. The 1946 version was a disappointment, plain and simple. The staggered opening followed by the swift left hand rhythm and jagged right hand playing left me cold. The trills are played dizzyingly fast yet they seem long, and everywhere Rubinstein seems to be more concerned with pointing out this device or that trick than revealing the soul of the music. The second section slows down quite a bit, just to build to a frenzied climax. Some of the playing sounds uncontrolled and fierce at times. It’s all just a bit crude and vulgar. I was definitely taken aback. (I’d only listened to this version once before.) I then approached the 1962 version with some caution. Thankfully, it wasn’t needed. Here everything is more refined and less recklessly impulsive. He plays more beautifully and in a decidedly more controlled way. Still, there is a lack of subtlety and grace and feeling that I find in Rubinstein’s other Chopin. This is definitely not a highlight of his Chopin recordings. Like the Moravec recording, the piano is too closely miked, and while it allows one to hear subtle nuances, here it stifles the playing a bit much.

So, I sat through a dozen versions. What to make of it all? My verdict on the piece: it is superb, a perfectly crafted miniature that can stand with Chopin’s best. My choice of the versions I heard: Sofronitsky, Zimerman, Cortot, and Moravec, pretty much in that order. What that tells me is that this piece is open to a wide variety of interpretations, as are all brilliant pieces of art, and this piece can never have all of its secrets revealed by just one artist. While I’ve probably heard enough of this piece to suit me for a while, I will no longer dismiss it as insignificant, and I will listen more closely to any other takes I hear in the future. This was an enjoyable, enlightening journey.