Frédéric Chopin, Complete Préludes, Op. 28 (24), Op. 45 (1), and Op. posth. (1); Hsia-Jung Chang, piano (Pleyel 1907, rebuilt); ©2004 Mandala Studio 02, 42:06; $15.00, available from http://www.CDBaby.com/. See also http://www.hsiajungchang.com/.
One of the features this recording offers, and that therefore recommends it de facto to the listener, is an excursion into a facsimile of Chopin's own sound world. Few, if any of the many other recordings of these works available on the market, offer this kind of sonic perspective. Although this particular piano was built over a half-century after the composer's death (in 1849), it is a product of the same firm whose instruments he preferred. Indeed, the Op. 28 Préludes (1836-39) were dedicated to the firm's owner at the time, Camille Pleyel, son of its founder Ignaz, as the liner note (alas slightly marred by a typo: a "non" for "none") points out. The final two works are played in their chronological (1834 and 1841) rather than catalogue order. The Pleyel was, incidentally, the first piano to use a metal frame.
The tempi and rhythms of Chang's performance of some of the individual pieces differ, sometimes markedly, from those we are accustomed to hearing. Chang has made the study and performance of Chopin's works a particular focus, and has clearly thought carefully about them and strayed from the standard path quite deliberately. This gives a fresh perspective that is often revealing and rewarding. One of the most noticeable for this listener on first hearing is the so-called "Raindrop" Prélude, Op. 28/15, where Chang deemphasizes the incessant and monotonous repetitiveness that overpowers so many other interpretations.
Hers are generally less emotive and more cerebral, less flamboyant or dramatic and more finely nuanced, less dominated by exaggerated dynamic contrasts between ppp and fff and more intimate, and in the end far more musical than the "heart on the sleeve" interpretations of many. Although startling at first for its departures from standard ones, her performance is ultimately persuasive: with each listening I became more and more convinced of its absolute appropriateness for the music. Michael Kennedy, in his Oxford Dictionary of Music, rev. ed. ©1994, p. 170, says: "Although Chopin's pf. mus. is beset with romantic stories and nicknames, he himself insisted on its existence as absolute mus., hence the rather severe titles which refer only to mus. forms and are never picturesque, as in Schumann and Liszt. His own playing was both powerful and rhythmically subtle, with astonishing evenness of touch." This recording strikes me as a fine emulation of that.
Upon listening to Martha Argerich's 1977 recording in the DG Chopin Edition for comparison, I became immediately convinced as well of the greater suitability of this instrument for the music, even if it is not contemporary to it, suitability that Chang discusses eloquently in her very brief and personal liner note. The sound has a deeper, more resonant tone and a remarkable clarity together with a light ring and a slight shimmer, which a more bright and brilliant modern piano does not possess, characteristics that are especially pleasing.
I recently heard Chang in a live recital on the Frederick Collection spring series in Ashburnham, MA, where she played the complete Études, Op. 10 (12, 1829-32) and Op. 25 (12, 1832-36) on a Conrad Graf (Vienna) piano from 1828, which has its original leather hammer pads and most of its original strings. Chopin began the composition of his Op. 10 while living in Vienna and playing on Grafs. This was, therefore, an even more authentic excursion into the composer's sound world than this recording, one in which the instrument seemed even more perfectly suited. The performance was stunning and brought the audience immediately to its feet. Chang played two encores, the Op. 28/20 so-called "Funeral March" Prelude and the Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. post. (1830).
At the time this recording was made, the 1907 Pleyel, whose case, decorated with a hand-painted landscape that also uses gold paint, can be seen in the photo beneath the CD holder, was available for purchase from Klavierhaus, 211 W. 58th Street, New York, NY 10019, 202-245-4535, www.klaviuerhaus.com. It does not currently appear on the website, however.
Very highly recommended. Every Chopin lover should add this CD to her/his collection!