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Chopin: Ballades, Scherzos - Takahashi

Chopin: Ballades, Scherzos - Takahashi

Triton  OVCT-00065

Stereo Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Chopin: Ballades, Scherzos

Takako Takahashi (piano)

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - January 7, 2016

Whoever is looking for a complete set of Chopin Ballades in Hi-res finds ample choice in the HRAudio.net data base. Yet…it is not so easy to make up one’s mind. Some older recordings of such eminent and excellent Chopin interpreters like Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter and Ashkenazy, as well as the re-mastered mono set of Samson François, have been revamped and reissued in Super Audio (stereo) with various degrees of success. Then there is the more recently recorded and first rate rendition of Murray Perahia, as well as a host of Japanese soloists, some of which are past Warsaw Chopin Competition prizewinners and most of them recorded in stereo only.

Further options include: Jean-Marc Luisada, also a Chopin prizewinner (1985), recorded in multi-channel by RCA Japan, and Burkhard Schliessmann, the only one available in ‘multi’ at ‘normal’ price. However, his rendition is controversial and available snippets of his second attempt in a three disk set ‘Chronological Chopin’, due out shortly, suggest, in spite of all the praise in ‘Fanfare’, an equally ‘personal approach’, which may not be to everyone’s taste. I was not thrilled about his first attempt.

Another complicating factor is the choice of the additional pieces you want to be included: the 4 Scherzos, impromptus, preludes or ‘various’. It’s all there to make it more difficult.

The choice I finally made, and about which I would like to share some thoughts, is this disk of Takako Takahashi, a 5th Prize winner of the 12th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (1990). The recordings were made in 2000, 2001 and 2002 in the Great Hall of the Warsaw Philharmonic - the same location where the final round of the competition is held - by CD Accord of Poland, with, I suppose, the final stereo HQ Super Audio mastering done by Octavia Records, Japan.

I must admit that choices are sometimes guided by other elements than just the music. Like Takako Takahashi, I lived in Warsaw for a couple of years and took, like her, lessons to learn the language, in those days still the only way to get round and get the feeling of the people and the country side. Such in the firm believe that to fully appreciate Chopin it helps to be familiar with Polish folk music and the local, more specifically, the rural way of life, which has not changed much over the years since Chopin. Many scholars even insist that it is a prerequisite to be able to play Chopin well.

One may have his doubts, and real life shows that it is no guarantee to become a Chopin prize winner. The Japanese pianist, Masako Ezaki, who lived in Poland for some 7 years and is married to a Polish national, never made it beyond the first round. Yet, I very much like the way she plays Chopin, demonstrating the right feeling and passion. The HRAudio.net data base lists several recordings and I find that, among others, the three sonatas she recorded for Triton OVCT-00050 Chopin: 3 Sonatas - Ezaki are well worth exploring.

Listening to Ms. Takahashi’s Chopin, I find that, indeed, a lot of Chopin’s poetry transpires in her play and interpretation of the Ballads. She may not be as boisterous in the louder, more passionate passages as some of her male colleagues, but she wins on elegance and soul searching.

An important element In the Ballads is to keep the flow as each ‘page’ and each ‘turn’ opens up another view. Where, in my opinion, Schliessmann fails, Takako Takahishi succeeds remarkably well. In all 4 ballads she remains perfectly coherent; none does fall apart, and this without giving the feeling of ‘a Japanese wonder-machine at work’, which, of course, she is not.

Where some of the other contenders fill up the disk with assorted pieces, Takahashi treats us with a complement of all 4 Scherzos; a ‘bonus’ of no small beer.

With these we enter in a different world. Stricto sensu ‘scherzo’ means ‘plaisanterie’ (a joke). Over the years, however, this notion has gained many connotations. Humour is hard to be found in Chopin’s Scherzos; they must rather be savoured as a ‘Banquet Infernal’, where virtuosity and tempi battle with complexity.

Takashi’s obvious competitor in the field of Hi-Res is Yundi Li (first prize Chopin Competition in 2000, with Ingrid Flitter in second position). Comparison reveals that, although Li is not unanimously appreciated, Takahishi does not quite match the resolve and technical superiority with which Li dishes up these wonderful pieces. Her rendition creates a sense of disquiet, a kind of uneasiness in the more demanding passages, especially in the first one. And it is difficult to rid oneself of this mood later on, however well and technically mature she plays.

On the other hand, one may hold against Li that he turns all four scherzos too much into a demonstration of brilliant, technical velocity, thus losing some of its musical character on the way where Takashi shows more feeling and deeper understanding.

Sound wise I’m not entirely convinced about the technical superiority of the stereo HQ engineering (HQCD), at least not this time. The clarity is beyond reproach, the lower octaves are well served, but overall, I find that we do not get the warmth and the enveloping comfort of a pure DSD SACD multi-channel recording; there is some steely glare and the high notes sound a trifle too ‘silvery’ for my taste.

Despite the sound and some other issues, I do believe that this is a disk well worth considering, especially for the stereo only crowd. For the Ballades, my initial objective, it is even a prime choice. As to the Scherzos, I’m hesitant. Taken the two together I find it difficult to give a clear recommendation. Another option with the same two sets is available: Kazune Shimizu, a pianist held in high regard in the East, on Triton OVCT-00012, which I’m, however, not familiar with.

At the end of the day, and all things considered, I believe there is still room for an additional release in DSD Multi-Channel at a ‘normal’ price from one of the well-known European quality labels to compete with the best.

Blangy le Château
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2016 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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