Chopin: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Luisi

Chopin: Piano Concertos 1 & 2 - Luisi

MDG Scene  903 1632-6

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber

Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (arr. piano and string quintet)

Gianluca Luisi (piano)
Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt

Boundless Imagination
The boundless imagination of a highly gifted Polish composer received a warm welcome from Parisians, but their noble salons of the mid-nineteenth century were too small for a symphony orchestra. This did not mean, however, that the public had to do without piano concertos. The Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt has recorded two piano concertos by Frédéric Chopin with string quintet accompaniment – with double bass and on the basis of the German first edition of 1833.

Instant Fame
The young composer Frédéric Chopin was a master of self-marketing. He introduced himself to the Parisian salons in 1832 with his Piano Concerto No. 1, a work composed by him in his native Poland in order to advertise his talent. The performance with string quintet created a sensation; it brought him instant fame and more concert invitations than he could accept. Music publishers also stood in line, and a year later Schlesinger was able simultaneously to publish the work in three versions in France, Germany, and England. In addition to the version with string quintet, there were also versions for solo piano and orchestra.

Instrumental Factor
The piano was more important to Chopin than any other instrument. Already during his Warsaw years he attached great importance to sound and technical refinement. When he first performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in March 1830, he was entirely unhappy. The grand piano had produced a dull sound, and the bass parts could not be heard at all. On its second performance he had the opportunity to play a better instrument: “Now first there was applause and praise that every note had been etched like a pearl.”

Privileged Interpretation
Gianluca Luisi did not have such concerns. It was his privilege to perform on a carefully restored Steinway from 1901, unfolding its perfect beauty of sound, and thus to fit in ideally with the velvety soft sound of the five musicians of the Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt.

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Reviews (2)

Review by John Broggio - February 3, 2011

A potentially good idea, that some might consider ruined.

In the notes written for this release, it is said that "A string quintet can react with much greater flexibility to the pianist than a large orchestral ensemble is able to do. Furthermore, the pianist can avoid every sort of keyboard thundering in the interest of the shimmering, transparent sound that was Chopin's ideal." The qualities that the Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt bring to the music are not in doubt and do indeed match Gianluca Luisi's every nuance of tempo and dynamic. Unfortunately, in their attempt to reach a quasi-orchestral scale of dynamics and expression, their tone and intonation are occasionally stretched beyond the bounds of aural comfort but as their role is minor and such lapses infrequent, this should not concern most listeners. Leaving aside the questionable assertion that a quintet (without conductor) is necessarily more adept at following a soloist than an orchestra, one must observe that - poor though Chopin's writing was - there are a great many moments where the richer and more varied patina of sound (particularly from the woodwind) is missed; this is especially noticeable in the second concerto.

What should concern listeners is the approach of Luisi himself; his is the pianistic equivalent of discovering a wonderful scent and then emptying the entire contents of the bottle over ones body - the net effect makes those coming into contact want to gag at the unrelentingly perfumed performance. It is true that the sound Luisi obtains is truly a "shimmering, transparent sound" but this is achieved at the expense of any and all drama that can be found in the music. At times of difficulty or textual density, Luisi invariably relaxes the tempo so that these episodes can be dispatched without bringing the dynamic above mezzo-forte. There are emotional depths and moments of sheer visceral excitement (that doesn't require a barn-storming approach as if tackling Rachmaninov) that are entirely missing here and that can be readily found elsewhere. The overall feeling invoked is that of being forced to listen to the background muzak that is too often a feature of modern retail environments.

The sound is good without being mind-shatteringly great - it does not seem fair to rate it as this would distort the impression that must be conveyed.

I have been contacted by the pianist and had a most constructive dialogue about his thoughts of Chopin playing. I would now like to add the following thoughts to present what should make the review a little more nuanced or balanced.

Gianluca Luisi explained that the piano is a Steinway from the early twentieth century (briefly alluded to in the notes) and added that the actual dynamic range is restricted; hence the reason for some of my criticisms. This goes a long way to explain some of my misgivings but I have to wonder why a more responsive instrument was not found (particularly as MDG have experience in this area with their early Brahms piano discs Brahms: Complete Piano Music, Vol 1 - Hardy Rittner and Brahms: Complete Piano Music, Vol 2 - Rittner) that wouldn't have necessitated such a huge musical compromise. One area though that is particularly important is the use of string quintet - to label these performances as being arrangements is far from the truth; these are (to the best of current research) the closest to the original versions that Chopin both published and performed. His copyist produced a version for orchestra (financially, wisely so) but that is not entirely the work of Chopin, although it might be supposed that Chopin was able to provide some guidance or revising points upon publication.

I was also, rightly, taken to task for my comments that he (Luisi) slowed at each and every tricky passage to present a beautiful tone. This may have been the case on one or two occasions but it is certainly not the rule. Perhaps my perceptions were clouded by the limited dynamic range not adding to the sense of visceral excitement and there are equally other instances were it is now apparent that sometimes it more that Luisi does not make the customary "a tempo" change so markedly. This, along with a long list of other stylistic features that would have made the notes both more informative and interesting contributed a great deal to my understanding of the way that modern Chopin performance practice is moving; listening with a more enlightened ear, one can certainly appreciate the freshness of the performance, if not the lack of overt bravura that has become associated with these works in particular and Chopin's more muscular output in general.

I'm not sure that necessarily like all the aspects of the changes coming and, unlike in works of the pre-Romantic era's, it is nowhere near embedded in even a significant minority of performers. As with Beethoven and Mozart before, I suspect I have a beautiful, long and - at times - painful journey ahead of me to "cleanse" my system of life-long acquired "bad taste".

Copyright © 2011 John Broggio and


Sonics (Multichannel):

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - July 31, 2011

I share the opinion that one should not compare these chamber versions with their orchestral ‘parents’ and that they have to be judged in their own right. Is it possible? Both concertos are so familiar that one can hardly help doing so, thus missing in these reduced versions a number of orchestral elements lingering in one’s memory.

Luckily, I was able to compare them with a similar versions (1997 RBCD BIS-CD-847) to which I have often listened with much pleasure. I say ‘similar’, because in the BIS’ world premiered versions the piano participates in the tuttis to reinforce passages needing more ‘body’ and adding missing parts. In those days, such an approach was not uncommon. But unlike the BIS pianist (the Japanese Fumiko Shiraga, who conceived these interplay add-ons), Gianluca Luisi and the unmistakably fine musicians from the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra have chosen to keep strictly to the ‘Leipzig’ score. Had he done the same, it would perhaps have permitted less ‘strain on the strings’ in the louder passages.

As for the authenticity: it was common practice, also from a commercial perspective, to have chamber versions of concertos and orchestral works. A wider ‘clientèle’ could thus be reached, like the ones in the Paris ‘salons’. Chopin used at least one string version for practicing with the principals of the string sections to prepare for a public performance. Also would he have used similar reductions for his own salon performances.

Uncertainty exists, however, to what extent the present chamber versions are Chopin’s. The more so, since a separate bass part (not simply doubling the cello) has been added. But he may well have approved of such versions being published. Still, questions remain.

David Montgomery’s excellent research notes, included in the BIS booklet, are very informative, but he himself, too, recognizes: ‘All scholarship and speculation aside …. the greatest advantage of this setting … is simply that one may experience this music from a completely fresh vantage point.’

I would concur with that. There are many interesting details which otherwise easily disappear in the total orchestral sound.

To sum it up: I find this disk a most worthwhile addition to the SACD catalogue. And, taken at face value, excellent food for Sunday morning coffee in my own ‘salon’. What more can I say. Recommended.

Copyright © 2011 Adrian Quanjer and


Sonics (Multichannel):

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