A Desert Island Chopin Disc
Jeffrey Lipscomb | Sacramento, CA United States | 04/07/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This recital by Halina Czerny-Stefanska (1922-2001) contains some of the most exquisitely intimate and poetic Chopin ever recorded. These recordings are from 1949-1951, and the transfers are excellent (don't be misled by the listening samples here, which sound quite inferior to the actual CD).
Czerny-Stefanska was descended on her father's side from Carl Czerny, the famous Beethoven pupil. As a young girl, she was sent from Poland to Paris to study for six months with Alfred Cortot. Somehow this cross-pollination of Poland and France seems particularly apt: Chopin himself had a French father and a Polish mother. C-S later studied with leading Polish piano professors Turcynski and Drzewiecki. In 1949 she was co-winner with Bella Davidovitch of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and was awarded First Prize for her Chopin Mazurkas by Polish Radio.
German music critic Joachim Kaiser's excellent "Great Pianists of Our Time" (1971) describes her playing: "How does Halina Czerny-Stefanska play her Chopin? More luminously, more personally, more fully than most German pianists. Less accurately, less clearly, less steadily than the great American virtuosi. More fluently, more tragically than the French school. So that one listens and believes again, unreservedly, in Chopin's genius .... When Mme Czerny-Stefanska plays Chopin's E minor concerto, her every up-beat becomes a tender abyss; what the orchestra has boomed out first, she repeats a little slower and lost in dreams. In the first and second movements there are no passages any more, but only feeling. Chopin himself, whose too-gentle playing drew complaints from his contemporaries, appears to be sitting at the piano .... Mme Czerny-Stefanska puts soul into every up-beat, warmth into every passage, sorrow into every sob."
Kaiser's assessment of C-S is echoed by British critic James Methuen-Campbell in his superb "Chopin Playing: From the Composer to the Present Day" (1981): " ... she plays quite outstandingly well, with a depth of concentration that few can manage. Her Chopin is full of pathos and possesses rare maturity. Her identification with his music is such that one can almost imagine Chopin himself playing the piano; she finds inner lines and undercurrents in the C minor Polonaise that not even Rubinstein touches upon. She has a very large technique, ideally suited to such works as the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise." The recording here of that C Minor Polonaise certainly bears out Methuen-Campbell's description: it's a magical performance. Incidentally, her recordings of the 1st Piano Concerto and the "Spianato" can be heard on a Supraphon CD (see my review elsewhere).
All of the performances here feature a wonderful blend of intuitive poetry and gentle spontaneity. Her Mazurkas display a delicate, subtle rubato that is utterly hypnotic. Her sensitive rendition of the G Minor Ballade is interpretively Poles apart from Rubinstein's (please forgive the outlandish/homelandish pun). It's a case of poetic restraint versus unabashed, extroverted bravado. While I admire both, I suspect that the C-S version is closer to what Chopin had in mind.
The last item here is a hitherto unpublished 1951 account of the Romanze mvt. from the 1st Piano Concerto. It's even more satisfying than her complete recording, and Basil Cameron (with the Royal Philharmonic) provides a gorgeous accompaniment (the entry of the strings at about 3:45 is indescribably beautiful).
C-S recorded quite a bit of Chopin - the Preludes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, Nocturnes etc. - on LP for various labels, such as Muza and Telefunken, and about 1990 recorded 67 Mazurkas and the Nocturnes for the Japanese CD label Canyon Classics. Sadly, these are all currently in limbo. Hopefully, such a priceless legacy will some day return to circulation (like Stefan Askenase's equally wonderful Chopin recordings recently did on DG). Her recording of 17 Polish Songs with Zylis-Gara was once available on an Erato LP: it's even more satisfying than the excellent version by Podles/Ohlsson.
When he first heard a performance by Chopin, Robert Schumann proclaimed "Hats off, gentleman! A genius!" That's exactly how I feel every time I listen to this wonderful CD.