A Poetic View of Chopin
Jeffrey Lipscomb | Sacramento, CA United States | 03/21/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The long-awaited CD issue of these classic recordings is cause for rejoicing. The playing of Stefan Askenase (1896-1985) was a marvel of tender poetry, subtle rubato, and lucid clarity. Contrary to the album's title, these recordings span the period 1951-1971, and there are also works here by Mozart, Schubert, Liszt, Smetana and Mendelssohn. Transfers are uniformly excellent.
As Amazon has not provided a list of this set's contents, here is a brief digest:
CD 1 (all 1951, all Chopin) has 14 Waltzes, Piano Sonata #2, and the Mazurka op. 50/3. CD 2 (1951-52) has Piano Sonata #3, the 2nd Piano Concerto with Fritz Lehmann and the Berlin Phil., and 4 Polkas by Smetana. CDs 3-4 (1952-54) offer 20 Nocturnes, 24 Preludes op. 28 (Chopin) and Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 570. CD 5 has 8 Chopin Polonaises from 1951-52, and from 1968 a delightful 11 minute medley (compiled by Askenase) of Schubert Waltzes & Landler, plus exceptionally lyrical accounts of Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3 and Valse Oubliee No. 1. CD 6 includes Chopin's 1st Piano Concerto & Rondo a la Krakowiak (1959, with Willem van Otterloo and the Hague Phil.), plus Mendelssohn's Scherzo in E minor and 3 of the Songs Without Words. CD 7 features Chopin's Barcarolle, Berceuse, Scherzo #2 (all 1968), the 4 Impromptus, Scherzo #3, 4 Mazurkas, and the 3rd Ballade (all from 1970-71).
It is difficult to describe what makes these recordings so very special. At an early age Askenase's only teacher was his mother, who studied with Karl Mikuli, Chopin's most famous pupil. Askenase's style of playing - intimate, tender, sensitive - tonally most reminds me of Moriz Rosenthal, another Mikuli pupil. I strongly suspect that Askenase, Rosenthal and perhaps Pachmann & Czerny-Stefanska were probably the closest to Chopin's own style of piano playing, particularly with regard to delicacy of touch and tonal color. Like Neuhaus and Horszowski, Askenase spent most of his career teaching rather than concertizing (two of his pupils were Argerich and Uchida).
If your models for piano playing are the cool efficiency of Pollini or the theatrical thunder of Horowitz, you may find Askenase's manner too polite and small-scale. But if you prefer delicate shimmer and sparkle to empty glitter, and if you are seeking lyric grace of enormous subtlety, then Askenase is a must-hear.
As a Chopin player, Askenase is at his best in the wistful elegance of the Waltzes, the improvisationally lyrical Impromptus, the dreamy Nocturnes, and the subtle rhythmic challenges of the dance-like Mazurkas and Polonaises. Next to Askenase's Waltzes, even Rubinstein sounds a shade cavalier and Lipatti a trifle objective. The Waltzes were my first exposure to Askenase in the days of LP, and they remain my favorite version of all. His Impromptus are, along with Vasary's (DG LP), the finest I have heard. For me, Askenase joins Moravec (Nonesuch) and Vasary (DG) at the top of the list in the Nocturnes. His op. 28 Chopin Preludes are among my favorites, along with Moravec, Argerich and Cortot. Askenase's Berceuse ranks with the best (e.g., Solomon and Rubinstein).
Larger-scale, more overtly dramatic works like the Scherzos and Ballades are more successfully conveyed by others, especially Rubinstein (his magnificent stereo Ballades/Scherzos CD on RCA) and Richter (his live accounts of the Scherzos on Olympia and the stunning live Ballades on his 15-disc Praga set). While a fine account, the Barcarolle here strikes me as just a notch below the versions by Rubinstein, Lipatti, and Cherkassky.
I love Askenase's way with both the concertos, though I will admit that they are scaled more to the salon than the concert stage (his #1 is similar to Czerny-Stefanska's in this respect). Otterloo (#1) and Lehmann (#2) provide the finest orchestral support these works have received on disc (conductor Otterloo's large discography is urgently in need of CD reissue). As for the folkish Krakowiak, I think Askenase's is far and away the finest recording this under-rated little gem has ever received. In the Sonatas, Askenase substitutes nuance and subtlety for drama and forward motion. These too are in my personal Chopin pantheon, along with Rubinstein and Rachmaninov (#2), and Kapell & Lipatti (#3). In the latter work, Askenase offers a deeply eloquent account of the Largo, and his last mvt. has an unusual "galop" quality that I find very attractive.
Unfortunately, like Rubinstein, Askenase never recorded the Op. 10 or Op. 25 Etudes. In those works, I love Cortot's grand style (smudges and all) and the very personal readings by Vasary (DG LP). But my "desert island" set would be the long out of print Concert Hall LPs recorded in the 1950's by the Vienna-born Robert Goldsand, who was also primarily a teacher (one of his pupils was the astute music critic Harris Goldsmith). Hopefully some enterprising CD label will re-issue Goldsand's miraculously varied and musical Chopin, which also included a GREAT reading of the rarely heard 1st Sonata and the charming Variations on Mozart's La ci darem la mano.
Space does not permit my going into any detail regarding the lovely Mozart Sonata, the idiomatic Mendelssohn (a delightful Spinning Song) or the Smetana (but listen to the latter's first Polka for Askenase's incredibly liquid passagework, the work of a truly masterful colorist).
Quieter less Histrionic Chopin Playing
Doug - Haydn Fan | California | 08/29/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"These performances have always enjoyed a great deal of respect, but I question using them as a benchmark for Chopin playing. In particular, Askenase opens out the structure of the music so methodically that he ends up consistenting refusing Chopin's endless invitations to glitter and pianistic gallantries. One constantly senses Askenase is more comfortable in the role of pedagogue and teacher than performer. In some music, and certain selections of Chopin reserve and inwardness is not only desireable, but very much the point. Yet exhibitionism and theatricality play a major role in much of Chopin's music: they help to balance the innerwardness and bring contrast to the soulfulness. The sparkle illuminates the depth in a way unique with Chopin. These personal and particular musical qualities really do mean more than surface effects - Chopin is above all a composer who wrote for ONE instrument - the piano. And he wrote better than anyone else ever did before or since for the specific soundstage possible with that instrument. There are no wasted extraneous effects for effects sake in mature Chopin. But with Askenase these endless delights are shortchanged. The haunting multi-colored beauty the best Chopin playing always conveys is not projected. (Try following Askenase's recordings with other pianists famous for their Chopin and the other performer will seem overwhelming in his or her coloristic effects.) Too, while listening to these performances I kept remembering other performers way with a section or theme. After listening through a particular piece I constantly found myself getting up to put on another CD by a different composer. And because I love Chopin that's not a good sign. I will try these CDs again another day, but I strongly suggest you not buy this set unless you have heard the performances.
Returning to listen to pianists such as Friedman in the Mazurkas (Naxos) leads me to believe technical limitations as well as personality apply in the case of Askenase and play a part in his disinclination to 'compete' with the glamor boys in this repetoire. (The nice enclosed booklet actually states that after a single hearing of Friedman play the Mazurkas Askenase shied away from them the rest of his career.) Moreover, his disinclination to record the etudes is a clear tip off that even within the music of 'his' composer he had limits. His thoughtful non-showy approach to Chopin may have been pre-determined by factors not germane to the requirements of the music itself. It's incredible to me that someone could prefer these qualities in, say, the brilliant and showy microcosmos that makes up the Waltzes to a host of other pianists who were delighted and reveled in just these qualities. Captivating and flirtatious one moment, sad and wistful the next, petutulant then suddenly exhuberant; these musical embodiments of Shakespeare's Cleopatra convey the very essence of the infinite variety of life. (With Askenase they seem more like mounted butterflies, or, fairer, industrious cabbage butterflies.) Listening to the waltzes we hear why Chopin, like Mozart, was so entranced by the songfullness of Italian bel canto. And it takes a great pianist to 'voice' the many lyric moments. Just as in song even the most thoughtful of performers must be able to rise to the technical level of a Patti or a Caruso if their way with a piece is to be considered the final word, so also in the realm of the piano, and especially Chopin!
This problem of colored memories is certainly not unique to Askenase - the French pianist Samson Francois was equally venerated in Chopin by his peers in France but today his performances reveal some troubling inconsistencies. Yet it only takes a second or so listening to Francois in Chopin's waltzes to hear how much more color and excitement exists in the music than is found by Askenase.
If you must have only one pianist for Chopin buy the Rubinstein CDs. He certainly has far greater technical skills and just as much of an understanding of the music. I think this may be one of those cases where high ratings are partly attributable to fond memories clouding reviewers' better judgement.
Iyer | Bethesda, MD | 08/17/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I do not have very much to add to the redoubtable Mr. Lipscomb. His always-perceptive, wise, and informative reviews speak for themselves. What I might add is that this set is among a handful of artistic miracles in the pantheon of recorded classical music. Even if Chopin is not your thing, I doubt very much if you will not find yourself transported by the first dozen or so staves of--for example--the C Sharp Minor nocturne. Stefan Askenase has a sensibility that transcends the comparative merits of Chopin interpretation. It is silly to analogize in the following way: Askenase is to Chopin as Kempff is to Beethoven. But that gives you a metric by which to measure your buying decision.
In summary, get this disc! This is playing of a stature that you will not find in too many recorded pianists let alone pianists who ply their trade these days."