A disc to be cherished.
Robert L. Berkowitz | Natick, MA United States | 03/30/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"With the recent popularity of the movie "The Pianist" there is an increasing awareness of the beauty of Chopin's music. In particular, the Grande Polonaise features prominently in the movie, and this disc restores to the catalog a stunning performance that was played by a contemporary of the protagonist of that movie (Wladyslaw Szpillman).This disc also restores to the catalog an outstanding performance of the E minor concerto, but one marked by a strange history. This recording was my introduction to this concerto. It was the performance that brought me to love this piece. However, I grew up believing that this recording was attributable to Dinu Lipatti and it wasn't until 1981 when the true identity of the pianist became known.Until 1981 I was always struck by what differences I heard in the approach to Chopin evidenced in this recording and those that have proved to be truly due to Lipatti (the B minor Sonata, Barcarolle, Nocturne in Db Major, etc.) Although these Lipatti recordings are all beautiful, I missed the delicacy of touch that I came to associate with his recording of the E minor concerto. After 1981 it all became clear. The E minor concerto wasn't Lipatti's at all. It was Halina Czerny-Stefanska's.Like Szpillman, Halina Czerny-Stefanska was a Polish pianist whose career was significantly disrupted by World War II. As a result, she was little known outside of Poland, but she apparently was one of the most important musical figures there in the last half of the 20th century. She shared first prize in the Chopin competition in 1949 with Bella Davidovich (another of my favorite Chopin interpreters), and sat on the jury of the Chopin competition for many years. She died in July 2001, and this CD resurrects from the archives some of her glorious playing.On the cover of my old Seraphim LP that contains this concerto recording, there is a picture of Dinu Lipatti and a quote from Harris Goldsmith of High Fidelity magazine. Believing that the recording is attributable to Dinu Lipatti, he writes "He was not a bravura player, though his fingers were as flawlessly developed as any pianist's, past or present. Trained largely to the tastes of the French school, Lipatti used its sec tradition as a sort of springboard, adding a warmth and sunny radiance all his own...". I believe Goldsmith was listening to this recording when he wrote these words, because he captures some of the elements of this performance.Like Lipatti, Czerny-Stefanska studied with Cortot and no doubt was influenced by the French school of Chopin playing. As Goldsmith says, there is an added warmth and sunny radiance about this performance. Despite the monoaural recording, the ear quickly adjusts, and one recognizes that one is in the presence of a pianist who had the most singing legato line and colorful palette. She plays with such delicacy and charm. Some might find fault in the lack of bravura playing. She is in complete technical control but she doesn't aim for virtuosic display or big romantic barnstorming. Instead, she aims for a delicate Chopin that is utterly disarming. This approach is most evident in the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. One might fault her for not landing with more weight on some of the notes, but I believe her incredible legato and the subtlety of her touch make for a much more satisfying reading. Her performance stands as my current favorite among those that include an orchestral part.For those accustomed to almost any other recording of the E minor concerto, this performance could take some getting used to. The introduction of the piano in the first movement is usually played with force and command, while Czerny-Stefanska pulls back, aiming for an understated majesty. That's the way I've come to expect the opening, and I have found myself disappointed with most other recordings in comparison. With regard to the second and third movements, there isn't any obstacle to overcome. She plays the second movement with utter serenity and tremendous poignancy, while she tosses off the last movement with brilliance and charm.The disc also contains performances of six mazurkas. Czerny-Stefanska won the prize at the 1949 Chopin competiton given by Polish radio for performance of the mazurkas. These are beautifully played, though the recorded sound is not as well remastered as the concerto or the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise.I came away from listening to this disc recognizing that an important aspect of piano playing may be at risk for being lost among younger artists. Listening to Czerny-Stefanska reawakens in me the recognition of the crucial importance of a beautiful singing line and subtlety of touch. I am also reminded of the communicative power of Chopin well played. I unreservedly recommend this recording for anyone interested in Chopin and particularly in the E minor concerto and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise."
One of the Greatest Chopin Interpreters
Jeffrey Lipscomb | Sacramento, CA United States | 04/04/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Halina Czerny-Stefanska may not be a household name, but to my ears she was one of the supreme interpreters of Chopin's music. Her playing here is remarkable for its warmth, tonal beauty, and fluid grace. This sublime account of the 1st Piano Concerto with Vaclav Smetacek and the Czech Phil. was mis-attributed to Dinu Lipatti and an "unknown orchestra" when issued on the Seraphim LP label in the 1960's (see the excellent review here by Robert Berkowitz for additional details). Ironically, the actual "live" Lipatti recording that later surfaced on EMI was nowhere near as appealing: it had dreadful sound and a surprisingly stodgy, lacklustre accompaniment by the usually reliable Otto Ackermann. This Czerny-Stefanska rendition is one of three recordings that would accompany me to the proverbial desert island. The others are Stefan Askenase's slower, even more poetic account with a perfectly-attuned Willem van Otterloo (now available in that pianist's superb 7-disc set on DG) and, for a more conventionally-extroverted "bravura" account, the impassioned 1947 Rubinstein concert reading with Bruno Walter (available in a special 10-disc set from the NY Philharmonic).
The grandly-played Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise here is one of my two favorite accounts of the version with orchestra (the other is Sviatoslav Richter's live performance, with a somewhat punchy accompaniment by Kondrashin on BBC Legends).
But the greatest treasures here are the six Mazurkas, which were once on a Supraphon LP that was my introduction to this pianist (it also contained the most satisfying Raindrop Prelude in my experience). I can't think of a better way for piano students to learn the subtleties of Chopin rubato than by listening to what Czery-Stefanska has given us here. My collection has a wide array of alternative Mazurka performances by the likes of Rubinstein (his 1950's set of 51 Mazurkas on RCA), Friedman, Sofronitzky, Kapell, Rosenthal, Moravec, Neuhaus, etc., but I prize these little gems under Czerny-Stefanska's fingers most of all. She also recorded 67 Mazurkas around 1990 in Japan for the Canyon Classics CD label, but regrettably I have yet to find a copy.
For truly idiomatic Chopin playing of exceptional warmth and sensitivity, this disc is worth its weight in gold.