Classical: The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan On The Week's CD Releases
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LISTENING TO Chopin's piano concertos has always involved one tiresome stumbling block - the orchestra. The First Concerto opens with a kind of perfunctory pompousness that, compared with the exquisite solo writing that follows, invariably sounds contrived. Need that be the case? It seems not. Chopin's orchestral scores aren't dull; it's just that, up until now, no one has known how to handle them properly.

If that sounds like arrogance, then lend an ear to Krystian Zimerman's new Deutsche Grammophon recording of the two concertos with the young Polish Festival Orchestra. It's an absolute revelation. The First Concerto starts with a five-minute orchestral preamble. Quite often it's cut, but here the full text is caressed, tenderised and clarified in a way that, for the very first time in my experience, makes it sound genuinely like Chopin.

Zimerman's conducting is unusually, even provocatively, flexible. He has his strings play with old-fashioned expressive slides, and he sorts through the strands of Chopin's scoring with the kind of painstaking attentiveness that he also applies to the solo part. Striking an effective balance between lingering and hurrying has always been a vital issue among Chopin players, and Zimerman's options are always perfectly timed. He combines Dinu Lipatti's nobility with, say, Michelangeli's sense of aural sculpture and a sensitivity to Chopin's writing that remains intact through both concertos.

This is one of those very rare occasions when the performances are virtually as good as the music.A shame that the official playing-time limit for a single CD means that the 81 minutes and 52 seconds must be spread over two (mid-price) discs.

Thomas Larcher's Schubert-Schoenberg piano music CD for ECM provides another kind of revelation, contextual this time rather than textual. The idea of topping and tailing Schubert's ghostly late Klavierstucke (D946) with piano pieces by Schoenberg (Opp 11 and 19) might seem loopy - lovers of the one might conceivably loathe the other - though, as it happens, the mix is almost lethally absorbing.

For a start, Larcher's performances are unremittingly intense. He never hurries his Schubert, and his Schoenberg has real shape. When Op 11/1 leaves us with a question, Schubert rushes to answer like a tempered tornado, though the contrasts within his own pieces are virtually as striking as the stylistic switch to and from Schoenberg. That, I guess, is the crux of the idea: contrasts "within" and "without". None of the pieces will ever sound quite the same again.

And neither will Bruckner's Seventh, at least not for those with the enterprise to investigate Nikolaus Harnoncourt's new live Teldec recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. If all you know of Bruckner is Karajan's or Gunter Wand's, then brace yourself. It's not just that speedy Harnoncourt knocks six or so minutes off the Symphony's average timing, or that he helpfully separates his violin desks left and right of the rostrum; it's more his grasp of the perspectives in Bruckner's scoring that impresses, especially with respect to the brass. He accelerates through the first movement's final climax with such eagerness that it suddenly sounds like the delirious ringing of bells. I've always sensed that Bruckner is spiritually far more akin to Schubert than to Wagner, and Harnoncourt brings that suspicion a step nearer to certainty.

Chopin/Zimerman Deutsche Grammophon 459 684-2 (two discs)

Schubert, Schoenberg/Larcher ECM 1667

Bruckner/Harnoncourt Teldec 3984-24488-2