This is a large amount of Chopin, uniquely arranged chronologically. For those of us who usually listen in sequence to all four Ballades or Scherzos, this approach gives a fresh perspective on familiar works. Chopin has been integral to Schliessmann’s recorded repertoire for quite some time. He recorded all four Ballades, the Fantasy, Barcarolle, and Polonaise-Fantasy in 2002 (Bayer 100348, Nov/Dec 2003). In 2009 he made new recordings of the three previous works and added the Berceuse, Prelude, Op. 45 and Waltz Op. 64:2. In 2010 he made new recordings of Ballades 3 and 4. All of these were released on MSR 1361 (Nov/Dec 2010). Now, for his first release on Divine Art, the recordings are mostly new, done in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Three works from 2009, originally on MSR, are included here (Fantasy, Berceuse, Prelude, Op. 45).
My superlatives for the MSR recording five years ago still hold true, and I fully understand reusing the three works. The new recordings of the other MSR pieces are very similar interpretations. I imagine Schliessmann’s keen ear knows those little moments in the old recordings that made him want to redo them. I am hard-pressed to find any significant differences, and I rank this Chopin among the best available.
The recordings from 2012 and 2013 also included Scherzos 1, 2, and 4, all new to Schliessmann’s recorded repertoire, plus his third recording of Ballade 1. Here I find the contrast between the fiery and lyrical sections to be emphasized. Especially notable is his handling of the transitions between these two elements: whether gradual or sudden, they all make wonderful musical sense. With both the technique and intellect to do just about anything he wants, Schliessmann’s strength is in the lyrical, legato melodies that make Chopin’s music such a cornerstone of the piano repertoire. He has all the octaves, chords, and quick fingers called for in the virtuoso sections as well. He does not achieve quite the edge-of-your seat excitement of Horowitz or Argerich; his is a more controlled energy, well thought-out but still brilliant.
This leaves the 2015 recordings: Preludes, Ballade 2, and Scherzo 3. These were the weakest of a strong collection, not because of a lack of beautifully shaped melodies, but because of slow tempos in some of the most difficult sections. Chopin used the marking Presto con fuoco in the Ballade, Scherzo, and Prelude 16. All three works should be faster and more fiery. The Ballade and Scherzo have many wonderful moments, but the Prelude is unacceptable to me. At 1:33 Schliessmann is significantly longer than any others in my collection: most are 1:10 or less. Looking at it mathematically, most pianists take this one at about 10 notes per second; here we have about 7.5 notes. The other Preludes range from excellent (slower and lyrical ones: 4, 6, 7, 13, 15, 17, 21) to OK (5, 8, 12). I suspect they would all have been excellent with a little more time in the oven.
So “Chronological Chopin” has far more strengths than weaknesses. I would go out of my way to hear Schliessmann play any group of these in concert. His approach to all of the music is worthy of study and repays careful listening. The piano sound is spectacular and the booklet notes informative and comprehensive.