The novelty of this packed and polished box set, not to mention the key to the meaning behind it, is to be found in the opening sentence of German pianist Burkard Schliessmann’s sleeve notes, in which he refers to the opinion once expressed by Scriabin to the effect that Chopin, a “one-sided” composer, had not brought about a revolution in piano music, or added anything new to the repertoire, because his works showed little or no evidence of either technical or artistic development over the course of his career.
Taking this as his starting point, Schliessmann set out to put together a chronological survey of some of the Polish composer’s greatest works (the Four Ballades; the Four Scherzos; the Preludes, opp. 28 and 45; the Fantaisie, op. 49; the Polonaise-Fantaisie, op. 61; the Berceuse, op. 57 and the Barcarolle, op. 60), in order to refute Scriabin’s claim, and to demonstrate not only the revolutionary nature of Chopin’s music, but also the way in which his compositional technique evolved over time. Generally speaking, he has achieved both this and the other, undoubtedly more ambitious, goal that he set himself – that of considering the Chopin sound in isolation from the cliché long associated with it, namely that his pianism, his status as a composer and his artistry must be inextricably linked to his permanent ill health and instinctive reclusiveness, factors that precluded him from developing the kind of career embarked upon by a performer-composer such as Liszt. In his lengthy and detailed introductory notes, Schliessmann points out how living with illness and the consequent awareness that his life was likely to be cut short may have played a part in Chopin’s focusing on writing for the keyboard. C, famous for his delicate (for which read “weak”) sound, his controversial rubato and his powerful and seductive phrasing, all of which has turned him into an icon of a certain brand of Romanticism, far beyond the sphere of music. Schliessmann (unsurprisingly for a pupil of the legendary Cherkassky) is therefore keen to favour a “Classical” line, aided by his majestic Steinway, with its full, round tone, making much use of marcato (occasionally, in my opinion, a little too much – in the Fantaisie in F minor and some passages in the Polonaise-Fantaisie, for instance) and with a tempo selection that enables him to highlight the issue of rubato (this is particularly evident in the Fourth Ballade).
In presenting this chronological selection of works by Chopin, based on the cornerstones of the Scherzos and Ballades and seen through a Classical prism, the artist succeeds in disproving Scriabin’s claim and demonstrates the unquestionable developments in the composer’s musical conception – from the “liquidity” of the Second Scherzo to the “density” of the Third and the “explorations” of the Fourth, to give just one example. And he does this by means of a sound that takes Chopin’s music back to the bare bones, declaiming rather than hinting, emphasising rather than whispering, thereby putting the Polish composer’s pianism on the same tonal level as that of Schumann (another Romantic musician whose illness, albeit mental rather than physical in this case, has so influenced subsequent perspectives on and interpretations of his work). To be clear, Schliessmann’s approach may please many, but it may also seem out of place in purist terms, given the “powerful” sonorities he produces, associated with the idea of a hale and hearty Chopin, a long way from the abyss of ill health and any fear of premature death. In other words, a Chopin contextualised within his own time and within that stylistic continuity in whose creation he played such a fundamental and unique role.