Fanfare

My introduction to the art of Burkard Schliessmann was an exquisite 1990-1 CD of Brahms’s Third Sonata and Handel Variations . Here was a pianist with a big, luxuriant tone, exceptional technique, and considerable sensitivity and intelligence. All of these virtues are deployed on Chronological Chopin , Schliessmann’s exploration of selected works of Chopin in their order of composition. The Chopin players Schliessmann reminds me of most are Angela Lear and Vlado Perlemuter. Like Lear, Schliessmann elicits a sound in Chopin that emphasizes the piano’s darker sonorities. Both pianists interpret Chopin without wild tempo changes and capricious phrasing. If you are unfamiliar with Angela Lear, I would recommend volume two in her series, The Original Chopin . Schliessmann and Perlemuter share predilections in their Chopin for lucidity of texture and an unforced ease of execution. Their playing is suffused with a sense of Chopin’s nobility. Schliessmann’s renditions also are influenced heavily by Chopin’s love for J. S. Bach. He plays with considerable respect for structure, plus a feeling for the artistic autonomy of Chopin’s edifices. There is no boilerplate, sentimental romantic playing in Chronological Chopin . This is an album with the highest aspirations for expressing the composer’s muse, and in general those aspirations are met.

Schliessmann’s program begins with the First Scherzo. Its dance-like rhythms are paced judiciously to create a seamless texture. The middle section possesses a touching simplicity, while the coda synthesizes the first section’s phrasings marvelously. Schliessmann finds the hint of a mazurka in the First Ballade’s opening portion, as if portraying a Polish landscape. As the work proceeds, the pianist’s inflections propel it forward without compromising a leisurely atmosphere. Schliessmann’s op. 28 Preludes are big and brawny, almost Klemperer-like. The opening prelude already is sweeping and majestic. No. 3 depicts a country festival. No. 5 has the sensation of one’s heart skipping a beat. A windswept rainstorm emerges from loads of pedal in No. 8. No. 11 is nearly a Scottish dance. No. 13 is saturated in romantic warmth. A rattling skeleton inhabits No. 14. No. 16 is almost like a roller coaster, leaving one a little nauseous. A carriage ride with one’s beloved takes place in No. 19. No. 21 possesses a blend of cosmic sonorities, as if depicting the music of the spheres. Schliessmann secures a gorgeous legato in No. 23, offering a brief respite before the dark, fateful final prelude. There’s nothing generic about this pianist’s op. 28. It will make a striking addition to any recordings of the preludes you already may own.

The second CD begins with a fine, broad, spacious reading of the Second Scherzo. It is less demonic than some interpretations, more restless and quizzical. The opening section of the Second Ballade is filled with tranquil beauty. Its Presto con fuoco possesses the spooky mystery of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto . Schliessmann suggests that for Chopin, quietude can give way easily to horror. In the Third Scherzo, the brief introduction is beautifully paced, sliding into the agitated first section. Schliessmann brings out harmonies in the second section reminiscent of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” with filigree work like falling leaves. The coda leaves one shaken. The op. 45 Prelude receives an exceptional performance, with lovely sostenuto playing. It provides the gentlest meditation on the feeling of foreboding. For the Third Ballade, the second section resembles the appearance of an untroubled ghost in a beautiful mansion. A mixture of chills and excitement characterizes the work’s ending. The Fantaisie is remarkable for its mixture of virtuoso playing with elegant tone. Schliessmann here portrays the noble Byronic hero with sensitivity and élan.

The final CD starts off with the Fourth Ballade in a rhapsodic performance of shifting textures and perspectives. At times playful, at other times dynamic, it reveals an ambivalence in Chopin even in his serene moments. The coda seems to dash everything to pieces. A rather slow interpretation of the Fourth Scherzo emphasizes the warmth in Chopin’s temperament. At Schliessmann’s speeds one can appreciate the craftsmanship in Chopin’s counterpoint, which usually just flies by. The work’s middle section here possesses a rare tenderness. Schliessmann’s Berceuse is stunning, avoiding the trap of being over delicate. Its play of colors shimmers. One can hear a foretaste of Satie. By imposing limits on rhetorical devices, Chopin unravels a rich seam of expression—fully mined by Schliessmann. The Barcarolle receives a big, gnarly reading with much rhythmic subtlety. The pianist finds a cryptic element in late Chopin, with things being said in transitions and on the edges of phrases. There is some very advanced counterpoint that adds to the composer’s ambiguity of meaning. The Polonaise-Fantaisie is almost a polonaise broken up into its constituent parts. Schliessmann apparently sees Chopin shadowboxing with himself, deconstructing every gesture to uncover what makes it Chopin. At times the piece threatens to fall apart, as if the composer cannot ascertain a coherent personality that requires expression. This makes for a haunting and devastating close to Schliessmann’s program.

The sound engineering on the CD layer is warm and full. I was unable to audition the SACD program. Schliessmann’s liner notes are extensive and enlightening. The recordings of the op. 28 Preludes I listen to most often are by Irina Zaritzkaya and Lincoln Mayorga. I also like the Ballades by Bella Davidovich and the Scherzos by Marta Deyanova, the latter being extremely different from Schliessmann. Schliessmann has taken a chronological look at Chopin’s career that is not merely persuasive but ultimately harrowing. It reminds me a little of John Malcolm Brinnin’s book, Dylan Thomas in America , in its depiction of the stresses of sensibility on an artistic personality. Schliessmann will persuade you of the greatness of Chopin to a degree matched by few other pianists. He will not convince you that, as an individual, you would choose to emulate Chopin’s spiritual journey.

—Dave Saemann