Fanfare

This compendium of major piano works by Chopin is a fascinating merger of biography and autobiography. Under the album title of Chronological Chopin, we follow the composer’s development—or lack of it—from Scherzo No. 1, op. 20 (composed 1831–35), to the Polonaise-Fantasie, op. 61 (from 1846). Schliessmann has been dedicated to Chopin for decades, and he provides extensive, very personal notes on his approach to the music and how it has matured to the present moment.

This exploration centers directly on whether Chopin did, in fact, develop or was possessed of such full-blown mastery that, as Scriabin declared, he showed no further development over the course of his creative career. In practice Schliessmann approaches this criticism—if it is a criticism—in terms of Chopin’s allegiance to tradition versus his urge to revolutionize the piano. We’re reminded that when he arrived in Mallorca in the winter of 1838–39, Chopin brought with him Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which he immersed himself in as he was composing the 24 Preludes. This and other observations cause Schliessmann to argue that clarity and structure are among the most important aspects of Chopin interpretation.

One interesting section in the program booklet contains a series of quotes about the composer from other famous figures. Schliessmann seems to identify with Nietzsche’s comment that Chopin respected the prevailing “harmonic and melodic conventions” while at the same time “like the freest and most graceful spirit [is] playing and dancing in these fetters….” When I think of the usual adjectives applied to Chopin’s music, such as poetic, Romantic, rhapsodic, and noble, the one that rises above the rest is liberating.

Intelligent and accomplished as he is, Schliessmann is well placed to speak about how liberated Chopin performance should be. These are highly distinctive readings, and despite his frequent return in the program notes to structure and balance, the pianist is an exciting performer; his distinctive ideas are carried through at the keyboard with almost Golden Age boldness. The comparison isn’t accidental. In his studies Schliessmann counts master classes with Shura Cherkassky, and he tells us that he’s most comfortable playing pianos with rich bass from the 1920s and 1930s. For these recordings, made in a Berlin studio over a span from 2009 to 2015, Schliessmann brought in his personal Steinway Model D-274; it has been recorded in rich, lifelike sound that has no flaws as heard in regular two-channel stereo. In his enthusiastic review of a 2015 Bach album by Schliessmann ( Fanfare 38:4) Jerry Dubins praised the “SACD recording that projects the piano right into your listening space with a three-dimensional effect.” I imagine that much the same is true here.

Born in northwest Bavaria and trained in Frankfurt, Schliessmann is also an organist of such abilities that he had memorized Bach’s complete organ works by age 21. One senses in his strongly voiced Chopin playing, which at times reminded me of Claudio Arrau, that the sonority of the organ isn’t far away; in addition, there’s an organist’s technique in the way equal weight is given to the tone of each note. He is also gifted with an instinctive sense of Romantic phrasing, which allows him to be spontaneously expressive without veering into idiosyncrasy.

Personally, I find the Golden Age side of Schliessmann’s playing very appealing. He has little interest in gossamer filigree or a salon style of making Chopin elegant and miniaturized. Therefore, his choice of bold works like the Scherzos and Ballades takes advantage of his strengths. I’d advise turning to these pieces first to appreciate the combination of power and naturalness that characterizes these three discs. This isn’t to imply a lack of lyrical warmth—Schliessmann adapts beautifully to the flowing gentleness of the Berceuse and the beginning of the Barcarolle while remaining true to his view that Chopin performance is always about concentration and a tensile line. In the Preludes he is so sharply focused that you never feel a single chord falters, much less the forward-moving line.

Overall, if you favor strong-minded Chopin, as I definitely do, this set will bring considerable satisfaction, both musical and emotional, along with an intriguing read of the pianist’s sharp ideas about many aspects of Chopin’s introverted yet passionate personality. It’s beguiling to ponder Nietzsche’s hyperbole when he said, “I myself am still Polish enough to give up the rest of music for Chopin”

—Huntley Dent