Contrary to the [review] headnote—pro forma dictates that we group like type works together to cut down on word repetition—Burkard Schliessmann’s Chopin discs do present the composer’s works in opus number order, which in the case of the pieces he has chosen, also happen to correspond to their chronological order.
Burkard thus opens his program with the Scherzo in B Minor, op. 20, composed in 1831, 1832, or 1833, depending on which source listing of the composer’s works you believe more trustworthy. Not in dispute is the fact that the piece was first published in Paris in 1835 by Maurice Schlesinger. As a program opener, the Scherzo is quite an attention-grabber. A tempo marking of Presto con fuoco and a dizzying display of virtuosic effects—cannonades of full-keyboard arpeggios, rapid chromatic octaves, ten-note chords, and other devices—make this one of Chopin’s showier and more difficult works. Because it happens at such lightning speed, the surface razzle-dazzle tends to obscure some of the composer’s quite advanced, if not radical, harmonic concepts, employing deceptive enharmonic cadential progressions and chord resolutions.
Schliessman’s performance of the Scherzo blazes with a fire so bright one can’t help but wonder that if this is what he opens with, what does he do for an encore? The answer is the Ballade in G Minor, op. 23, composed, it seems, not in the white-hot heat of a moment’s inspiration, but more methodically over a period of four years between 1831 and 1835. Chopin began work on the piece while still in Vienna, but didn’t finish it until his move to Paris. It’s said that the ballade, as a musical form, was Chopin’s invention, but unlike in adaptations by later composers, for Chopin the context does not seem to have been programmatic. Rather, it appears that he applied the term to pieces of an episodic, dance-like nature, in which contrasting sections are tied together by recurring thematic motives that are developed throughout. This G-Minor Ballade is one of Chopin’s most popular pieces, recognized even by non-classical music enthusiasts from its inclusion in Roman Polanski’s award-winning film, The Pianist , starring Adrien Brody. More than a vehicle for virtuosic fireworks—though there’s enough of that too—the Ballade contains much music that is deeply moving and which Schliessmann probes with great sensitivity.
The 24 Preludes, op. 28, was a three-year project that occupied Chopin from 1836 to 1839. Comparisons to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are unavoidable, but Chopin’s effort differs from Bach’s in three ways: (1) his preludes are not paired with fugues; (2) his procession through the 24 major and minor keys is by relative major and minor—C Major followed by A Minor; G Major followed by E Minor; etc.—and ascending through the Circle of Fifths—C, G, D, A, etc.— rather than Bach’s approach by parallel major and minor—C Major, C Minor—and procession through keys by ascending chromatic steps—C, C sharp, D, E flat, etc.; and (3) Chopin did it only once, whereas Bach did the whole thing over again several years later with a second volume.
It’s interesting that in his [interview for Fanfare ] Burkard speaks of Chopin’s preference for Pleyel’s pianos because it was Pleyel, the younger— Joseph Étienne Camille, publisher and owner of the Pleyel piano manufacturing company—not his father, Ignace, the composer—who commissioned the Preludes from Chopin and to whom the French edition bears a dedication. Payment Chopin received for the work was 2,000 francs, today’s equivalent of nearly $30,000, which should dispel any notions we have of the poor, starving, Romantic composer.
The Preludes—indeed all of the works on Schliessmann’s three-disc Chopin survey—have been etched onto wax cylinders and into record grooves by pianists from A to Z since time immemorial. It would be extremely presumptuous of me to say that Schliessmann betters all of them, any of them, or even the few of them I’ve personally heard out of the hundreds that exist, such as Cortot, Perlemuter, Rubinstein, Ashkenazy, Arrau, Perahia, Ohlsson, Hobson, Argerich, and Arrau. But I can and will say that Burkard Schliessmann has much artistry and poetry to communicate in these works, and he makes listening to Chopin in large doses an unusually enjoyable experience for me.
The rest of pieces on these three discs—the remaining three scherzos, the remaining three ballades, the Barcarolle in F sharp Major, the Berceuse in D flat Major, the Fantaisie in F Minor, the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat Major, and the Prelude in C sharp Minor—are all performed by Burkard with equally impressive technical address, attention to expressive detail, and gorgeous tone drawn from his magnificent Steinway grand. Complementing this are the stunning SACD recordings, which capture the subtlest gradations in dynamics with amazing clarity and that take the thunderous climaxes in easeful stride.
If Burkard Schliessmann can instill in me, admittedly not a great admirer of Chopin, a higher appreciation of his music than I have heretofore experienced, imagine the effect Burkard will have on those whose love of Chopin is already vouchsafed.