Chopin: Complete Etudes / Hardy Rittner

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CHOPIN Etudes, opp. 10, 25. 3 Nouvelles Études Hardy Rittner (pn) MDG 904 1747-6 (SACD: 61:30)

Hmm. Another recording of the Chopin etudes? That was my very first thought when I was asked to review the current recording. I have so many different versions of these works as it is—why would I need another? Because I thought that one always needs to be reminded of how great these works truly are, and the pianist—well period-instrument pianist, that is—Hardy Rittner was a name new to me. The pianist chooses to use a Conrad Graf Piano (c.1835, 244cm, 6.5 octaves) that he feels has the necessary dynamic breadth, along with moderator pedals, which allow for changes of color appropriate to the music, and which all together is a historically plausible instrument, as Chopin did play on Graf pianos throughout the 1830s (even though the pianist admits that Chopin did eventually prefer the Pleyel pianos). So what does the recording sound like? In general the upper registers of the instrument are thin and the lower registers are muddled. But this gives little impression of how fine a performance this truly is. What is most important is how the pianist uses these timbres in his survey of the works.

Beginning with op. 10/1, the first etude bursts forth with energy; the individual notes sparkle with clarity and vivacity, while the collected arpeggios ebb and flow. The dreaded op. 10/4 is given a whirlwind performance—one of clarity, yet one full of forward momentum. My favorite of the op. 10 etudes, however, was a Horowitz favorite: No. 8 in F Major. Here Rittner basks not only in the continuously paced arpeggios, but relishes the quirky and bouncing left-hand figures. The first of the op. 25 etudes is also spectacularly played: the accompanimental arpeggiations shimmer underneath a gently lilting melody. The etude that follows (in F Minor) has never been given a better performance than here; there is, no matter the tempo, always a sense of grace present. But the faster etudes are not the only highlights of the disc; the mysterious aura of op. 10/6 and the brooding quality of the lovely “Cello” Etude, op. 25/7, are brought to the fore in these performances. Yet some of the true highlights of this disc are the little-played Trois Nouvelles Études. They provide relief from the storm of the two major books and as they are programmed here—between the two larger sets rather than after them—they feel like an integral part of this recital, not an afterthought. The second of the three is my favorite. It is beautifully phrased and sensitively voiced. In this pianist’s hands it is a true gem.

That said, there are also moments that disappoint. The etude in thirds (op. 25/6) feels like a study. There is a lack of sensitivity and a lack of overall dynamics (rather more like one overall dynamic throughout: medium loud). The op. 25/3 in F Major sounds a bit clunky at times and is tarnished by an odd sense of tempo fluctuation. But these are minor quibbles when one is reviewing a recording of 27 etudes. Whether one has a set (or more) of the Chopin etudes, I would recommend hearing the etudes as Chopin might have. And with performances of this caliber in phenomenal SACD sound, how can one go wrong?

FANFARE: Scott Noriega

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 9041747-6

  • UPC: 760623174761

  • Label: MDG

  • Composer: Frédéric Chopin

  • Performer: Hardy Rittner