Chopin / Concerto No. 1 / Rubinstein / Skrowaczewski

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Hot Stamper Living Stereo Classical and Orchestral Titles Available Now

  • With two Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sides, this Shaded Dog pressing is the best sounding Chopin First Piano Concerto we have ever heard
  • So big and transparent, with weight and heft to the brass like no other, we guarantee you have never heard a better piano concerto recording (unless you already one of our White Hot Stamper LPs)
  • The secret to the superior sound of this particular Rubinstein recording over so many others is the engineering by Kenneth Wilkinson – the glorious hall the London Symphony plays in doesn’t hurt either
  • Chopin, according to Arthur Hedley, “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal…”

“Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.”

We heard dramatically more layered depth and more hall than we were accustomed to from the dozen or so RCA Rubinstein recordings that we’ve auditioned over the years. This is a closer approximation of live music than we were expecting, and in that sense it came as an exceedingly pleasant surprise. The shootout has been years in the making, with some copies waiting for their day in the spotlight over ten years.

The strings have lovely Living Stereo (Decca-engineered) texture as well. As befits a Wilkinson recording from 1961, there is no shortage of clarity to balance out the Tubey Magical warmth and richness.

(We have lately been surveying some of his recordings from the late-’60s and ’70s to our great disappointment. The All Tube Recording Chain was gone. Opacity and lack of warmth prevented us from proceeding with any shootouts we might have attempted.)

And for those who prefer original pressings to reissues, here is the record that makes your case. None of the White Dogs or Red Seal reissues could hold a candle to the real Shaded Dog label LPs. They are in a league of their own.

We love the huge, Tubey Magical sound of this recording. The piano is solid and powerful — like a real piano.

Tremendous hall space, weight and energy, this is DEMO DISC QUALITY SOUND by any standard.

What amazing sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1961
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments of the orchestra having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the concert hall

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

As we noted above, the Shaded Dog pressings did the best in our shootout. Some White Dogs can also be good, but not as good, in the 2+ range. None of the plain Red Seal reissues from the ’70’s had anything approaching the weight, the richness, or the Tubey Magic of the good original pressings. If you are doing your own shootouts, stick with Shaded Dogs.

What We’re Listening For on Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to LPs.
  • Note-like bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

Wikipedia on Chopin

The great majority of Chopin’s compositions were written for the piano as solo instrument; all of his extant works feature the piano in one way or another. Chopin, according to Arthur Hedley, “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal…. Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.”

It is difficult to characterise Chopin’s oeuvre briefly. Robert Schumann, speaking of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, wrote that “he alone begins and ends a work like this: with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances”, and in Chopin’s music he discerned “cannon concealed amid blossoms”. Franz Liszt, in the opening of his biography about Chopin (Life of Chopin), termed him a “gentle, harmonious genius”. Thus disparate have been the views on Chopin’s music. The first systematic, if imperfect, study of Chopin’s style came in F. P. Laurencin’s 1861 Die Harmonik der Neuzeit. Laurencin concluded that “Chopin is one of the most brilliant exceptional natures that have ever stridden onto the stage of history and life, he is one who can never be exhausted nor stand before a void. Chopin is the musical progone of all progones until now.”

According to Tad Szulc, though technically demanding, Chopin’s works emphasize nuance and expressive depth rather than sheer virtuosity. Vladimir Horowitz referred to Chopin as “the only truly great composer for the piano”.

Chopin’s music for the piano combined a unique rhythmic sense (particularly his use of rubato), frequent use of chromaticism, and counterpoint. This mixture produces a particularly fragile sound in the melody and the harmony, which are nonetheless underpinned by solid and interesting harmonic techniques. He took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by Irish composer John Field, to a deeper level of sophistication. Three of Chopin’s twenty-one Nocturnes were published only after his death in 1849, contrary to his wishes. He also endowed popular dance forms, such as the Polish mazurek and the Viennese Waltz, with a greater range of melody and expression.

Chopin’s mazurkas, while based somewhat on the traditional Polish dance (the mazurek), were different from the traditional variety in that they were suitable for concerts halls as well as dance settings. With his mazurkas, Chopin brought a new sense of nationalism, which was an idea that other composers writing both at the same time as, and after, Chopin would also incorporate into their compositions. Chopin’s nationalism was a great influence and inspiration for many other composers, especially Eastern Europeans, and he was one of the first composers to clearly express nationalism through his music. Furthermore, he was the first composer to take a national genre of music from his home country and transform it into a genre worthy of the general concert-going public, thereby creating an entirely new genre.

Chopin was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual pieces. He took the example of Bach’s preludes and fugues and essentially established a new genre with his own Préludes. He reinvented the étude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece, and he used his Études to teach his own revolutionary style — for instance playing with the weak fingers (3, 4, and 5) in fast figures (Op. 10, No. 2), playing in octaves (Op. 25, No. 10), and playing black keys with the thumb (Op. 10, No. 5).

San Francisco Symphony Web Site

Those who attack Chopin’s concertos for their apparent shortcomings risk failing to appreciate them for what they are. At the very least, they are remarkable in the context of their time, exhibiting an originality and subtlety that so greatly surpass their immediate predecessors that they almost seem to spring out of nowhere. The piano concerto as a genre had not been enjoying a phase of particular distinction when Chopin penned his F minor Piano Concerto in 1829 and this E minor Concerto in 1830. Between the last of Beethoven’s piano concertos and the first of Chopin’s, the only concerted piano work to have survived in the active repertory is Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstück of 1821. Weber’s two “real” piano concertos are rarely revived, and apart from those we would have to fill in the Beethoven-to-Chopin gap with concertos by the likes of John Field, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, or Fréderic Kalkbrenner. These were worthy composers all, and some of their concertos really do deserve more attention than they get today (I am thinking particularly of Hummel’s in A minor and Field’s in A-flat major); but the fact is that their concertos have not found much of a place in posterity.

Chopin was familiar with some of the works of these composers—Field’s Nocturnes are often cited as the impetus for Chopin’s, and Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto is actually dedicated to Kalkbrenner—and his concertos do reflect a goodly measure of the “concerto brillant” aesthetic that fueled them. But we often sense that pianistic brilliance is the entire raison d’être of the concertos leading to Chopin’s, whereas in Chopin virtuosity is used more selectively, as a means toward an end. The twenty-year-old Chopin was already a spectacular pianist, and his writing evinces a thoughtful, nuanced command of the instrument’s resources. Where other composers built up virtuoso effects through thick, repetitive torrents of notes, Chopin generally preferred to enforce clarity by writing widely spaced textures reminiscent of a Mozartian classicism. His virtuoso figuration, rich in fioriture of notes bundled together in odd numbers, itself invites a subtle, fluid interpretation; and his most impressive technical writing gains in expression by being doled out in a discriminating fashion. It may be true that the first movement of the E minor Concerto does not derive much of its energy from the contrast of tonal centers; but it nonetheless has energy and momentum, a good deal of which emanates from the contrast of lyric and virtuosic sections in the piano writing.

Chopin was all but exclusively a piano composer, and we should be neither surprised nor disappointed to discover that his E minor Piano Concerto harbors its greatest riches in the piano part itself. The orchestra’s role is generally stolid, and this has been a further source of criticism. But Chopin provided an orchestra part that is workable, and not much is to be argued in favor of several re-orchestrations that were put forward as correctives by later editors.

In an 1836 review of Chopin’s concertos in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Robert Schumann wrote that in these works “Chopin introduces the spirit of Beethoven into the concert hall.” Allegro maestoso is Chopin’s marking for the opening movement of this concerto, and that opening does indeed comprise a sense of majesty along with its gravitas. We hear Chopin’s principal themes twice through—first in the orchestral introduction, then in a second exposition by the piano—and the development of the themes involves piano figuration that in performance can prove captivating, even breathtaking. When the movement’s recapitulation arrives the second theme is presented not in its original E major but rather in G major; and nineteen measures from the movement’s end the proceedings shift briefly into C major, mirroring what had happened at that point in the orchestral introduction. This jolt of harmonic drama illustrates an observation by the Chopin scholar Jim Samson, who has remarked on how the composer is drawn to “end-weighting” his musical structures, saving harmonic contrast to surprise listeners near the end of his pieces, or near the end of sections.

Chopin provided a comment about the second movement in a letter to his friend Titus Woyciechowski on May 15, 1830: “The Adagio [i.e., Larghetto] of my new concerto is in E major. It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”

The finale exhibits a flare of Polish folk coloration, in this case through rhythmic patterns related to the krakowiak, a syncopated, duple-time popular dance emanating from the region of Krakow. The principal theme alternates with contrasting episodes, in the classic rondo form, providing opportunities to display countless facets of the pianist’s art and even a bit of hearty stamping from the orchestra.

Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto served to punctuate what we may consider the first phase of his career. Shortly after completing it he left his native Poland. He thought he was merely embarking on a concert tour. But a week after arriving in Vienna, his first stop, Poland erupted in a political uprising. He gradually made his way to a new home in Paris and never returned to Poland, though he remained fiercely allied to Polish revolutionary ideals. In retrospect we imagine that he had learned what he could from the instruction available to him in Warsaw and was ready to seek his fortune in the wider world of European culture. The Polish insurgence forced him to take a step that was for the most part inevitable in any case. All but one of Chopin’s works for piano and orchestra date from his formative years in Poland, where he had relatively few opportunities to hear orchestral performances. But although Chopin’s two piano concertos occupy early spots in his catalogue, they remain at the summit of his symphonic production.

—James M. Keller

Wilkie and the Decca Tree

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”

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