Poets of the piano, as we use to call the great Chopin interpreters, were never thick on the ground.
A short list of past exemplars might include Alfred Cortot, Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninoff and, closer to our own time, Artur Rubinstein. Are their like still with us?
One problem in identifying this rare beast today is the relative paucity of piano recitals, in part because violinists are currently favored by audiences over keyboard players. Then there's the matter of tone, in which respect Chopin is the most exigent of composers, requiring an arsenal of featheriness, plangency, occasional thunderousness. And then there's imagination, but let's save that subjective minefield for another day.
It's clear that there's no fakery about Evgeny Kissin's tone and technical capability, live (he is among the few hot-ticket piano recitalists) or in the studio.
A decade ago, Kissin, then all of 12 years old, was introduced to us via live-performance recordings of the two Chopin concertos. They were, and remain, remarkable for their easy, lyric grace--the boy could dream--and rhythmic strength.
Kissin is now in his early 20s, lionized for the kind of rabble-rousing shown in his latest recorded effort (RCA Victor 62542), which seems utterly to miss Chopin's points.
The playing of the B-minor Sonata and a dozen Mazurkas is clangorous, hectically virtuosic. Even the soft playing sounds bloated, lacking in intimacy, fussed over.
That quality of intimacy is a strong presence in the interpretations of American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who continues his traversal of the whole of Chopin's solo output with the Polonaises and Impromptus (Arabesque 6642, 2 CDs).
Ohlsson's way with the tickling figurations of the D-minor Polonaise is satisfyingly apt, as is the manner in which he sets out the brooding Polonaise in F minor as a restrained emotional crescendo. When the stops have to be pulled out, as in the "Heroic" Polonaise, Ohlsson may not assume as aggressive a stance as some, but the power is there.
The playing may, however, strike some ears as too reined-in, even on the plain side: logical, shapely Chopin from a pianist who is neither a picky colorist nor a practitioner of dizzying rubato.
The Russian Michael Pletnev is, at age 38, already becoming a recital rarity, a consequence of his burgeoning conducting career. What we're missing by his increasing absence from the keyboard is indicated in a Chopin recital (Virgin 45076) that includes the Scherzo in B-flat minor and the Sonata in the same key (the one with the Funeral March) and, in particular, wistful, songful performances of the Barcarolle and the C-minor Nocturne.
Pletnev can unleash the furies, too, as he does in the sonata, which, however, he tops off with an astonishingly willful reading of the finale, keeping the pedal depressed throughout (or so it sounds) to create a ghostly blur, challenging the keenest ear to pick out theme or rhythm. "Concept" with a vengeance, but insufficient reason for dismissing the considerable remainder of his program.
Witold Malcuzynski (1914-1987), the composer's Polish compatriot, was long considered a sort of poor man's Artur Rubinstein (another Pole). But where Rubinstein's Chopin tended to be easygoing and contemplative, Malcuzynski's was showy, delivered with tremendous vigor by an artist who savored big climaxes and wasn't averse to some rhythmic taffy-pulling.
His appealing effusiveness is captured in an inexpensive, fully packed set (EMI 68226, 2 CDs) that includes material originally released around 1960: all 14 Waltzes, a generous sampling of Mazurkas, the B-minor Sonata and the F-minor Piano Concerto.
The Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires has gained a considerable following in Europe for her Chopin, and one can see why in a recent recording of the F-minor Piano Concerto, an uncommonly limpid performance of one of the composer's most limpidly elegant creations, in which she is handsomely accompanied by Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 437 817).
Finally there's the refined, probing artistry of Murray Perahia, who offers the four Ballades as centerpieces of one of the most satisfying Chopin recitals in years (Sony 64399), a wide-ranging exposition of the composer as poet and harmonic innovator in all his subtle, moonlit glory and his strength.
Perahia presents the wistful/thunderous F-minor Ballade and the dreamy/menacing Nocturne in F with that flowing yet firmly articulated legato that makes Chopin sing.
And if you're looking for Chopin the loose-limbed dancing master, Perahia exhibits him with soaring panache and rhythmic lift in a pair of familiar Waltzes. The Chopin nervousness isn't slighted either, as witness the startling explosions--gripping drama, not theatricality--of the A-minor Ballade.