Beauty above bombs

ROMAN POLANSKI'S new film, "The Pianist," opens on a September afternoon in 1939. Concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story the film tells, makes his way through a war-torn city, past death and destruction, to continue his concerts on Warsaw Radio. The piece he chooses to play that day, a Chopin nocturne, is heartbreakingly beautiful, unbroken by the deafening sound of the bombs.

After the experience of the film and its music, it's hard not to want to hear more Chopin. We asked our critics for their recommendations.

Concertos and vintage pianos

Krystian Zimerman, pianist and conductor. Piano Concertos No. 1 and 2. Polish Festival Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon). For months in 1999, the Polish pianist obsessively rehearsed an orchestra of handpicked Polish musicians in Chopin's two piano concertos, gorgeously polishing the scores note by note. The result is not only some of the most illuminating, and luminously played, Chopin on disc, but also one of the all-time great concerto recordings.

Madeleine Forte. Chopin on the Erard Grand (Romeo Records). It is illuminating in an entirely different way to hear Chopin's music on a piano of his time, which the fine, scholarly French pianist has done on a charming, chiming 1881 Erard instrument.

-- Mark Swed


Lipatti and mazurkas

Dinu Lipatti. 14 Waltzes, Barcarolle, Nocturne in D-flat, Mazurka in C-sharp minor (EMI Classics). Recorded in 1950, five months before Lipatti's poignant early death from cancer at 33, these waltzes have streaks of impulsive fantasy and an undercurrent of desperation, as if Lipatti knew he was playing on borrowed time; yet nothing swerves out of control.

Arthur Rubinstein. 51 Mazurkas. The Rubinstein Collection, Vol. 50 (RCA). Rubinstein's senses of rhythm and rhetoric are so naturally, inevitably, idiomatically right that you wonder why anyone would bother to record them again.

-- Richard S. Ginell


Rubinstein and Zimerman

Arthur Rubinstein. All of his recordings. The greatest pianist of the 20th century and the greatest Chopin player of the century. Period.

Krystian Zimerman. Any recording. Another Polish pianist who established himself at a very early age as a Chopin specialist who has played his music more interestingly and authoritatively than anyone since Rubinstein.

-- Daniel Cariaga


Preludes and waltzes

Alfred Cortot. Preludes and 14 Waltzes (Aura Music). Although the fidelity of this recording from the '40s isn't up to modern standards, you can still easily hear the precision, clarity, virtuosity and beguiling rubato of a genius from a bygone era recording in his 60s.

Arthur Rubinstein. Waltzes. The Rubinstein Collection, Vol. 47 (RCA). The pianist captures the many moods of the waltzes with typical nobility and sensitivity.

-- Chris Pasles


Italian and Cuban hands

Maurizio Pollini. Polonaises (Deutsche Grammophon). Pollini is an exemplary interpreter of Chopin because he allows the music's carefully plotted emotionality to shine through of its own accord. This recording of the "Heroic" Polonaise, recorded in 1975, is a fine case study of technical clarity in the service of musical depth.

Juana Zayas. Etudes, Op. 10 and 25 (Music & Arts). The dazzling Cuban-born pianist spent many years responding to the call of full-time motherhood instead of music, but her 1983 Chopin recording shows what we've missed. She brings easy technical ferocity to her readings, but also a sharp poetry all her own. Witness, for instance, the polished revolutionary spirit of the "Revolutionary" Etude.

-- Josef Woodard

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