Chopin: Four Ballades

In our series on building a classical library, Andrew Clements selects the definitive recording of Chopin's Four Ballades

The Four Ballades, composed between 1831 and 1842, are perhaps the most perfect examples of Chopin's instinctive sense of musical shape and tonal organisation.

The sheer technical finesse of his piano writing may be displayed more extrovertly in his studies, his lyrical gifts distilled down to a more concentrated essence in the preludes, and mazurkas and nocturnes, his revolutionary approach to large-scale form demonstrated more potently in the second andthird sonatas. But it's in the ballades, and the F minor Fantasy composed in the same period, that allthese facets of his music are welded into a single all-embracing form.

The title implies some kind of narrative programme behind the music, and Robert Schumann, to whom the second in F major is dedicated, claimed that Chopin had told him that a quartet of ballads by the poet Adam Mickiewicz was the starting point for these extraordinary pieces, even revealing their titles - Konrad Wallenrod, Switez, The Water Sprite and The Three Budrys. There is no clinching evidence either way, but it scarcely matters the musical argument in each of the four pieces is so clear, the drama so self- contained and convincing that no literary explanation is required.

It's surprising that by no means all the great Chopin interpreters of the 20th century have tackled the ballades in the studio. There are recordings of any of them by Dinu Lipatti, Sviatoslav Richter or Martha Argerich, for instance, while Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli favoured just No 1 in G minor, and Vladimir Horowitz the F minor fourth.

For those who admire Artur Rubinstein's Chopin, his set of all four on RCA - warm, and ever so slightly sentimental - remains in the catalogue in remastered form, and Vladimir Ashkenazy's accounts (Decca) are fine-grained and well polished, if not quite as searching and all-embracing as some of his other performances in his complete Chopin survey.

The choice for a library version, though, comes down to one of four.

There is Emanuel Ax on RCA, recorded near the beginning of his career and dashing and impulsive in his approach, even if the rubato sometimes seems a bit self-consciously applied, and Andrei Gavrilov on Deutsche Grammophon, whose performance has marvellous facility and sense of colour. But the recordings by Murray Perahia and Krystian Zimerman really stand head and shoulders above the rest, and it is hard to decide between them.

Perahia's reading is one his finest achievements on disc, deeply felt, sumptuously coloured, and always perfectly balanced Zimerman's is equally aristocratic, full of subtleties of touch and timbre and a constant awareness of Chopin's architecture. Both contain superlative piano playing, and if Zimerman just gets my vote, others may well favour Perahia.

Key Recording: Zimerman (Deutsche Grammophon 423 090-2)


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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