El Bacha Revisits Chopin’s Scherzos And Ballades

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 5

Sound Quality: 9

From the late 1990s through the early 2000s Abdel Rahman El Bacha recorded Chopin’s complete solo piano music for the Forlane label. The cycle’s various volumes are hard to source on physical CD, but are intermittently available via download. El Bacha has now re-recorded the Scherzos and Ballades for Mirare.

His tendency to probe local details has intensified over time, usually at the expense of scintillation and dramatic continuity. Perhaps Mirare’s close, full-bodied sonics fuel my observations, yet comparisons speak for themselves. There’s a forward sweep to El Bacha’s earlier Ballade No. 1 coda that’s absent from this more emphatic remake. The pianist’s attention to inner lines and accents somehow prevents the new Scherzo No. 1 from taking wing in the manner of his fluid, albeit equally laid back Forlane traversal. El Bacha now points up the left-hand accompaniment supporting the Scherzo No. 2’s second theme, to more fragmented effect.

Newfound expressive gestures add one minute to the Ballade No. 2’s total duration. Yet here, as before, I enjoy El Bacha’s lilting straightforwardness in the principal F major theme. Furthermore, he does not barnstorm his way through the tumultuous A minor episodes, allowing the notes to speak and the cross-rhythmic phrases their due. I never liked El Bacha’s literal, stiffly phrased Forlane Ballade No. 3, and his ponderous remake also dies on the vine. El Bacha’s labored, unimaginative Scherzo No. 3 cannot compare to the far more energetic and impassioned Forlane recording.

Knowing El Bacha’s leisurely to the point of sedate Forlane Fourth Ballade, I feared for the new recording’s additional two minutes in timing. While El Bacha admittedly fusses more over details this time, he somehow conveys a longer sense of line. No question, however, that the new Scherzo No. 4 sounds earthbound and tired compared to the younger El Bacha’s suppler self. In short, download the Second Ballade for sure, try the Fourth Ballade if you’re curious, and pass on the rest.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Scherzos: Yundi Li (DG); Ashkenazy (Decca), Ballades: Rubinstein (RCA); Perahia (Sony); Moravec (Supraphon)

  • Abdel Rahman El Bacha (piano)

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