Review by: Jed Distler
Artistic Quality: 8
Sound Quality: 8
Life according to Chopin? Chopin’s greatest piano solos? Now that Jeffrey Biegel’s got your attention, you can set the titles aside and focus on this pianist’s music making. He begins his program with a direct and shapely “Minute Waltz”. At first I found his uncommonly literal and textually meticulous phrasing of the C-sharp minor Waltz’s opening section a little stiff and self-aware. Yet after the Trio, Biegel reiterates the same music with lyrical inflection. Biegel’s legato articulation and textural diversity in the Barcarolle especially impress when you consider how sparely he deploys the sustain pedal in the opening section. The D-flat Nocturne boasts gorgeous tracery and delicately supple double notes, while the A minor Mazurka’s decorative right-hand writing effortlessly floats over the barlines.
Some might feel the G minor Ballade too sectionalized, yet Biegel sustains attention in the rubato-laden E-flat theme by bringing out the left-hand accompaniment as a counterline. Like Claudio Arrau, Biegel takes his time over the scherzando passage at measure 138 so that the inner melodies can truly take shape. In Op. 22 Biegel takes the Andante Spianato at a brisk yet relaxed pace, and eschews surface ebullience in the Grande Polonaise as he probes the flashy fioratura’s melodic potential. It’s an interesting and thoughtful approach, but don’t expect rhythmic pomp and swagger.
Going back to this disc’s subtitle, would even the most erudite Chopin specialist claim the posthumously published A-flat Mazurka to be one of the composer’s “greatest piano solos”? That said, Biegel plays it beautifully, and he surprises you with his whimsical detached phrasing of the main theme toward the conclusion–or, in the immortal words of Vladimir de Pachmann, “eh, staccato à la Paganini!”
Either by coincidence or deliberate design, the disc’s final three selections are in C-sharp minor. Those who like to wallow in the Fantasie-Impromptu’s central “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” section will enjoy Biegel’s milking of the famous tune. By contrast, the posthumous Nocturne gets a relatively sober and reserved reading. Listeners accustomed to Argerich’s charged bravura, Rubinstein’s generous panache, or the young Benjamin Grosvenor’s lightning reflexes in the Third Scherzo might be taken aback by Biegel’s leisurely gait and meticulous attention to articulation. I’m struck by Biegel’s characterful contrasts in the Trio, where he broadens the chorale theme yet tersely delivers the rapid descending figurations that follow in strict tempo. But the coda is too held back for my taste, lacking in drive and febrile momentum. You may not agree with every interpretive decision, yet Biegel’s Chopin is never generic or cut and dried, and often sheds fresh perspectives on pieces that we think we can strum through in our sleep. The sonics are full-bodied, yet slightly close-up and dry.
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Recording Details:Album Title: Life According to Chopin
Reference Recording: Barcarolle: Rubinstein (RCA); Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2: Moravec (Nonesuch); Scherzo No. 3: Argerich (DG)
- CHOPIN, FRÉDÉRIC:Waltzes Op. 64 Nos. 1 & 2; Barcarolle in F-sharp major Op. 60; Nocturnes Op. 27 No. 2 & Op. Posth. in C-sharp minor; Mazurkas Op. 17 No. 4 & Op. Posth. in A-flat major; Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23; Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Op. 22; Fantasie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor Op. 66; Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor Op. 39