Chopin: Piano Sonata No 3; Cello Sonata; Nocturnes, Waltzes and Mazurkas

Maria João Pires (Deutsche Grammophon 477 7483)

16 June 2009 3 stars

Maria Joao Pires

When the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires refers to her new two-disc Chopin recording project as 'a stroll through [his] late period', I know she's talking about an exploration of a certain period of his output that does not adhere too academically to the exact order in which they were written, to an exhaustive account of every single piece from his final years, or indeed to generic groupings of the pieces she's chosen.

And rightly so: notions of 'late style' can be useful ways of understanding a composer's development, but there's no denying that they're also retrospective constructions made with the benefit of hindsight and can't be read too literally.

Nevertheless, I came away from my first couple of encounters with these new recordings a little underwhelmed, without quite knowing why. I think the reason, however, is that Pires' approach to many (if not most) of the pieces amounts to a different kind of 'stroll', which is to say that her performances are at times a little slow, a little fiddly and a little ponderous.

The substantial work on the first disc is the Third Piano Sonata, which Pires sees as a 'point of departure' for a new kind of stylistic awareness and logic on Chopin's part. Finding the rendition of the first movement rather disjointed, I was curious on looking in the critical edition to discover that Chopin himself marks the music in lots of 'microphrases' rather than in big legato lines. To a degree, this epitomises what Pires regards as the 'chaotic' spirit of the music, but I still think that more of a through-line is needed in order to establish tempo and momentum. Perhaps that's because, for me, the music is picked to pieces in a kind of 'intellectual' way rather than a poetical one: she wants us to notice everything, yet perhaps misses the essence of the works.

Pires' technical skill is, of course, phenomenal, and although she admits that the finale of the Third Sonata demands huge energy from her, there's no trace of it in her performance. The scherzo is done with a beautiful lightness of touch and one feels she's completely in control throughout.

At the same time, that could be said to be the problem: Pires' obvious intensity as a personality and as an artist tempts her to pull the music around in order to probe what lies beneath. With some of these salon pieces, though, I think the profundity of Chopin is that the outward simplicity of an unfussy, brilliant performance can actually leave the listener with more of a sense of the composer's construction than one which goes out of its way to underline every harmonic shift, every inner line. Pires wants us to hear the 'gravity' behind the dancing in the nine late mazurkas and three waltzes she plays, but ironically, she highlights the gravity at the expense of the dancing. And are these works, many of which were composed to show off the composer's talent as a pianist as much as anything else, really 'inner' in that sense? Isn't the famous Waltz in D flat (the 'Minute') just a technical showpiece, a miniature?

The cello sonata is, of course, a composition on a grander scale, and it forms the penultimate item on the second disc. The sparks really fly at times in Pires' performance with Pavel Gomziakov, with a thrilling climax about a third of the way through the first movement, for instance. Again, though, one longs for a little more brilliance from both the pianist and particularly the cellist: a little more poise, a little more relish in the sheer act of making music, a bit more passion and a little less introversion. Gomziakov is not Pires' equal in terms of colour or technical panache, either, but the pianist is not wrong when she refers in the liner notes to his 'austerity of tone', which is exceptionally well matched to the composition in some moments.

The disc ends a little flatly with a final mazurka (Op.68, No.4) that seems to characterize the whole set for me: exquisitely detailed, intelligent, technically immaculate, but not quite persuasive.

By Dominic McHugh


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