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What's the best way to hear Chopin?

Chinese pianist Yundi (left) and Britain's Benjamin Grosvenor
Chinese pianist Yundi (left) and Britain's Benjamin Grosvenor

Ivan Hewett reviews two new recordings of Chopin's Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2, by Benjamin Grosvenor and Yundi

One thing that never changes is the classical recording industry’s keenness for yoking hoary old masterpieces to fresh-faced youth. These new releases of Chopin’s two piano concertos follow the ancient formula to a T. The cover of the one from Warner Classics shouts “Yundi/Chopin”, as if the charmingly slight, gracefully melancholic pieces on the CD were actually joint creations of the composer and the famed Chinese pianist.

Yundi hardly qualifies as youth. Although at 18 he was the youngest ever winner of the Chopin International Piano Competition in 2000, he’s now approaching 40 – but Warner have carefully chosen a cover photo where he still looks like a teenager. Whereas Decca’s release featuring brilliant young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is the real deal, as he’s still on the right side of 30. His name appears on the sleeve in a massive typeface, with Chopin’s tucked discreetly below in minuscule.

The irony is that back in the day when Chopin’s concertos were written this sort of joint billing would have actually been appropriate. Musicians were to some extent co-creators of the pieces they played. They regarded scores as invitations to be creative, not blueprints to be slavishly followed.

But Chopin’s written-out improvisational lines are so perfectly judged, who these days would dare to mess with them? Certainly not Yundi or Grosvenor, who both follow them to the letter – except when it comes to Chopin’s performance directions. Those can be quite lavish and expressive. Raddolcendo pops up at one point in the slow movement of the second concerto, meaning “getting sweeter,” and often you find stringendo or con anima, which are both invitations to become more impassioned and pull the tempo around.

Yundi fastidiously refuses them. Accompanied by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, his performance is beautifully polished and unfailingly elegant. He has a nice way of cushioning important notes in the melody by playing the bass fractionally early. The brilliant passages are truly brilliant, and he makes the ballroom rhythms dance.

It’s all completely unimpeachable, but a little ungenerous and anonymous – whereas Grosvenor occasionally surprises us. Sometimes he goes against Chopin’s markings, as in the middle section of the slow movement of the second concerto, which in his hands veers touchingly between assertive tragedy and a lost, introverted melancholy. This emotional volatility is so characteristic of Chopin, and Grosvenor always keeps it in mind. That, plus the warm and vivid recorded sound (and Elim Chan’s sympathetic conducting of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) make this recording the one to go for.

Yundi: Chopin Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (Warner Classics) ★★★★☆

Benjamin Grosvenor: Chopin Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 (Decca) ★★★★★