Guest article by Ian Flint, a pianist and piano teacher based in North London. It was originally published on pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

Chopin’s extraordinary Ballade No.1 seems to inspire serious students of the piano, whether dedicated hobbyists or aspirant professionals, like no other single piano work. Its role at a pivotal moment in Roman Polanski’s 2002 film The Pianist has doubtless contributed to its celebrated status. More recently the sense of Zeitgeist around this masterpiece has been further enhanced by former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s book in which he outlines his endeavours to learn the piece against all the odds (Play It again: An Amateur Against the Impossible).

This article assesses the main recordings of the work available on YouTube, with the aim of helping you locate the most compelling performances. Given the range of richly rewarding interpretations on offer, from widely divergent artistic personalities, it’s clear that this piece of music truly inspires many of the world’s greatest pianists too. They are in good company: Chopin apparently told Schumann that this Ballade was his favourite among his own works.

Maurizio Pollini

Having long occupied an exalted place amongst interpreters of this work, Pollini is well represented on YouTube, mainly in recordings taken from ‘live’ performances. If Pollini is at his best when he combines his commanding brilliance with a sense of space and a willingness to yield to the more lyrical impulses of the music, one of these recordings is pre-eminent. This is indeed a magisterial account, granitic, turbulent when the music demands, but also with an enchanting sense of reverie in the second subject, truly faithful to Chopin’s sotto voce marking. Throughout the work Pollini’s phrasing comes in long, organic paragraphs, contributing to an inexorable sense of the work’s overall architecture.

 

Sviatoslav Richter

Richter is also well-served on YouTube, mostly via recordings of various concerts from the 1960’s. Richter’s interpretation remains fairly consistent across these performances. His introduction is restrained rather than consciously arresting, and leads to a subdued main theme, cowed with sorrow. In the midst of such a weighty reading, his rather insouciant way with the second limb of the second subject in the recapitulation (from bar 180) is rather quirky – hardly the con forza stipulated by the composer. But in general Richter is fully responsive to the unfolding drama, and the denouement is suitably demonic.

 

Vladimir Horowitz

Much less consistent are the various YouTube versions of Vladimir Horowitz, again from ‘live’ performances. The most impressive of these is a video of a Carnegie Hall concert. As might be expected from Horowitz, this is a big-boned rendition, but there are also many charming individual moments of lyricism and a delightfully teasing quasi-waltz (from bar 140). Even in this performance, though, there is sometimes an unwarranted heavy-handedness, a certain lumpiness in the phrasing and rhythmic relationships:

These less appealing characteristics are more pronounced on the various other Horowitz performances on YouTube. Indeed one version (posted by ‘boomzxz’) is nothing short of a travesty.

 

Arthur Rubinstein

The countless admirers of Arthur Rubinstein would cite the sheer individuality of his poetic sensibility as one of the crowning glories of his playing. His recording of the 1st Ballade, dating from 1959, certainly has those moments of insight, but some will feel that at times his rubato and tonal shading step across the border from revelatory to wilful. For example, the way he curtails the very first note of the piece or flattens out of the triplet in bar 4 seem difficult to justify. Chopin was a perpetual revisor, and was on occasion even capable of sending substantially varied versions of the same work to his different publishers, so it would be ill-advised to argue for a frigid fidelity to the text in the performance of his music. However, he notated the rhythm of this Ballade’s introduction so precisely that it seems appropriate to adhere to his written intentions.

 

Alfred Cortot

Whatever are Rubinstein’s eccentricities, they pale into insignificance when set alongside Cortot’s performance. There is certainly something of the tortured artist here, and Cortot’s rhythmic liberties are at times so spasmodic that he could scarcely be seen as a prime contender. However, if one can disregard his distortions of Chopin’s text in, for example, the second subject, one can be drawn into a quasi-improvisatory dreamscape that is oddly intoxicating.

 

Lang Lang

Yet pianists from a bygone era such as Cortot don’t have a monopoly on extreme expressive freedom. The ‘live’ video of Lang Lang reminds us that not all today’s pianists are sanitized in comparison with their predecessors. Lang Lang allows himself more poetic (and sometimes textual) licence than most of his colleagues, past and present. There is fervour and panache in abundance; indeed the overall effect might be mesmerising to someone who had never heard the piece before. For those more familiar with the composer’s score and the general stylistic history of Chopin playing, some aspects of his interpretation are likely to be puzzling at best.

 

Claudio Arrau

For more convincing examples of rhythmic flexibility one might turn to Claudio Arrau. Of the many versions available on YouTube, recorded at various stages of his career, perhaps the most consistently fulfilling is one dating from 1953. Here, his way with the third phrase of the main theme (bars 12-14) or the apogee of the second subject (bars 79-80), to give just two examples, is very rubato indeed, but seems to fit perfectly in the context. Indeed, Arrau’s second theme in general is one of the most exquisitely contoured to be found anywhere. It is true that Arrau is less scintillating than many in the more bravura passages of the work, but this is a performance to treasure for the beauty and gravitas of its musical soul.

 

Martha Agerich

In many ways Martha Agerich’s interpretation is the polar opposite of Arrau’s, in her characteristic emphasis on the volatile, tempestuous aspects of the work. Yet Agerich also finds room for a winningly tender second subject. Another strength of this performance is the dazzling clarity of her fingerwork in the central section, giving a wonderful sense of caprice.

 

Evgeny Kissin

This Russian artist strikes a fine balance between respect for the score and apparent spontaneity. Individual phrases are lovingly sculpted and intelligently related to each other; this thoughtful approach shines, for example, in his very organic transition between the first and second subjects (from bar 36). There is much profundity in both main themes (although the slightly halting quality in the first theme is somewhat curious), and the central section pulsates with verve and playfulness.

Unlike many others, Kissin observes Chopin’s con forza (bar 180) in the recapitulation of the second subject, giving this section a great sense of élan. The main body of the coda is not utterly relentless; instead he withdraws at the beginning of certain phrases, both tonally and rhythmically. Rather than detracting from the drama, this seems to magnify the ultimate annihilation.

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli,

In a studio version captured on video, Michelangeli offers an aristocratic reading, understated and seemingly effortless. There’s not much red-blooded passion here, and the performance isn’t free of his ‘left hand before right’ mannerism, but there are substantial compensations, notably an irresistibly languid second subject.

There are also various ‘live’ performances by Michelangeli (posted by ‘RabidCh’ and ‘incontrario motu’ among others) which are by no means carbon copies of each other, but in general he seems more emotionally involved and allows himself more expressive freedom (not always to the music’s advantage) than in the video recording.

 

Vladimir Ashkenazy

The main recording by Ashkenazy, taken from his Decca box set, has that emotionally searching quality that is one of the hallmarks of this artist. The main theme is mournfully ruminative, setting the tone for a performance full of pathos, perhaps sometimes at the expense of propulsion. Yet there is plenty of the requisite majesty and drama too, and Ashkenazy’s peerless tonal refinement makes for a deeply satisfying listening experience.

There is an earlier ‘live’ performance by Ashkenazy, recorded in Moscow in 1963. This has much more of the impetuosity of youth (it’s over a minute shorter), the expression is in general more overt and the ferocity of the coda even more seismic. The recording quality is admirably clear but shows its age in an occasional hard edge to the piano sound.

 

Murray Perahia

Perahia gives a powerful and insightful account. Some of the underlying chords in the first theme (especially in the recapitulation) are a little dry and obtrusive, but this is a minor quibble. This is a highly convincing performance, poised and intelligent, titanic when necessary but devoid of hyperbole. Other versions might be more captivating in individual aspects of the work, but few achieve Perahia’s cohesion, both in the relationships between individual phrases and the logic of the overarching structural framework. This masterful grasp of the musical narrative is perfectly illustrated, for example, in the transition (bars 188-194) leading to the final stricken intoning of the first theme.

 

Emil Gilels

Gilels has an imposingly strident manner in this work, sometimes to good effect, especially in an exciting ‘live’ performance from Leningrad in 1963. There are moments of melting beauty, but in general the emotions are conveyed quite forcefully, and sometimes the sound is a little too stark for the context, for example towards the end of the first theme.

 

Umi Garrett

There is a remarkable ‘live’ recording by the 14-year-old Umi Garrett. This is not just a question of gaping at a Wunderkind, and musing sagely if the child prodigy will be able to mature into a genuine artist. On the contrary, this is already a fully-fledged performance, full of artistic sensibility as well as marvellous dexterity, one with which to try a ‘blind test’ on your musical friends.

 

Jorge Bolet

Bolet is represented by a video recording, made late in his career, and indeed this performance has a distinct sense of a master looking back. Although many other pianists engulf us more remorselessly in the work’s turmoil, this performance is suffused with a haunting sadness that perhaps compels more deeply than some other more extrovert readings.

 

Andrei Gavrilov

Another performance of impeccable artistry comes from Andrei Gavrilov. From his suitably portentous introduction Gavrilov takes us on an absorbing journey through the work’s ever-changing landscapes. This is music-making of the utmost sincerity, and Gavrilov always directs his stupendous physical prowess to the service of the music. Towards the end of a titanic coda, his pronounced rubato and the sheer slowness of the final octave descent (perhaps too melodramatic for some listeners) crown the work with an epic fatalism. Unfortunately the rather muffled sound quality of the recording is not commensurate with the quality of the playing.

 

Krystian Zimerman

The opening bars in Zimerman’s hands immediately set the tone for a performance of great grandeur and finesse. Every musical gesture is delivered with great conviction. His rubato is highly idiomatic and his phrasing wonderfully nuanced, although he is less ethereal than some in the more introspective episodes, especially the initial statement of the second subject. The central A major statement of the second theme is toweringly imperious. Overall, Zimerman’s interpretation has a severity that seems entirely appropriate, no more so than in the main body of the coda which is relentlessly pulverising rather than frenetic, leading with gripping inevitability to a bone-crushing final catastrophe.

 

So who are the best interpreters of Chopin’s First Ballade?

With such a range of outstanding performances to choose from it is genuinely difficult to select one definitive version. The most poignantly lyrical performances are not necessarily the most riveting in the more magmatic or mercurial aspects of the work. Ashkenazy, Gavrilov, Kissin, Pollini, Perahia and Zimerman are amongst the most enthralling communicators of Chopin’s kaleidoscope of emotions. But if forced to take just one performance to the proverbial desert island, it would be Krystian Zimerman.

 

About the Author:

Ian Flint is a highly experienced and versatile pianist and teacher, who has established a thriving piano teaching practice in London, where he specialises in coaching adult pianists. Inspired by his own Russian-influenced training, he is extremely dedicated to developing each student’s physical approach to promote maximum freedom, agility and beauty of sound. For more of his articles and additional information about piano lessons, go to pianoteachernorthlondon.com.

A conversation with one of my adults students this week prompted this post. Sarah is a very confident woman in her mid-40s, who runs her own business, and who started having lessons with me, as a complete beginner, three years ago. She took Grade 1 last Spring and passed with a Merit. Spurred on by her success, she decided to study for Grade 2 and will take the exam in July. She’s worked really hard, and is playing far, far better than she was a year ago. Focussed and articulate about what she wants from her lessons, it surprised me when, at her lesson yesterday, she admitted she was having serious problems with the Bach/Petzold Minuet in G minor (ABRSM Grade 2/List A). She played it perfectly well, a little hesitant in places, but she made a good attempt at the mordents and other ornamentation, and was clearly thinking about how to shape the music.

“So, what’s the problem?” I asked when she had finished. “I thought that sounded really good.”

“It’s because it’s Bach!” she replied. “I can’t believe I’m actually learning music by Bach!”

So, somewhat in awe of the music, she was finding it hard to focus on her practising. I knew exactly what she meant: I had a similar experience when I started learning Chopin’s First Ballade last summer. Now, would all professional pianists, and those amateurs who have mastered such big, virtuoso works, please stand aside for a moment, and allow me to explain. When I first started taking lessons again as an adult, nearly three years ago, my confidence and self-esteem were pretty low. A brief, but unsettling experience with a less than savoury piano teacher in 2007 had not helped, plus I was getting no support from anyone, least of all my family, about my music. I was working entirely alone, with no one to critique my playing or reassure me I was “doing it right”. My current teacher is the most patient, skilled and supportive teacher I have ever had, and with her encouragement, I have overcome both my shyness about playing for others, and my inability to trust my musical self and tackle advanced repertoire. When she suggested I learn one of the Ballades or Scherzi, I knew she had not suggested it just to please me: she knew I could cope with it. I started learning the G minor Ballade that same afternoon…..

Playing it for my teacher at my next lesson (I’d learnt about a third of it by then), I was doing fine until I reached the beautiful, lyrical section before the restatement of the opening theme. I was really enjoying playing my teacher’s beautiful antique Bluthner, but then I remembered I was playing a Chopin Ballade, one of the big warhorses of the concert repertoire, and I found myself completely in awe of the music, and its composer. Tense and unable to focus, it all went to pieces…. Amazed at the sheer beauty and inventiveness of Chopin’s writing, I couldn’t quite believe I was actually playing the piece, to my teacher, on a Wednesday morning in north London: in my mind, I was playing to a full house at the Wigmore Hall, with the ghost of the composer at my elbow, nodding benignly as if to say “Yes! That is what I meant.” Such wide-eyed fantasising does no harm, now and then, but it can prevent one from getting to the heart of the music so that one can begin a serious study of it.

This, I think, was my student’s difficulty as well. In the early grades, the pieces are simple and often aimed at children, and many are written especially for the syllabus, I suspect. While some of the pieces are really imaginative (John Rowcroft’s ‘African Dance’ from the previous syllabus, for example), it is always refreshing to come across “real piano music”, and I think an early student can feel daunted, perhaps by the responsibility that is placed on one to interpret and play it well.

I pointed out to Sarah that the Minuet in G minor comes from the ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena’, a collection of pieces, in two volumes, which Bach presented to his second wife. It is quite possible that these were pieces Mrs Bach, and other members of the family, played at home. This was domestic music, to be enjoyed by the family. These were not concert pieces, nor music for the church, though there are suites and partitas, and chorale settings amongst the works. With this in mind, I urged Sarah to stop being so much in awe of the piece and to simply enjoy playing it (while practising it carefully too, of course!). It is rather plaintive and elegant, and benefits from careful articulation and shaping. The ornaments are not too demanding, and offer a good introduction to Bach’s ornamentation in general.

Crass as this might sound, it’s important not to get too overwhelmed by the music. Allow yourself to stand back from it, give yourself some perspective. Marvel at the genius of the composer, but don’t be afraid of it! Study it, play it, and, most importantly, enjoy it.

Minuet in G minor – attr. Petzold

With six weeks to go until my teacher’s advanced piano course, I am beginning to put together the repertoire to take with me. The course takes place over a long weekend, and is three days of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a students’ concert on the Sunday afternoon. Last year, I went with a degree of trepidation as I had never done a piano course before. I came away from it inspired – so much so that I decided I would start working for a performance Diploma, which I hope to take this winter. It was wonderful to wallow in piano music for three whole days, and to “talk piano” with like-minded and very committed people. Because of my teacher’s style and her expert tuition (she is quietly precise, and firm, with a reputation for guiding and encouraging each student to reach their full potential, both musically and technically), everyone feels very supported and encouraged, and there is a very friendly atmosphere on the course.

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme annee, Italie: This beautiful, dreamy, meditative piece is inspired by Petrach’s Sonnet I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (“I beheld on earth angelic grace” – read the full text here). An understanding of the text of the Sonnet is essential to a proper understanding of this music, and I have spent the last few days listening and watching YouTube clips of this work in its song form, as well as singing the melodic lines to myself, both at the piano and away from it. This is very romantic music, in the truest sense of the word, and one must be careful not to make it sound saccharine, self-indulgent and schmaltzy. The notes themselves are not so hard – there are some awkward chord progressions which can be achieved with the right fingering – but conveying the mood and emotional depth of the piece is more tricky. Coming after a month’s work on Bach’s Toccata from the Sixth Partita, this piece provides a wonderful foil to Bach’s Baroque arabesques.

J S Bach – Toccata from Partita, BWV 830 in E minor: I have really enjoyed getting my fingers, and head, around Bach after a long absence from his music (I used to play a lot of Bach when I was at school, both as a soloist and in a chamber group where I played continuo). On one level, I have proved to myself – and my teacher, who has not heard me play Bach before – that I can still do it. I thought it would be a long learning process, so I was surprised that I had learnt the entire piece in just three weeks. The intellectual and technical demands of this kind of music have been immensely satisfying and rewarding, and with the music now well “in the fingers”, I am enjoying the ‘finessing’ work on colour, contrast, shape and mood. This piece is very nearly concert-ready, and I may choose to include it in the end of course concert.

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande: I love the way this music links to the Bach, but I also feel in the first piece, the Prelude, Debussy’s ‘take’ on his Baroque antecedents is more humorous, and my recent work on this piece had been to concentrate on keeping the fingers nimble and playful, and experimenting with various hand and finger techniques and movements to achieve different effects. The piece is very much a “toccata” in that it is a test of the pianist’s touch, but there are also moments of great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, grandeur too (again a nod back to a Baroque model), for example in mm. 42-55. These big chords are potentially dangerous for me with my unstable right hand: I am practising them quietly, no louder than mezzo-forte, while concentrating on keeping my wrists light and bouncy to avoid straining my hands.

The Sarabande provides a complete contrast, and I love the way the cadenza of the Prelude, in particular the big, fortissimo chords in the final six bars, sets up a silence for the sublime opening of the Sarabande. This elegant, stately dance requires an angled, caressing attack and very smooth movements between the chords. My notes at the top of the score include some quotes about Debussy’s own playing of this piece: his hands are described as “floating over the keys”, that they never left the keys, and that it sounded as if his hands were “sinking into velvet”. Trying to achieve all this, while also highlighting the interior “voices” within the melodic lines, is not easy! And again, I need to be careful with the big hand stretches. I have not yet played this for my teacher, and I look forward to working on it with her at my next lesson. This and the Prelude will definitely be going on the course!

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K511: I have really enjoyed revisiting this piece over the past month or so, with a view to putting it into my Diploma programme. I took a long break from it, after learning it initially, and this has definitely helped as I’ve returned to it fresh, with some new thoughts about it. A difficult piece, with all its contrasting strands of melody and texture, it requires great clarity of playing and technique. This also makes it an excellent Diploma piece as it showcases a number of different styles and techniques, with its nods forward to Chopin and back to Bach.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor: I’ve learnt half of this, and have really enjoyed it, but it’s on the back burner now as I must concentrate on my Diploma repertoire. I will go back to it and learn the rest of it, but it’s a long haul and I want to have the time to devote to it. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing that I can play a “great” of the piano repertoire, if only half of it at present!

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge (“Gaze of the Virgin”) from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: I did quite a lot of work on this away from the keyboard when I was on holiday at Christmas, but since then I have done no more. This is a very difficult piece – not so much the notes, but the profoundly emotional content and subject matter. When the Debussy pieces are more advanced, I will return to this.