Preludes to Chopin: Sonatas, Barcarolle, Polonaise

Kenneth Hamilton

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Preludes to Chopin: Sonatas, Barcarolle, Polonaise Review

by James Manheim

The commercial success of this release shows how strongly audiences hunger for fresh interpretations of mainstream repertory, and a fresh interpretation is exactly what you get. British pianist Kenneth Hamilton has written a book on so-called "golden-age" pianism and sets out to draw inspiration from it -- not to slavishly re-create it -- in modern readings of Chopin. In a way his goals are similar to those of the U.S.-based Steinway & Sons label, which has issued recordings of programs of this kind, but Hamilton's reinterpretations of Chopin for the Prima Facie label are more radical (or more conservative, depending on your outlook). The list of unfamiliar things you will hear is long, making it likely that reactions to what Hamilton does here will be essentially personal. They include varied repeats (sample the last part of the "Funeral March" of the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35), fairly substantial alterations of attack and dynamics, heavy use of tempo rubato even by the usual standards for Chopin ("Markings such as sostenutu .., espressivo ..., and leggiero," Hamilton writes in his notes, "have been treated as potentially referring to tempo as well as to character...") This sounds dodgy, but for most of what he does Hamilton can cite actual recordings going all the way back to a piano roll made by one of Liszt's students. His primary inspiration is Ignacy Paderewski, and this makes his accomplishment valuable as kind of historically informed performance. Hamilton demurs, however, pointing out that his work must necessarily remain modern (and indeed his nervous, forward-pushing readings fit with that idea). He uses a modern Steinway, although plenty of people have played Chopin on older pianos; it has been modified to produce the "singing tone" valued by Chopin, although you may wonder how successful this operation has been. The title Preludes to Chopin refers to another controversial idea: that the Chopin Preludes were intended as just that, as preludes to other works in the same key, and that this was the impetus for the complete set of 24 in all the major and minor keys. The graphics could have used a look from a designer, and another from a proofreader, but Hamilton has made a useful contribution to the rich history of Chopin interpretation.

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