Even as the frenzy of Chopin concerts has receded following the onslaught in 2010 (cross-reference below), it is never tiring to revisit many of his most beloved compositions. In this instance, fifteen previously unreleased recordings spanning an equal number of years (1974-89) provide much insight into the Russian pianist/pedagogue, Vera Gornostaeva.
From the first measure of the opener (Polonaise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 26, No. 1), it is astonishing to hear just how masculine the result appears to be. As if wanting to prove herself amongst the legion of male virtuosos of the day (not least of which, Emil Gilels) the approach is infused with pianistic testosterone. Even when the music calms down (following excursions to the fortissimo top which are sometimes decidedly coarse), there is little to “sing” about. What can be heard as the performances unfold is Gornostaeva’s inner security improves to the point where the compositions are stripped of any notion of sexuality and filled with copious amounts of humanity—just as Chopin intended.
In the very next track (chronologically: No. 4) the most extended work of the set (Fantasie in F Minor, Op. 49) already begins the journey to a fuller range of expression. While some of the fermatas are robbed of full value and more lift would improve the “punctuation” of the passagework, the “Lento” is a miracle of expression, easily forgiving the too-heavy-by-half accents that follow. Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No.2 bids adieu to 1974 with a marvellous feel of mesto.
From 1979 comes a single offering (Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39) that is given a convincingly heroic, full-blooded reading that pays its deserved homage to Johannes Brahms with impassioned piety. Clearly, Gornostaeva has come into her own special understanding of her art.
Highlights in the four works recorded in 1981 include the exuberance contained in the disc’s first piece of the major mode (Mazurka in B Major, Op. 41, No. 3) and the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1—overflowing with energy, spiced with a bit of coyness and zest even as the occasional bits of brittleness work effectively to balance the rest.
A restless crowd (audible on several occasions) can’t spoil the thoughtfully well-paced Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1—if only more wait/weight had found its way into the harmonic shifts—which features a delectable finish that is sadly interrupted by a patron who wants to be the first to show the rest that he (it couldn’t have been a woman!) knows the double bar has been reached. The concluding bonbon pair of the CD and 1984 selections are two studies of contrast. The “Minute Waltz” (Op. 64, No. 1) roils about in a somewhat frantic fashion, leaving its inner voices for another day where the Waltz in C-sharp Minor Op. 64, No. 2 provides a master class of touch and voice leading as well as the long awaited true ring in the upper register. Merci mille fois: This was a very good year.
The final four from 1989 are, collectively, much more refined and engagingly intimate, notably Mazurka in A-flat Major, Op. 41, No. 4 with its enamouring “hesitato”—much more easily said than done.
Music lovers of all stripes will enjoy surveying this collection and hear for themselves just how this distinguished artist grew over the course of a decade-and-a-half. JWR