How intriguing to have the necessity-driven (lack of sufficiently accomplished players and funding) whittled-down version of Chopin’s piano concertos recorded in a living room. The well-travelled Shanghai Quartet and solid-as-a-rock bassist Peter Lloyd ventured into pianist Edward Auer’s house and lovingly laid down these tracks ahead of public performances in July of the composer’s bicentenary year. Various versions of the E Minor work already exist; Auer took it upon himself to re-fashion Op. 21.
The result is a disc that sounds better on headphones than speakers from a purely technical and—most especially—balance perspective; either reproduction system can’t help but demonstrate the considerable skill sets and great care put into the quick-turnaround project.
On their own, the strings are generally convincing as orchestral stand-ins (tighter inner voices—particularly in the disc’s opening movment and the repeated motif in the “Rondo Vivace” of the E Minor work slightly marring the sense of unified purpose) for the youthful composer’s original intentions. Yet as soon as the piano takes stage (with sparkle, zest and commendable style by Auer), they lose their presence in the aural plane. More curiously, while the Steinway delivers some spectacular colours, it seems oddly distant—in its own world compared with the accompanists. The limitations of virtually any “house setting” as opposed to the acoustic depth of concert halls (and vital “air” beneath a wooden floor to—just like the instruments themselves—further amplify and round the string tone) are readily apparent in the outer movements of both concertos. The real gold of this CD can be found in the middle movements—well worth the purchase price alone.
The opening of the “Romance” (Op. 11) began with beguiling, personal statements from the quartet before Auer quietly snuck in. Opting for restraint—at one with the silky smooth lines—worked to everyone’s advantage and not a trace of the near-brutal “top” that the quicker movements had. Especially effective was the cello/bass lines (Peter Lloyd was a marvel of discretion and—notably during his pizzicato contributions in the outer movements—kept this remarkable train running on time). The happily long, lingering adieu brought the movement to an artistically reluctant close that will stay in memory for a long time. Repeated hearings are heartily recommended.
The ensuing “Rondo” featured the crispest “orchestral” colours of the proceedings. Auer led a delightfully merry chase, inspiring his colleagues to match him at every twist and turn. The somewhat broader—yet still energetic coda—collectively scampered to the double bar with zest and aplomb. JWR