Claudio Arrau, Piano: Chopin, Four Scherzos and B Minor Sonata


This disc exceeded my expectations. Which is to say, it transcends blandness and enters "serviceable" territory. I remain baffled by the bloated posthumous reputation of the Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, especially when he's considered alongside other pianists of the past such as Horowitz, Cortot, Friedman, or Rachmaninoff. A big disciple of the fatuous "faithfulness to the score" cult, Arrau seems to prefer preaching to performing, failing to paint color into the musical canvases he's supposed to be bringing to life. Not to mention that he's not all that attentive to the score anyway.

The most disappointing thing about this recording is the almost total lack of "Wow, why'd he do that?!" moments. Arrau had a formidable digital technique to be sure, but he has given us precious little food for the imagination. In the presto portions of the scherzos, for instance, he mostly just rattles off the notes, displaying little of the intensity these pieces call for. The codas are especially tame and mechanical, lacking in fury or panache. Even more exasperating are his soporific middle sections, especially the contemplative folk-like tune in the B minor (first) and the plangent song in the E major (fourth), which are workmanlike and earthbound. In the second, my personal favorite, the fantastic opening theme has no rhythmic edginess; the melodies lack sweep in the ensuing earnest tune set against the undulating, widely spaced bassline. In short, there's no need to settle for this sludgy performance when you can listen to Cortot, Long, or Thibaudet.

Like Richter, Arrau often seems to forget that the ability to physically play a pianissimo in a slow section isn't enough: phrases are important too. But even Richter's sound generally has far more depth and soulfulness. Arrau's third scherzo I found especially wooden. The introductory octaves are slow and rumbling when they should be crisp and pointed. In the middle section, perhaps he thinks these wonderfully noble strains would be better set to philosophical tracts than poetry. And the right-hand filigree that intercedes oozes rather than sparkles. How anyone could choose such a peformance over Barere's or Rachmaninoff's is beyond me.

Although there's almost nothing in Arrau's scherzos that transports my imagination beyond the confines of my living room, his B minor sonata does yield a pleasant surprise. The scherzo is one of the better I've heard, its lightness surpassing that in Kapell's and Ponti's versions while still exhibiting crisply accented touches and some carefully planned dynamic squalls. Too bad that one brighter light can't illuminate a whole avenue. The outer movements frequently call to mind two hippos lunging at each other as they trudge through a muddy river. In his chordal passages in particular, such as those that open and conclude the first movement, his hands frequently seem to plummet toward the keyboard with the force of a falling anvil. His development section in the first movement at least displays rhythmic vigor and energy, but it would be so much better still if it weren't so darn heavy and thick. The third movement is too brittle and heavy, containing little of the heroism the piece requires. And the phrases in the slow movement sounded so static and lifeless that I might as well have rescued my ears from the drudgery by ingesting a sleeping pill.

Rather than worrying about being faithful to the score, Arrau should have been more concerned about being faithful to the music. Chopin's long dead, and no one knows 
what his "intentions" were. I can only guess that he wanted to hear his works performed rather than recited.

Joe's Grade: C+      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016