Pollini recorded the Chopin Etudes for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970s, a very famous recording. I had it on cassette tape, and it had easily the best sound of anything I owned on that long dead medium. I played it many times.
It’s an extraordinary recording. The sound is sonorous, the notes are bright and (like Wenceslas’s snow) crisp and even, the tempo is unflagging, the virtuosity awesome, clean and controlled in the most difficult passages. What could you change? The word perfect offers itself as an appropriate label.
I don’t know if the recording reflected or if it actually started the obsession with accuracy, velocity and clarity that seemed to characterise recorded piano playing in the 1980s. It certainly got me expecting and listening for flawlessness in piano playing rather than anything more interesting. Kissin scored highly here. Perahia could do it with added prettiness. In fact everyone was required to hit the notes with supreme accuracy and control, and lots of people could, it seemed, perhaps with a bit of editing thrown in. Everything was edited, even ‘live’ recordings.
I think we are a bit less bothered by errors today, and no longer looking for what Glenn Gould mocked as the ideal of a museum quality performance: one you could select and buy and put on the shelf, satisfied that you own the definitive Etudes or Waldstein or Great A Major. When you’ve got that, it turns out that you can still be excited by the performance that is different, and the performer who takes risks. This is what we now look for, well, I do.
It turns out that Pollini made an earlier recording of the Etudes in 1960, which he did not allow to be released. Testament brought it out in 2012. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eIQuZwnBAa4
This is fresher, lighter, less rigidly controlled and, I think, more interesting. The DG version is, at times, wearying in its relentless progress. A bit of humanity, meaning a sense of the limited but responding, interpreting artist, is, it turns out, most welcome, necessary, perhaps.
There are, after all, many, many recordings of the Etudes, and most of them have merits. Perahia is superb, Lortie is great, Cortot is himself, and Lugansky is wonderful, to name a few.
An interesting question to ask is why Rubinstein, that fine, fine Chopinist, never recorded them. They are, I suppose, Chopin’s most motoric, mechanistic pieces, and maybe something in Rubinstein was repelled by them. And maybe something in Pollini was turned on by them. And not the best part of him. I think a lot of his playing is so controlled that it’s dull, like much of the 1980s. That early recording is something else. But the DG one also stands as a monument to how far you can go in one particular direction: cool, firm, implacable, beautiful, superhuman, awesome and grand. I no longer have the cassette, but I wouldn’t be without the recording.