The finest artists rarely win the big international competitions. Caroline Sageman placed sixth in the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1990 (granted, she was only seventeen at the time). In the intervening years, I have not heard anything of the higher prizewinners – yet here is Sageman, emerging as a fully-formed, thoughtful artist of power and control. The competitions, with their decisions made by committee, have a tendency to settle on mainstream, flashy players who moderately please everyone and largely offend no one. A more probing artist can potentially be very off-putting. And so it is with Sageman. This recording is mightily impressive to anyone who can accept a more granitic, monumental view of this composer. No sign here of Chopin as neurotic, hearts-and-flowers romantic – Sageman seems intent on proving that Chopin’s genius extends to structural and harmonic innovations that almost two centuries later still have the power to shock. And here, they do. I remain a devotee of the emotional, impulsive school of Chopin playing typified by Alfred Cortot, but after hearing this towering recording, I wouldn’t want to be without it. It reveals some surprising new facets of Chopin’s diamonds.
Interestingly, it is said that Caroline Sageman reveres Arthur Rubinstein and Claudio Arrau. Evidently, she absorbed whatever she needed from those legends but has subsequently continued along her own path. With broad – yet never slack – tempos and a powerful sound that can yet retreat into luminous pearls, Sageman undertakes a voyage into rarely traveled terrain for Chopin pianists. Take her approach to Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata. Rubinstein performs the piece ‘songfully’, surging with sweetness and memories in the reflective parts, and with tempered passion in the darker pages. The more adventurous performance that Vladimir Horowitz recorded for Columbia in the 1960’s (currently available on SACD from Sony) unfolds in a highly inflected fever-dream state, with Horowitz’s trademark attacks and detailed shaping. Sageman’s performance is quite different from either of these. She too brings out the singing, luminous qualities of the piece without swooning over it, yet it seems far removed from the personable warmth of Rubinstein. Though Sageman sings, she climbs mountains and has her emotional focus on visionary realms. Her focus is intense, so one could hardly call Sageman’s style cold, but it is anything but warm and friendly. In a certain way, she bears a resemblance to the fierce intensity of Helene Grimaud, but then Grimaud seems much more in the Horowitzian vein, whereas Sageman never careens into climaxes and shows no signs of wanting to reduce the piano to a pile of rubble. In short, Sageman finds inexorable, almost Brucknerian vistas in this music, proving once again that the great composers, no matter how familiar and inextricable from their time they may be, lurk with new discoveries and visions waiting to be brought to life by the right artist.
In the first two movements, Sageman uses shaping and rubato to open up the phrases and rhythms, almost as if she’s looking inside them to discover what makes them work. This gives her rendition of these movements a very different feel from the usual goal-oriented, build-up-to-a-frenzied-climax approach and it puts this music in a very different light.
Even more imposing is the famous third movement ‘Funeral March’ – Sageman’s tread is relentless. Horowitz, by comparison, is wound up like a spring, ready to leap heavenward in the second theme. Rubinstein is more somber, dignified, with his emotion held poignantly in reserve. Sageman advances like a force of nature – no humanistic reserve a la Rubinstein, nor any manic lurches a la Horowitz or Cortot, just the plain-spoken, unvarnished, and therefore all-the-more disturbing tread of Chopin’s march. The only similarly broad and relentless performance I could cite would be Emmanuel Ax’s RCA recording from 1985. Like Sageman, Ax also plays the left-hand trills on the beat, instead of leading into them with a grace note like most players.
In the brief, strange finale (which some have likened to a breath of wind over the grave), Sageman flies along at a tremendous clip, making the notes sound elusive, mysterious, and breathless – and making most other performances seem very earthbound in comparison. Not even Horowitz makes the movement sound so hushed and desperate.
In the four Scherzos, Sageman is again broad in tempo. She obviously does not believe that Chopin’s fast chromatic lines are mere decorative filigree. Plenty of intricate passages prove that she has an impressive technique – she just doesn’t show the least bit of interest in exercising that technique for its own sake. Not a note sounds wasted or ill conceived in these performances. For straightforward dramatic impulse, I’ve always been fond of the Emmanuel Ax recording of the Scherzos for CBS in the mid-1980’s. For flashier fireworks than either Ax or Sageman, there are recordings by Martha Argerich and Mikhail Pletnev that offer more flash and speed. But such performances seem noisy and rather empty next to the intimate drama of Ax or the sculpted poise that Sageman displays here. These are performances hewn out of granite, but a granite shot through with glittering veins of quartz – such as in the trio of Scherzo No. 3, where cascades of notes fall with a tenderness I haven’t heard since Van Cliburn’s recording from the 1960’s.
Lyrinx’s two-channel stereo SACD sound for this recording is quite good – high-resolution digital recording technology may prove to be the first to realistically capture the notoriously hard-to-record sound of the piano. Anyone experienced with the live sound of the instrument will relate to that – mono, stereo, quad, digital – none of it up to this point has ever quite been able to make a piano sound like a piano does when you’re in the same room with it. But Lyrinx’s recording captures some elusive part of the piano’s timbre that has rarely been caught in the past. On the other hand, many historical recordings have special delights of their own, particularly with pianists who are adept at “coloring” their tone. But in this recording, the quiet passages still gleam, no matter how quiet the playing; and the loud passages thunder without bleaching out or going glassy.
I’ve not heard of any other recordings made in the Salle Blachiere in Marseille, so I have nothing against which to compare it. The perspective is reasonably close, but well balanced. The beautiful definition of the sound flattens out in the CD layer of this hybrid SACD, but even there it is a satisfying recording.
The recording perspective is just close enough that it makes one wonder how much power Sageman would project in a large concert hall. But regardless, she has an evenness of touch that allows her to voice chords and contrapuntal lines in ways that illuminate the architecture and coherence of Chopin’s music. At first glance, one might think that would somehow “normalize” Chopin – after all, coherency is hardly the loftiest goal of romantic music. But what it does, instead, is to make Chopin’s inspiration more impressive than ever. Instead of coming across as arbitrary or impulsive (a charge often leveled at these pieces), Chopin’s structures become unstoppable, inevitable.
One point of note: Although the tracks are listed in the correct order on the back of the case and in the booklet (sonata followed by scherzos), the actual printed track numbers incorrectly suggest that the scherzos come first.
The disc is highly recommended to those open to innovative new angles on favorite pieces. For drama and emotion, I remain committed to Horowitz in the Sonata and Ax in the Scherzos. For the finest traditional approach, Rubinstein recorded glowing and vital accounts of all these pieces… but the Ax and Rubinstein recordings are not yet available on SACD.