Author Topic: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2  (Read 11433 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline amw

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 4080
Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« on: February 04, 2017, 07:01:52 AM »
Since apparently the idea of shorter blind comparisons has caught on, here's one that should be fairly quick.

The first page of Chopin's Second Ballade was singled out for extensive discussion in Rosen's The Romantic Generation:

The musical material is of an ostentatious simplicity, a long melody on a repetitive 6/8 rhythm harmonised mostly with chords in root position, given almost no expressive markings by Chopin. And yet contained within it are the seeds of the tonal conflict that animates the piece, between F major and A minor, and it gradually and subtly pushes towards greater intensity so that the subsequent section—an eruption of violence that on the surface couldn't be more different—is heavily foreshadowed. Dissonances gradually invade the music, and the note A comes to dominate the final bars of the page, eventually repeated six times in the last bar, preparing the A minor Presto con fuoco that follows. Over the course of the Ballade the two sections gradually become intertwined until they are inseparable, and the final cadence is quietly inevitable.

This first page is simple enough to be played by a child, but still poses interpretive difficulties that can trip up even the most experienced pianists. Most noticeable are Chopin's preternaturally long slurs, far longer than any phrase that could be sung or played on a string or wind instrument. The piano, on the other hand, has no true legato, but that does make it possible to realise (or at least make the listener believe in) those slurs and turn the entire page into a single long phrase, if the pianist chooses. But is it effective? The other aspect is the relative lack of expressive markings, which gives the pianist a certain amount of freedom. But at the same time, there's a catch: if played thoughtlessly, the end of this page may feel like the end of the entire piece. The foreshadowing of the subsequent Presto con fuoco must be brought out, a sense of momentum must be created, and when the Presto crashes in it must in retrospect feel inevitable.

So for the nine performances of this page that I've selected, you are judging pianists primarily on their interpretive and communicative abilities rather than their technical ones, to the extent that those things can be separated. The purpose of a Ballade is, after all, to tell a story.

Pianist #1
Pianist #2
Pianist #3
Pianist #4
Pianist #5
Pianist #6
Pianist #7
Pianist #8
Pianist #9

These are all 2 to 3 minutes in length, including the first page and the first few bars of the Presto that follows. Most of the performances are well known and you may well recognise some of them. Feel free to score as many or as few excerpts as you like, in whatever manner you like. Also, however, feel free to hone your comparative listening skills and discuss any aspects of the performances that you find worth while. The identities of the pianists will be revealed on Monday the 13th NZ time (Sunday 12th in America and Europe).

Offline Mahlerian

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2967
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2017, 10:48:51 AM »
My first time doing this!

Chopin Ballade #2 Notes

Pianist 1: Rubato at the end of phrases seems to drag a bit.  Good accenting of the melody, though, so the stratification of layers comes out well.  Next section bursts out very strongly.

Pianist 2: Opening not quite as soft as might be expected.  Ritardandos at ends of phrases handled more smoothly than pianist 1.  More breath noises, though.  Accompaniment a bit quiet.  Transition to next section too forceful, feels artificial.

Pianist 3: Older recording, and a bit sprightlier in tempo than the first two.  Piano or recording is slightly out of tune.  Not bad, but a bit less natural in interpretation than I might hope.  As with #2, the next section bursts out very strongly, but I prefer it here.

Pianist 4: Very clean and nicely shaded throughout, with an excellent pianissimo.  Ritardando at the end of the first page seems a little strong, but I like the performer's handling of the second section, which is also very well articulated.  Audience cough indicates a live performance.

Pianist 5: Seems a little more distant, with the accompaniment louder than the other versions.  Not as emotionally shaded at first, but at the minor key section the matter of fact facade disappears, and naturally the second section bursts out, with a little less feeling than others, but still well.

Pianist 6: I like the way the pianist here handles the voices, bringing out the bass motion as a countermelody.  Good balance and a nice natural lilt to the rhythm.  Transition to the second section handled well.

Pianist 7: Interpretation is somewhat matter-of-fact, but understated in a beneficial way.  The transition didn't work quite as well as I might have hoped, though.

Pianist 8: A good amount of feeling, but I wonder if the ritardandos at the ends of phrases aren't too telegraphed here.  I like the way the second section comes in here, though, and it seems very well played.  I might end up liking this one more in the long run if I listened to the whole thing.

Pianist 9: A fine pianissimo, but the rubato is a little too frequent and too pronounced.  I'm glad it doesn't come in over the transition towards the minor.  The transition seems a little less than inevitable.

Ranking: 4, 6, 1, 3, 8, 5, 9, 7, 2
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

ComposerOfAvantGarde

  • Guest
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #2 on: February 04, 2017, 04:18:09 PM »
Ah I am looking forward to hearing all of these. I know the piece quite well, although not from any recordings I have heard as I haven't actually listened to any in great detail. My friends have played this many times though.......it should be interesting to hear some others play it!

Pianist 1: I actually think there could be a little more flexibility in tempo as it sometimes came of as a little rigid. Rubato in relation to phrasing: this pianist plays it very safe and doesn't appear to really make any really interesting choices here. The top voice/main melody was strong but without obscuring some of the interesting countermelodic voice leading underneath. I really like that aspect of the interpretation. Very sudden shift to the next section; I like how the next section starts, but not much is done to differentiate one repeated phrase from the next in any interesting interpretative way.

Pianist 2: I like the use of rubato a little more here, although I dislike the use of rubato in the Presto as it seems to create a bit more of a feeling of motion sickness. Generally there is a big emphasis on the main melody and the long phrases certainly sound like they are long phrases. However, the tone and the balance remains almost exactly the same throughout the entire andantino, making it a little boring to listen to after a while.

Pianist 3: Firstly I really loved the little rit at the end of bar 2! A fairly happy sounding andantino with some additional arpeggiations of chords that aren't written in the score, but I kinda like that. There generally seems to be more effort in making repeated phrases and repeated sub-phrases sound different the second time they are heard through balance of voices and/or articulation and/or use of rubato. This is very enjoyable! The presto sounds very intense. There is rubato here, but it certainly doesn't come across like the motion sickness of Pianist 2.

Pianist 4: Ah! This one actually sounds sotto voce! However, it was much faster than I was expecting which threw me a little, but then again andantino I suppose should be taken to mean 'a bit faster than andante' so this tempo choice makes sense. The changes in tone, especially the bell-like pianissimo at the end of the third system and the more 'nasal' sound halfway through the fifth system are very appropriate. The rollicking Presto I don't like as much. There seem to be some accented notes which sound musically out of place.

Pianist 5: Really lovely octaves at the start. The pedalling seems to muddy some of the chords and therefore it does not make the musical phrasing coincide well with the changes of harmony. The bottom system is nicely done, especially with the accentuated bass voice in the third and fourth bars. I don't feel as if there is much I can really say apart from those comments as I feel that this pianist doesn't really create much interest in this piece. I can only imagine that the pianist would rather be playing something else.

Pianist 6: I like the prominence given to the bass voice here. I feel like some of the interesting dissonances could be brought out much more though. I like how this interpretation seems to breath and flow nicely, but little variation in tone and rubato makes the Andantino a little more boring than it needs to be imo. The transition to the Presto is one of the better ones I have heard. The Presto is quite nice, a bit restrained, but with some interest in articulating the rapid notes. I suppose there would be more variation in articulation and dynamic as the Presto progresses.....

Pianist 7: I looked up 'meh' in the dictionary and this is recording what I heard. It leaves a LOT to be desired. The Presto is clear but very boring. Overall it seems to lack everything that would make for what I could even regard as an actual 'musical interpretation.'

Pianist 8: Seems to be rather ho-hum at first with a general lack of exploring dynamics beyond all the safest choices. I like how the pianist brings out some of the dissonances, but I always feel as if this could be done a little more. Many of the repeated phrases and repeated motifs are played almost exactly the same, a dangerous interpretative choice as that could come across as boring.....but I think there are some subtle differences here and there. Generally I believe these differences should be more pronounced and unfortunately this andantino leaves me a little cold because of that. I love the dynamic swells in the Presto as well as how they bring out countermelodic features in the music, so it definitely has that going for it.

Pianist 9: I think the rubato gets in the way of the music here. Also, the repeated melodic fragments seem rushed over, as if the pianist would prefer to disregard them and move on to the next cadence or the next phrase. The subtle swells of dynamic come across well. I do like how this pianist dwells on the suspension at the start of the fourth bar in the fourth system, but they also spend a bit too much time on other chords where it doesn't seem as appropriate to. I also don't like the transition to the Presto, or the Presto very much. It seems rather pedestrian.

Ranking: 3, 4, 6, 1, 8, 2, 9, 5, 7
« Last Edit: February 04, 2017, 05:05:30 PM by jessop »

Offline Mahlerian

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2967
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2017, 05:05:05 PM »
Heh, we have the same top 4 and bottom 4.
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

Offline amw

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 4080
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #4 on: February 05, 2017, 02:03:06 AM »
Thanks for the replies!

Quick comments:
Pianist 8: [...]  I might end up liking this one more in the long run if I listened to the whole thing.
Quite possibly; it is one of three recordings in this selection that in my opinion stand well above the rest, but I'm obviously non-blind as I've heard the rest of the performance as well...

Pianist 5: [...] The pedalling seems to muddy some of the chords and therefore it does not make the musical phrasing coincide well with the changes of harmony.
Potentially interesting thing to note: Chopin was always very specific with his pedal instructions and this page contains only two of them, in the first two and last bars. The rest of the page should presumably be played without pedal. I don't think any of our pianists here are obeying that instruction, though!

ComposerOfAvantGarde

  • Guest
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2017, 02:12:48 AM »
Potentially interesting thing to note: Chopin was always very specific with his pedal instructions and this page contains only two of them, in the first two and last bars. The rest of the page should presumably be played without pedal. I don't think any of our pianists here are obeying that instruction, though!
I've noticed this when it comes to Chopin. Unfortunately it is also one of the reasons I rarely listen to his music as I feel that many pianists' interpretations leave me cold. Disregarding a composer's instructions is fine if a pianist does something particularly enlightening with their own view, however, I don't often hear this.

Offline amw

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 4080
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2017, 05:53:46 AM »
I've got that issue too—there's a pretty short list of Chopin pianists who I think get him right pretty much all the time (including pianist #4 in this comparison) and a few others who are hit-and-miss but whose hits outweigh their misses. With other interpretations, I often am just not convinced, and at times they can even make me lose faith in the music, if only temporarily.

Offline aligreto

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 17834
  • Location: Ireland
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2017, 09:42:16 AM »
This music is an area very far from my realm of interest and/or expertise. However, I wanted to make the effort to support the concept of the blind comparisons in general. Given my opening sentence I will not indicate my decision making process but my result is as follows [in order of preference]....

4, 3, 6, 9, 7, 8, 5, 2, 1.

 :)
The ability to talk comes with knowledge. The ability to listen comes with wisdom.

Offline mc ukrneal

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8843
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2017, 06:04:22 PM »
Brief comments:
1-Nice, but don't like the sound engineering. A bit too bland at times. Dynamics too static. Still, I think the major problem is the sound. Line feels lost even in the later section.
2-Brighter playing. It's nice, but not exceptional. Similarly uninspired ending (compared to #1) to the clip.
3-I'd never buy this one because of the hiss, but the performing and direction is much clearer. This one has something to say.
4-Too fast, and thereby loses something, though clean and crisp. Rubato seems too exaggerated, probably a by-product of the tempo.
5-Sweet. Beautiful start. A hair static as it goes on, and then too heavy.
6-Too deliberate at the start, but lows more prominent. But too much of the same thing as it goes on. Didn't like the end of the clip at all.
7-Quite nice start.  A beautiful simplicity here. Faster, but seems to retain what #4 lost (because not that fast). But spoiled at the end.
8-Tender start. Certain lightness to the playing here. Well done. One of the best at the end of the clip. A winner for me.
9-Too fast also. And rubato just too 'start and stop'. Too prissy for me. Ending of clip is better, but too late and not enough.

None are really bad in the opening, but I didn't like them all equally as they progressed. Still, #8 seemed to get it best for me here and I really enjoyed that one quite a bit more than any of the others. I think one of the things I didn't like in many of them (whether I mentioned it or not) was that they were too exaggerated, whether it be tempo, rubato, phrasing, or dynamics.

Rankings:
8>>>3, 4, 7, 5, 2,1, 6, 9
Be kind to your fellow posters!!

ComposerOfAvantGarde

  • Guest
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #9 on: February 06, 2017, 02:27:45 AM »
I'm having another listen to these..........

I don't like to be negative, but I keep feeling that number 5 really doesn't get Chopin at all, maybe the pedalling is to make it sound bad on purpose???

(that is subjective, of course, maybe there are people who like the sound of the piano so much that they don't care if they can't hear it clearly because it's goddam PIANO sounds that they love unconditionally)

I didn't mention anything about the presto before.....but I can't get a sense of any genuine feeling in it. It feels like some kind of cheap, mass-produced, inauthentic kind of 'romanticism' rather than the real deal.

I am still keeping that one firmly in second last place. My original ranking goes unaltered. Number 7 I like even less. :P

It would be a huge embarrassment for me if these two turn out to be a couple of pianists I have previously hailed as favourites ;D
« Last Edit: February 06, 2017, 02:30:24 AM by jessop »

Offline mc ukrneal

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8843
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #10 on: February 06, 2017, 05:24:16 AM »
I'm having another listen to these..........

I don't like to be negative, but I keep feeling that number 5 really doesn't get Chopin at all, maybe the pedalling is to make it sound bad on purpose???

(that is subjective, of course, maybe there are people who like the sound of the piano so much that they don't care if they can't hear it clearly because it's goddam PIANO sounds that they love unconditionally)

I didn't mention anything about the presto before.....but I can't get a sense of any genuine feeling in it. It feels like some kind of cheap, mass-produced, inauthentic kind of 'romanticism' rather than the real deal.

I am still keeping that one firmly in second last place. My original ranking goes unaltered. Number 7 I like even less. :P

It would be a huge embarrassment for me if these two turn out to be a couple of pianists I have previously hailed as favourites ;D
I liked the beginning. There, he/she uses a very light touch to create a beautiful sound/impression. I didn't like it as it went on, but the first 30-45 seconds was just brilliant. But then, we seem to have different preferences. I am less a fan of too percussive or pingy an approach. I also don't like too obvious an approach to dissonance, and much prefer subtlety and nuance, without overly sharp changes. It should flow. Also, some don't handle the rubato as tenderly as I think can help move the music forward. I just think it works better, though I am open to any approach really. #3, for example, which I liked, is a bit different - creating a different impression.
Be kind to your fellow posters!!

Offline amw

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 4080
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #11 on: February 06, 2017, 07:24:29 AM »
Given my opening sentence I will not indicate my decision making process but my result is as follows [in order of preference]....
Feel free to if you want though! This isn't open just to "experts", it's fine for anyone to participate or make their decisions for any reason. :)

I don't like to be negative, but I keep feeling that number 5 really doesn't get Chopin at all, maybe the pedalling is to make it sound bad on purpose???
Pianist #5 has won awards and been particularly praised for their playing of Chopin, so if so, I'm not sure how well that has worked out for them >.>

Offline Mahlerian

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 2967
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2017, 08:50:49 AM »
Feel free to if you want though! This isn't open just to "experts", it's fine for anyone to participate or make their decisions for any reason. :)

Pianist #5 has won awards and been particularly praised for their playing of Chopin, so if so, I'm not sure how well that has worked out for them >.>

As interesting an exercise as this is (and understanding the need for comparisons of short clips), I feel that excerpts can be unrepresentative of a performance's overall impact.  I would use the example of Boulez's Mahler 7.  The beginning always leaves me wondering why it sounds so slow and draggy, and I'm sure in a blind comparison, it would be ranked below other versions.  The cumulative impact of the movement, though, is always astounding, because every single thing has been handled with the overall balance in mind.

Still, in principle I really like the idea of a blind comparison that gets past our preconceptions about this or that artist.
"l do not consider my music as atonal, but rather as non-tonal. I feel the unity of all keys. Atonal music by modern composers admits of no key at all, no feeling of any definite center." - Arnold Schoenberg

Offline Sergeant Rock

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • *
  • Posts: 22056
  • Location: Wine Country Germany
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2017, 01:49:11 PM »
7 3 5 1 4 6 8 2 9


Unlike Jessop, I really like the "meh" performance of 7 (is this Pollini?). For this particular piece I think a non-interpretation works well. Strangely enough, my favorite Presto in this group is my last pick, 9, but the preceding bits disqualifies it (too fast when combined with too much rubato)...although on a third listen, while writing this comment, it's starting to grow on me...like a fungus. Must resist listening to it a fourth time.

Sarge
the phone rings and somebody says,
"hey, they made a movie about
Mahler, you ought to go see it.
he was as f*cked-up as you are."
                               --Charles Bukowski, "Mahler"

ComposerOfAvantGarde

  • Guest
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #14 on: February 06, 2017, 01:52:10 PM »
Feel free to if you want though! This isn't open just to "experts", it's fine for anyone to participate or make their decisions for any reason. :)
Pianist #5 has won awards and been particularly praised for their playing of Chopin, so if so, I'm not sure how well that has worked out for them >.>

Interesting......i suppose the experts  (i most certainly am NOT an expert) believe number 5's interpretation to be better than many other pianists currently recording Chopin. Putting that in perspective, I think we must be living in an age without pianists who can really get into the music. Somehow that doesn't seem right though....but it is true that what sounded like the oldest recording was also the most interesting to me.


How long ago was number 7's recording made?
« Last Edit: February 06, 2017, 01:54:12 PM by jessop »

Offline Sergeant Rock

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • *
  • Posts: 22056
  • Location: Wine Country Germany
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #15 on: February 06, 2017, 01:59:54 PM »
but it is true that what sounded like the oldest recording was also the most interesting to me.

I agree...up until the presto. At that point, for me, it went all to hell: scrambled and muddy. And yet I still placed it second.

Sarge
« Last Edit: February 06, 2017, 02:04:18 PM by Sergeant Rock »
the phone rings and somebody says,
"hey, they made a movie about
Mahler, you ought to go see it.
he was as f*cked-up as you are."
                               --Charles Bukowski, "Mahler"

Offline Holden

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 1758
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #16 on: February 06, 2017, 03:38:14 PM »
Rubinstein has to be in here but damned if I can hear where.
Cheers

Holden

Offline amw

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 4080
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #17 on: February 07, 2017, 07:02:32 AM »
Thanks for all the comments everyone.

As interesting an exercise as this is (and understanding the need for comparisons of short clips), I feel that excerpts can be unrepresentative of a performance's overall impact.  I would use the example of Boulez's Mahler 7.  The beginning always leaves me wondering why it sounds so slow and draggy, and I'm sure in a blind comparison, it would be ranked below other versions.  The cumulative impact of the movement, though, is always astounding, because every single thing has been handled with the overall balance in mind.
Yes, that's definitely one of the recurring issues with these kinds of comparisons: it's hard to find excerpts that are representative enough to stand in for the entire work. For example, I wouldn't choose the opening of Mahler 7 to run a blind comparison upon (the representative passage I'd choose would most likely be the opening 3-4 minutes of Nachtmusik I, or the second half of the scherzo, but it's hard to find just one excerpt with a Mahler symphony when the material it contains is so varied). I do feel like the page of music I chose is a good stand-in for the entire Ballade—it's basically such an exposed passage, one where no pianistic "tricks" are possible, and one that reveals the pianist's conception of the entire work. (e.g. should it be played in a way that maximises the beauty of the sound [pianist #2] or the clarity of the rhythm [#7], should it have an irresistible forward drive [#3] or linger over the prettiest chords [#9], etc) There's actually one even more exposed passage in the 4th Ballade which I also might have chosen, but oh well. Every pianist here did record all 4 Ballades so once I reveal their names you can listen to their 4ths if you want >.>

Offline mc ukrneal

  • Veteran member
  • *
  • Posts: 8843
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #18 on: February 07, 2017, 07:19:04 AM »
As interesting an exercise as this is (and understanding the need for comparisons of short clips), I feel that excerpts can be unrepresentative of a performance's overall impact.  I would use the example of Boulez's Mahler 7.  The beginning always leaves me wondering why it sounds so slow and draggy, and I'm sure in a blind comparison, it would be ranked below other versions.  The cumulative impact of the movement, though, is always astounding, because every single thing has been handled with the overall balance in mind.

Still, in principle I really like the idea of a blind comparison that gets past our preconceptions about this or that artist.
I've done a lot of these. My experience, for me anyway, is that my impression of the first 30-60 seconds holds as a proxy for the whole section/movement for about 80-90% of all the clips I listen to. Occasionally, there is a clip that doesn't allow that (for example one of the excerpts from the Bach partitas didn't work that way). But for the most part, my initial impression holds. I think that is because the approach for groups and individuals holds throughout a piece. For example, it is not typical for a conductor to change approach once they've begun. Also, the quality of the playing tends to be consistent too. This begins to break down a bit for pieces that have lots of varied movements or sections (like the Bach partitas or Cello Suites). But even there, I think it holds, just understanding that there may be a bit more variation due to the changing nature of the piece.

Others may have different experiences, and I would never want to say that I can always judge it based on such a short excerpt. But most of the time, that is the case (and I think it holds better for larger groups, and can be challenged more with smaller groups or individuals).
Be kind to your fellow posters!!

Parsifal

  • Guest
Re: Mini-Blind Comparison: Chopin's Ballade No. 2
« Reply #19 on: February 07, 2017, 07:37:04 AM »
I don't get it, it's a short piece. Why cut it off just when the allegro starts?