Listening to pianist Jocelyn Swigger‘s new album The Complete Chopin Études isn’t like hearing these famous pieces for the first time again. But it is sure to give listeners a fresh perspective on them.
The Études are short, technically difficult pieces Chopin wrote for his students. Though he called them “Studies,” they were quickly adopted into the Romantic canon. After years of preparation, Swigger has now recorded all of the composer’s Études on a beautifully restored 1841 Paris Érard piano, one that Chopin and his students may actually have used. It is, in any case, an instrument of their time, and of a make and quality the composer valued.
I’ve found it’s actually pretty rare to hear Chopin’s music played on a period instrument. Look up the “Revolutionary” Étude – the most famous of these pieces – on YouTube, for example, and you can listen to dozens of performances by pianists legendary and obscure, from Vladimir Horowitz to the latest wunderkind. But you’ll have to go deep into the list to hear it played on an Érard.
In addition, the straight-strung instrument, restored by expert Anne Acker, was tuned not to the equal temperament we are used to (the musicological wars over equal temperament yet rage), but to an unequal one devised for this music by Jonathan Bellman, a scholar of historical tuning. While the difference in tone between the early piano’s sound quality and the rounder, brighter sound of a modern grand is unmistakeable, the effect of the unequal temperament is subtle – nothing like the weirdness of hearing a demonstration of just intonation, for example.
In both respects, Swigger has performed a service with this recording. And much more than a mere academic exercise, the album is an hour of pure musical pleasure. Swigger has all the technique and musicality Chopin’s Études demand. But unlike some pianists, she does not imbue these flashy, fiery works with unnecessary histrionics. Restrained by the piano’s finicky touch and by her own good taste, her interpretations feel like songs. Her dynamics rest easily with the instrument’s colors, and she takes advantage of its strengths and its limitations.
With the Érard’s shorter sustain, for example, Swigger can render fast passages with exceptional distinction and clarity, particularly in the lower register, as evident in Op. 10 No. 4. Staccatos have bite, while the unusual temperament makes room for a haunting quality in the more subdued passages, as in Op. 10 No. 6. The drama of Op. 10 No. 9 has a dark intensity. There’s a gossamer delicacy to the broken chords of Op. 10 No. 10 and the guitar-like cadences of No. 11. She displays a crackling fleetness of finger in Op. 25 No. 2 (nicknamed “The Bees”) and evokes a nocturne-like mood in Op. 25 No. 7.
Swigger has mentioned a metallic sheen in the piano’s sound; I sometimes sense instead a woodiness, like the sound of a marimba. Of course, a piano is both wooden and metallic by nature. In the end, what it sounds like is music. When you’re confronted with performances like this one of the marvelous Op. 25 No. 10 (“Octave”), musicality easily washes technical thoughts away and floats you into a realm of pure artistry.