Review: Chopin – Mazurkas, Vol. 1

In his first recording for the Ondine label back in 2020, Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski presented the complete Scriabin Mazurkas to high acclaim. His new release continues in the same genre, this time with Chopin. This first volume covers about half of the entire set and faces a little more competition than the Scriabin.

When we consider Chopin’s long-form works like the Ballades and Sonatas, the Mazurkas can feel compact and disarmingly simple. However, the musical challenge lies in the ability to capture their character and charm almost instantaneously. Jablonky manages this quite successfully, as we hear in the Op. 6 set. The first phrases of the F-sharp Minor (track 1) reveal nuanced emotions including gentle sadness and a breezy transience. More dramatic sections do follow, however—0’51” is distinct but nonetheless tastefully aligned with what came prior. In the C-sharp minor (track 2), he gives us a little hum of mystery in the tonal ambiguity of its opening line; what follows is a deft shift from graceful to austere. The lilting rhythm feels completely natural and not without a perfect touch of fluidity.

The Op. 17 set features the lovely A minor (track 13), where Chopin presents some interesting harmonic changes. Jablonski’s control of the shadings of dynamics, especially the pianos, is top-notch. This Mazurka is no doubt ‘sad’ but the way he plays it, we get a lot more: nostalgia, forlornness, contemplation, and fleeting flourishes of whimsy in the ornamental figures and runs. The middle A-major section offsets the darker mood but shows how the pianist still considers the work’s tender demeanor–the introspection now has a warm glow. A surging brightness emerges at 2’25”-2’39” and delivers a tangible ray of hope. But this is precisely what makes the return of the A minor feel devastating.

The Op. 30 starts with the C minor (track 18) that for me offers a decidedly more extroverted outlook. Jablonski is just as good at creating a bold, resonant tone as he is a subtle one. The quintessential dance rhythms here also take on a character of their own, thanks to the especially hearty swing he gives them. The B minor (track 19) plays further upon the forward character: parts of the phrases that drop to the mid-low register sound hearty and even defiant. Throughout, I perceived an infectious energy that helped drive the Mazurka’s momentum. Jablonski’s treatment of the baseline in the C# minor (track 21) gives it an interesting galloping quality without becoming too stodgy. Part of that is in how he handles the right hand, whose dotted rhythms have a crisp, delightful snap. The small arpeggiated runs, add delightful accents of sparkle.

The final set of this volume (Op. 41) shows how comfortable Chopin became with the genre over the time. I find a depth, complexity, and lyricism in the E minor (track 16) that wasn’t as salient in the early F-sharp minor. Jablonski captures the bounding, jubilant air in the happiest moments of the C-sharp minor (track 29) but also the fine (and richer) bel-canto of the melody when it meanders into the left hand. 

Anatasia Belina and Jablonski author generous liner notes which are thorough in their historical context as well as musical insights (including a meaningful mention of how the works were performed on the ultimately different Pleyel pianos of the time). The sound engineers at Ondine do a solid job to present an honest recording. There is no unnecessary reverb and the mic placement feels just right, allowing enough space for the sound to travel but also enough proximity to catch Jablonski’s nuances. The only thing that occasionally bothered me was hearing a little bit of background fuzz. However, this does very little to detract from the high-quality performance.

Though Jablonski set the bar high with his Scriabin, he has certainly done just as well (if not even better) with these Mazurkas. With this display of musicianship and artistry, I very much look forward to what the second volume will have to offer.

Chopin – Mazurkas, Vol. 1
Peter Jablonski – Piano
Ondine, ODE 1412-2

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