Favorite Recordings of Chopin's Ballade No. 1

Jun 29, 2016

I will be playing Ballade No. 1 for a competition this fall. I have already heard several recordings, but I was wondering of anyone else had some good ones.


Although I would not suggest mimicking these performances, being knowledgeable about piano performance in the early 20th century (when pianists often had personal relationships with many of the great romantic composers) is invaluable. Here are some good examples, some of which you may have already heard.
Hofmann probably made the most famous of these early recordings:
Hopefully you've heard Cortot's:
Michelangeli is not quite early 20th century, but is formidable nonetheless:
Moiseiwitsch is sublime:
This fairly dry but still masterful performance by Backhaus
And a personal favourite, this fairly eccentric interpretation by the great Carlo Zecchi:
Thanks! I've already heard Zecchi's recording. I want to listen to it again in more detail. Do you know of any good late 20th–early 21st century recordings? Although it is invaluable to be familiar with earlier recordings, more modern interpretations would probably be more accepted in a competition. I already have recordings by Zecchi, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Zimerman, Grosvenor, Kempf, Li, and Grimaud (I would be curious to know you're opinion of Grimaud).

Thanks again. I'm excited to listen to these recordings.
To be honest, I don't really enjoy modern recordings nearly as much, for precisely the same reasons why they would probably be, as you say, more acceptable in competitions. I've played in quite a few piano competitions, and it's usually the more "normal" performances that win. That said, Grosvenor definitely stands out as the most interesting: some of his contrapuntal ideas are just awesome, and of course, the musicality is endless.
Anda you might like: he's always sublimely musical, and generally quite "modern." Just listen to how seductively dreamy his left hand is in the second theme...
Some of the past winners of the Chopin competition have also provided fairly orthodox/musical renderings of this piece (you've already heard Zimerman):
Harasiewicz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KRabxvYsyY
Davidovich (I've heard her play other pieces much better than this; maybe she was getting a little too old...no offense to her): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2B4WcZQQrw
Grimaud is quite good to my ears, actually, at least compared to Li or, worse yet, Lang Lang. The strength in her playing is that she avoids the unnecessary sentimentality which often desecrates the fairly unsentimental essence of Chopin's music. So many pianists, I think, miss the fact that Chopin's biggest role model was probably Bach, and that the same refined, contrapuntal, and reserved architecture is by far the most important element in his music. Her first theme, I thought, was played very nicely, with a nice balance of such "classical" elements with romantic fantasy. Her fast sections are always a bit of a bore though: they don't ever really have much a musical shape, and she never really explores any interesting counterpoint. Even that first sort of grace note thing (right before the agitato, I think--I'm going off memory here) sounded a bit like midi. Her second theme I thought was also snore-invoking, kind of felt like she was dozing off. But in general, I've heard (famous) pianists butcher it far worse.
Thanks! The link you gave for Harasiewicz is the same as the link for Anda. Was that intentional?

Have you heard Li’s recording of Ballade No. 1? If not, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Kcpu3JkJdU. Here’s a partial video of him playing (I’ve always wondered why his technique looks so bad, yet sounds so good): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aYgrsvPvis.

Do you have a good recording of Grosvenor? A while back I downloaded a YouTube recording of Grosvenor Ballade No. 1 and was not impressed.

And what about Rubinstein?

Thanks again! I really appreciate your time on this.
Apologies, this is the correct link for Harasiewicz:
And I thought this was fairly good, a live performance from Grosvenor (although this is from 2014; he gets better every year):
I have heard both Li and Rubinstein and I'll get back to you on those.
Keep in mind that though Grosvenor plays some wrong notes, this is, firstly, live, and secondly, still incredibly good. You probably downloaded his Proms live performance, which is even more messy, but still incredibly insightful. I'd take him over most pianists any day.
Here's my point of view on Yundi's Ballade--this kind of applies to his playing in general: he wastes too much time on every note. Oftentimes, his playing is very much musical, balanced, and precise. But one never gets the sense that this Ballade is anything more than a collection of pretty tunes and cadenzas under his fingers. The overarching architecture and sense of proportions are just not evident. For instance, when the main theme comes back in A minor, I don't feel like it has garnered any new tension; it's just a repetition. Compare this to Grosvenor or Hoffman: when that passage comes back, it feels entirely different, mainly because they didn't waste time in the transition from the second theme to A minor, allowing the music to speak for itself.
To me, Rubinstein also wastes a bit of time with individual motives, etc., and his sense of structure isn't entirely evident. I've always found his voicing to be amazing: he brings out lines with extreme clarity, although not with much creativity.
By the way, although it may not be evident from my previous comment, I think Rubinstein is a phenomenal pianist, at least compared to Yundi. But just not good enough to compare with Zecchi and the like.
The greatest for me is Tzvi Erez! Precise, accurate, dynamically and tempo-wise perfectly under control and the most FANTASTIC coda ever.
Hofmann live in 1937 can't be beaten for color , attacks and imagination in Ballade 1 & 4 . Just heard Zecchi in Berceuse he respects the music and his musicality touch you immediately . Jst heard Novaes who I adored as a child now less so .Kempf's Chopin Berceuse amazed me in delicacy as did powerhouse Ashkenazy .There are just too many fabulous minds and musicians for me to compare.Andrewskewsky 's Chopin is unforgettable as is Moisewitsch (I adore him even more than Horowitz but H's is the most exciting pianist ever recorded in my book and who has as many piano color and dynamics as H oro ? My teacher studied with Bolet and said those who really know know Bolet had a better technique and musical mind than Horo . Dont matter does it .Tscherkassky is fascinating in the sonatas dont remember his Ballade .
I most like Horowitz's performance at Carnegie Hall which you can find on Youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18620H_z8Uk. His technique is inimitable and he achieves more in this piece than any other virtuoso I've ever listened to. Here's mine - you'll hear much of Horowitz in my interpretation. https://musescore.com/user/116681/scores/2483891.

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