Never has a composer's anniversary been celebrated so widely but with so little new repertoire to discover.
Frederic Chopin, arguably the piano's greatest lyric poet, the man who forever changed what it can do and say, has engendered an avalanche of discs and downloads in his 200th-birthday year as pianists take his never-out-of-style pieces for a spin. Some return in glory, others not so much.
For all its meticulous craftsmanship, improvisational inspiration and matchless charm, Chopin's music asks - but never demands - a degree of self-revelation not all performers are willing (or able) to give. His pieces are soliloquies, invariably written for solo piano, aside from a few concertos, a piano trio, and a cello sonata. Had Chopin a report card, it would read, "Does not play well - if at all - with others."
Any interventionist collaboration goes badly, whether from jazz players, transcribers wanting to add heft, or just those desiring to spruce up the orchestrations of the concertos: It all comes out sounding cluttered, wrong and strangely exhibitionistic.
Chopin was direct
Unlike his near-contemporary Franz Liszt, Chopin has a distilled directness that circumvents romantic posturing or playing to the gallery. He was a performer, but in salons.
A few years before his 1849 death, Chopin returned to the public concert hall but reportedly could barely be heard. Is that any surprise for a performer/composer used to communicating with friends rather than strangers?
For modern performers, the music acts like a Rorschach inkblot test.
Some pianists just can't get past the idea that some of the music's most important elements aren't on the page, from stylish irregularities of tempo to the ethnic lilt of the mazurkas. Too much of either reduces the music to caricature, though most often it suffocates from having too little. It's not unusual for major pianists to avoid Chopin over a long career, as did Rudolf Serkin - in contrast to his son, Peter, whose distinctive Chopin is like eavesdropping on psychotherapy.
However much the music diagnoses its performers, it doesn't reward being probed in return, unlike Beethoven. Lise de la Salle, a young pianist I would board airplanes to hear, combs Chopin's ballades for deeper, darker undercurrents on her new Naive label disc, but in doing so, neglects the music's rhythmic snap and allows it to bog down.
Similarly, modern music specialist Aleck Karis (Romeo Records) drills deep into the late work the way he might Elliott Carter, but forgets completely about the essential surface charm.
Bigger names than those lose even more by acting as mere curators - Louis Lortie (Chandos) and Stephen Hough (Hyperion) for example - if only because that approach by definition keeps the music from being interpreted from the inside out.
That's the central problem of the historically informed performance camp, which accounts for a third of the Chopin bicentennial discs. If observed through the lens of early 19th-century Erard, Graf and Pleyel pianos, how can the effect not be impersonal?
Pianists in sync
Who does get it right? Well, there is no "right," only pianists whose personalities meld so seamlessly with the composer's that the music ceases to be a cultural exhibit unfolding in the concert hall, but a conversation that exists only in the moment.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in "A Century of Romantic Chopin," a four-CD anthology of 65 pianists recorded from 1895 to the present, compiled and issued by Swarthmore's Ward Marston ( www.marstonrecords.com).
Among the highlights: Raoul von Koczalski plays the "Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2" with dazzling, Chopin-authored variants suggesting how the composer might have ornamented his own works. Bela Bartok seems to foresee Europe's destruction in a profoundly grave 1939 broadcast performance of the "Nocturne Op. 27 No. 1."
Vladimir Horowitz claims there's more content in a Chopin miniature than a Mahler symphony - and just about proves it in the "Waltz, Op. 34, No 2."
This set is the bible of the Chopin bicentennial. And its appendix is "Masters of Chopin: Ignaz Friedman, Ignace Tiegerman and Severin Eisenberger" on Arbiter ( www.arbiterrecords.com), which shows three pianists with strong links to Chopin-style playing with such breezy authority you feel you're communing with your oldest friend - the only drawback being compromised sound quality.