CHOPIN Ballades (complete). Impromptus (complete)  Gábor Farkas (pn)  HUNGAROTON 32829 (57:35)

The day after I started listening to this CD to review it, it appeared on my streaming service, Naxos Music Library, in fairly decent sound. This sort of thing is becoming more familiar for classical music listeners and critics. It poses a special challenge for reviewers. If a listener can just hear a new CD with a click, what happens to the process of scanning reviews to decide what albums are worth spending money on? From this standpoint, the music critic may be becoming superfluous. You might use reviews to decide what CDs you want to stream, although that’s a fair amount of effort to go to when the album basically is standing right in front of you. I think the only way classical music record critics will survive is by giving the reader a feeling of extra value than merely a thumbs up or thumbs down. I hope our readers receive an experience of enjoying the music along with the critic’s perception of what is worth cherishing in it. I do appreciate that many classical listeners, even with streaming, will desire the higher sound quality of a CD. But make no mistake about it, the days are numbered for when a listener will read a critic to learn whether the streaming album he’s already listened to is good or bad. I’ve long known I’m a dinosaur. Now I get the pleasure of watching my species go extinct.

Gábor Farkas is a marvelous interpreter of Romantic piano music. His previous CDs of Liszt’s transcriptions and Schumann’s Carnaval and Symphonic Etudes are endearing. Farkas was born in 1981, and received his doctorate from the Liszt Academy in Budapest under the tutelage of the late, wonderful Zoltan Kocsis. The Farkas we hear on this Chopin album is a mature and thoughtful interpreter. He possesses a big sound and enviable technique, with a special understanding of texture and tone color. This is noticeable on the present CD even in the difference—in tonal quality—between the ballades and the impromptus. The ballades have a thicker, richer sound, while the impromptus are more linear and relaxed. George Sand wrote of Chopin that “his compositions were all but pale shadows of his improvisations.” The impromptus in Farkas’s hands possess a breeziness that seems intrinsic to improvisation. Throughout the disc, Farkas demonstrates the ability to furnish the line of Chopin’s argument from the very first notes. The few notes that begin the Fantaisie-Impromptu immediately establish the whirlwind of emotion the piece will entail. The same observation may apply to the Fourth Ballade, where the opening phrases seems to have been picked out of the sky.

The First Ballade, with its performance history in Vladimir Horowitz’s hands, exhibits Farkas’s mastery of Chopin’s idiom. The work’s contrapuntal richness is fully realized in Farkas’s interpretation, as brilliant structures flow and breathe with no slighting of architecture. Yet there are other times, as in the Second and Third Ballades, when Farkas speaks very directly, with unfussy, natural lyricism. The disc’s sound engineering is crisp yet multihued, reflecting an artist whose attack at the keyboard is swift—reminding me of the great Alexis Weissenberg. I have an excellent, early digital CD of these works by Bella Davidovich, but I really don’t want to engage in comparisons of other pianists with Farkas. His disc is its own complete artistic statement, and will enrich any CD collection with its individuality and accomplishment. This is the sort of recording that made me want to be a music critic. I only hope that our gracious readers will keep us around for the mutual pleasure of us both. Dave Saemann

Five stars: Brawny, sinuous Chopin.