Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op. 23 (1836)

The first of the Four Ballades is a glowing masterpiece. James Huneker called this epic narrative “the odyssey of Chopin’s soul.” The great lyric theme, stated in three different forms, is intoxicating. The First Ballade is summed up with a coda of elemental power, culminating in a chilling downward chromatic passage in octaves, which will electrify any receptive listener.

  • ASHKENAZY (Nos. 1-4): London (CD)
  • BACKHAUS: London
  • CORTOT (Nos. 1-4, recorded 1926): Music and Arts (CD)
  • GILELS: Music and Arts (CD)
  • RUBINSTEIN (Nos. 1-4): RCA (CD)

Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38 (1838)

Schumann had dedicated his Kreisleriana, Op.16, to Chopin, who returned the honor by dedicating the Second Ballade to his German champion. A work of perfect proportion, it opens with a slow and magical episode which turns into a tempest, Presto con fuoco, a wild, magnificent outburst. In the words of the composer Alan Rawsthorne, at the end of the coda the Andantino theme becomes “a whispered reminder of the very opening,” which “vibrates in the memory.”

  • MORAVEC (Nos. 1-4): Connoisseur Society
  • POGORELICH: Capriccio (CD)
  • RICHTER: CBS/Melodiya

Ballade No.3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 (1841)

The Third Ballade is the essence of charm and warmth, with a sense of irony surrounding the second subject. Frederick Niecks, Chopin’s first important biographer in English, says “a quiver of excitement runs through the whole piece. . . . There is suffused a most exquisite elegance.” The slender second subject becomes a development section, “one of the most powerful Chopin ever composed,” says Rawsthorne, “one is quite staggered to look back at its winsome origins.” The coda, he continues, ends “in a blaze of light.”

  • FRIEDMAN: Pearl (CD)
  • NOVAES (Nos. 3 & 4): Vanguard
  • DE PACHMANN: Pearl
  • SOFRONITSKY: Melodiya

Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842)

The Fourth Ballade is generally agreed to be one of the sublime works of Romantic music. For John Ogdon, it is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions. . . . It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Huneker calls its chief theme a “melody which probes the very coverts of the soul.” He compares it to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, while Ogdon speaks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, inviting us to a” Romantic communion of unbelievable intensity.”

The Fourth Ballade remains a narrative but has an inimitable feeling of intimacy and Slavonic coloring, and demands of the interpreter a delicate rubato and a virtuoso technique. It culminates in a coda of bone-crushing technical severity.

  • KOCZALSKI: Pearl (CD)
  • RICHTER: DG/Melodiya
  • SOLOMON: Testament (CD)
  • VASARY (Nos. 1-4): DG