Do you want to know what made the composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) so special? I'll tell you. Aside from revolutionizing the piano itself, enlarging its scope, the genres it lent itself to, and its breadth of color, Chopin essentially invented the scherzo and instrumental ballade as virtuoso piano movements, and reinvented the etude as a musically engaging genre, rather than a mere exercise.
Chopin drew from Polish idioms (like the mazurka) that paved the way for musical nationalism, and was responsible for major innovations in the piano sonata, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, impromptu and prelude.
Perhaps his biggest contribution, historically, was to take nationalistic (mazurka) and salon (nocturnes, etc.) idioms and put them in the concert hall.
There is an enormous volume of recorded Chopin works, and quality varies widely. Chopin's compositions were technically demanding, but they emphasize nuance and expressive depth, rather than sheer virtuosity—and these are qualities missing in the majority of performances.
To hear the very best of the best, I turn to these absolutely stunning performances that are, I feel, without peer.
Argerich Plays Chopin- the 1965 EMI recording that introduced a generation to the artistry of the great Martha Argerich - still one of the finest recordings ever made.
Rubinstein: The Chopin Collection, an 11-CD set from RCA, throughout which the legendary pianist's daring technique and exquisite sensitivity are on display. It's Artur Rubinstein doing what he did best! Superbly nuanced performances to be cherished.
Chopin composed his popular Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 between 1830 and 1832, when he was about 20 years old. Like much of Chopin's music, this nocturne—dedicated to Madame Camille Pleyel—is tinged with melancholy.
Listen: Artur Rubenstein plays Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No.2:
Claudio Arrau: The Complete Nocturnes and Impromptus, from Philips, a 1996 reissue. Every phrase means something to this disciplined poet of the keyboard - so much so that the only thing critics could hold against him was his perfectionism! Not here - the nocturnes and impromptus have never sounded more convincing.
Murray Perahia: Complete Etudes, Sony Classical - Have etudes ever sounded so musically breathtaking? Perahia is a magician, as well as a technician.
Cortot: Chopin Preludes, Impromptus, Barcarolle & Berceuse - EMI 2006 Re-mastering - The transfer from the original material, dating from the 1930s, is as good as the masters will allow, but the astonishing quality of these performances by the legendary Alfred Cortot makes them essential in any serious collection of Chopin recordings. Calling them (as EMI does) "Great Recordings of the Century" may be an understatement!
These are some of my favorite discs, and they represent a pretty wide survey of solo piano. If you'd like a concerto disc or two, I'd recommend Martha Argerich with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, or Frank Peter Zimmerman playing and conducting the Polish Festival Orchestra. Standard-setting interpretations, they are, by artists whose insight, care, and devotion imbue every phrase.