Chelsea Guo Plays and Sings Chopin

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CHOPIN: Preludes, Op. 28. Fantasie in F min. Barcarolle. Moja pieszczotka.* CHOPIN-MARISCHKA: In mir klingt ein Lied (Étude, Op. 10 No. 3).* ROSSINI: La Gazza Ladra: Di piacer mi balza il cor* / Chelsea Guo, pno/*voc / Orchid Classics ORC100167

Chopin is far from being one of my favorite composers. Although I own a fair amount of his music on CD, I rarely listen to it unless I’m in a melancholy mood because that is what he captured in his music, and the performances I enjoy most are those with some backbone to them (e.g., Lipatti and Reisenberg). But I was interested in reviewing this disc in part to hear how young Chelsea Guo played one of my favorite Chopin works, the Barcarolle, and also because she sings on the three last tracks.

We’ll get to the singing in a moment, but first a review of her pianism. Guo has a firm grasp of the Romantic rubato style, which she applies liberally to the Op. 28 Preludes. This gives her playing just the right melancholy touch that millions of Chopin-lovers admire, thus this disc will surely satisfy them. Of course, there are dozens of similar performances of these preludes out there on the market played in a similar fashion, but if you want up-to-the-moment digital sonics, hers will satisfy you. I also liked the fact that in those preludes that required a bit more backbone, such as No. 8 in F# minor, Guo applies only a minimal rubato and plays with a fair amount of fire. Thus she is clearly a fine pianist.

And yes, her performance of the Barcarolle met my expectations. This is as fine a version as those of Walter Gieseking and Shura Cherkassky, my gold standard in this work. Guo captures exactly the right tempo, modifies it subtly throughout, and presents us with a really fine version (although not quite as light and airy in the opening section as the old Gieseking 78).

BUT…!

The real surprise on this CD is Guo’s singing. She has an absolutely lovely light lyric soprano voice, well supported on the breath, with well-placed high notes and an fine sense of style. Moreover, it is both a distinctive timbre as well as an expressive voice. She actually interprets the lyrics she sings, and really sings from the heart.

Now, Chelsea, let this old lady with a half-century’s worth of experience listening to and even judging classical singers in competitions. As fine a pianist as you are, there are hundreds out there just as good as you are. As a lyric soprano—if you stay within your fach and be careful not to oversing or push the voice too hard—you are unique. There is no one out there who sounds like you, and really only about a dozen well-known sopranos who can equal what you do. I don’t know how old you are or what your future plans are, but unless you’re married to the idea of being a concert pianist, drop the piano, really train that voice to do your bidding, and become a singer full time. The only slight flaw I hear in your voice is a somewhat nasal quality in the mid-range, and that can be worked out by a really fine voice teacher. (Talk to Barbara Hannigan or Karina Gauvin for some idea of where to turn…their voices are rock-solid from top to bottom.)

You have the goods; so much is evident in the way you sing the aria from Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra. All you need, as I say, is a little refining, learning how to project the high range without placing it too much in the nasal cavities. It can be done. The old-school singers used to place their high notes aperto ma coperto, in “the dome of the head,” a spot above the sinus cavities. And once they learned how to do that, their voices went on practically forever. (Nellie Melba, Frieda Hempel and Selma Kurz were still singing into their 60s.) Go for it. What have you got to lose? If it doesn’t work out, then yes, you always have your piano playing to fall back on.

But why play the accompanist when you can be the accompanied?

And that’s my opinion out of the clear blue sky.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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