Which edition is the best for the study of the works of Chopin?

SOME visitors have written asking us which edition of the works of Chopin is the best one. A complete and satisfying answer requires an entire volume that we have neither the time nor the desire to write. So, we will give a short but clear suggestion, on which we will you up to date.

A real Chopin edition has two specific and distinct tasks:

  1. Provide a text reviewed on strictly philological bases;
  2. Illustrate the distinctive features—that an issue can put on paper, of course—of the new piano school that Chopin had thought up and which is based both on the quality of the touch and a correct diction, which you can get by a good knowledge of “Belcanto”, an absolute mastery of “legato” and great sensitivity to the rhythm, i.e. breathing. Now, fingering and pedalling are the second and third foundation that a good critical edition can and must include (the first one, i.e. the touch, can only be provided by a competent teacher. —About the touch, we want to emphasize that all piano competitions devoted to Chopin, where the candidate can choose the piano he is going to play—a piano which can be insensitive to the variety of the individual touches—are the most disconcerting negation of the Chopin piano school. Since everybody knows that the most important competitions because of the various more and/or less public financings look like a tasty cake, whose confectioners want their own slice, such pseudo-cultural events are an insult to the music and the genius of the musician, to whom they are devoted). As in indicating the pedalling Chopin himself was wavering, the editor-philologist must treat it like any other component of the music text (it will be the teacher to illustrate the use of Chopin). As for the fingering, instead, which is rare (except in the Etudes), being the edition of Mikuli (Mk) available—that, of course, published by Kistner, not the one published by Schirmer—together with the scores of other pupils, the editor-philologist has the duty to deal with.

That said, we immediately enter into details. Currently, the best edition, as a whole, is the Polish one, edited by Jan Ekier (WN), which, however, has many faults:

  1. It is not a real critical edition, since the publisher is not a philologist or, at least, did not prove to be that.
  2. Consequently, there is a strong trend toward normalization, standardization, that is all that seems strange or unusual is flattened, trivialized.
  3. The abuses, that is notes and other things Chopin did never write, are many.
  4. The commendable care for fingering (which is not always the editor's work) reveals however an insufficient knowledge of the basic principles underpinning the new Chopin piano school. And to think that Ekier is one of the few to have understood something!

Now, briefly, let us review the various works in alphabetical order.

Works for solo piano:
Allegro de concert. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Ballades: our free edition. The new Peters edition (edited by Samson) and the Henle new edition (by Müllemann) are to be avoided, especially the former, which contains errors and inaccuracies.
Barcarolle. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Berceuse. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk. — The notes of the new HN Berceuse edition by Müllemann (2015) are the same as in the previous one by Herttrich (1978). About the nonsensical (ex. gr. in fingering), even ridiculous (ex. gr. in “sigla”), oddities of the new Chopinian edition published by Henle we already talked somewhere else. The Vorwort and the footnotes enjoy an English and French translation, but the Bemerkungen are translated only into English! What is real new is the pedalling. The curious student, who wants to amuse himself and to learn something, can compare both editions (WN and HN) of such a masterpiece.
Bolero. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Etudes. No edition is satisfying. The best text was in the Urtext edition by E. Rudorff (1899) no longer reprinted. Alternatively, despite the many abuses, WN, where, however, till now we have found one only typo (p. 99, m. 23, r. h.: to the first B a sharp is missing—however, someone reported to us that from a certain unspecified date that typo has been corrected). For fingering: also Mk.
Fantaisie. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Impromptus. For text: the new Peters edition (PT), edited by Irving and Grabowski. For fingering: Mk. Unfortunately, PT contains some insidious typos, which we pick out: —p. 1, m. 3, l. h.: the first note must be C not E flat; —p. 3, m. 44, l. h.: it is E flat that has to be natural, not B flat; —p. 11, m. 73, l. h.: the second eighth of the first triplet must be C not E; —p. 29, m. 79, l. h.: the second eighth of the second sextuplet must be B flat not F. —As to inaccuracies, compare e.g. the Impromptu in C sharp minor: —m. 56, l. h.: the last G flat has an accent in PT, nothing in WN, no comment; —m. 67, r. h.: the slur starts from B flat in PT, from C flat in WN, no comment; —m. 77, r. h.: the turn is in thirty-seconds in PT, in sixteenths in WN, no comment. Which one is wrong? Unfortunately we cannot answer, because we have not got the autograph.
Mazurkas. For text: WN. For fingering: Mk. The volume of Mazurkas of Mk, republished by Dover, contains a large number of fingerings all of Chopin.
Nocturnes. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Preludes. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk. The new Peters edition, except typos, is accurate, but is useless because it does not solve anything. — As for the Bärenreiter edition (August 2016), see the review.
Prelude Op. 45: our free edition. — As for the Bärenreiter edition (August 2016), see the review.
Polonaises. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk. It would be useful to consult our edition too, even if it needs a complete revision.
Rondos. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Scherzos. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk. — Of the recent (spring 2016) edition of the Scherzo Op. 20 we were about to write a review, but we have no time. Suffice it to say the following. Compared to the previous edition edited by the late Ewald Zimmermann, a prepared and intelligent musicologist, this edited by Müllemann is worse in many respects: it is neglected an important source, and it is difficult to draw the line between incompetence and obtuseness or vice versa. The editor does not follow any philological principle or criterion. So, if you already own the previous edition, you do not need this one. If you wish a new edition, get the Polish one edited by J. Ekier, which at the moment is the absolute best. The Henle Verlag must be very rich, because it can afford to squander money. — One last note: at the end of the French translation of the Preface you read, “detailed notes in French can be downloaded for free from www.henle.com,” but it is not true: until now (mid-October 2016) there is no "detailed note" in French. Such is the "philological" scruple of this new edition. – We have not yet bought the Scherzo op. 31. As for op. 39, recently published (August 2018)—leaving aside the philological problem—you will find no improvement there in comparison with WN (with the exception of m. 315, where WN inserts notes Chopin never wrote), but it is better than the one edited by Zimmermann. The poor and bad fingering by Theopold does not make better the edition.
Sonatas. For text: WN, though quite unsatisfying, but there is no other. For fingering: also Mk.
Tarantella. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.
Waltzes. For text: PT is better than WN, but there are errors and inaccuracies, which must be corrected with the comparison of one with the other, e.g.: —Valse pour Mlle Marie (p. 83), m. 4, l. h.: D has a bad natural that does not exist in the autograph; —Valse (p. 68), from the third system: the key signature is wrong, because a flat is missing. For fingering: Mk.
Variations. For text: WN. For fingering: also Mk.

Works for piano and orchestra:
Concertos. For text: the new Peters edition (PT), edited by John Ring (in some ways better than the Polish edition), or WN. For fingering: also Mk.

For all remaining compositions, there being nothing better, combine WN and Mk.

All other editions currently on the market should be avoided (some of them like the volumes of the Urtext edition published by Lemoine, with great care). It is advisable to always read the comments, even if they are boring and often unnecessary. The volumes already published of the new Henle edition by Müllemann (HN) do not improve WN, indeed often offer a worse text, in other words, they are not reliable.
The Oxford edition by É. Ganche gave a good text, which, used in conjunction with Mk, could still well replace the current pseudo-critical editions; but, as you know, the former and the latter are no longer on the market. However, you can consult Mk on the website www.polona.pl.

June 2015.