REVIEWS:  athene ath 23201 Bernard d'Ascoli: Chopin Nocturnes


To listen to the complete cycle of Chopin’s Nocturnes is to follow the composer’s creative genius from 1827, when he set down the C minor, which was not published until 1938, to 1846 with the pair in opus 62 in B major and E major. He took the form, of course, from the Dublin composer John Field, although bringing it into the realm of genius. Indeed, listening to this music, written between the ages of 17 and 36, is to dip into the life of a truly remarkable musician.

Most of the Nocturnes were intended as individual items, even those published as companions under a single Opus. Chopin, certainly, would not have considered playing them all, or even those he composed up to the date of certain concerts. Nevertheless, listening to them in a darkened room played chronologically is a fascinating and stimulating experience, made more so when the pianist has obviously considered projecting them as an extended experience. This Bernard d’Ascoli most certainly does, bringing his deep experience of Chopin scores, with an assured and brilliant technique and a natural sense of poetry and sound to each Nocturne.

These 2 CD’s are a joy to hear, each bringing not only an individual lyrical flow of melodic beauty but allowing Chopin’s unexpected dramatic interruptions to make the pulse run faster and the blood seem warmer as these unique gems arrive, give their message and depart. Can we have more d’Ascoli Chopin soon!
Denby Richards

THE GRAMOPHONE: (**Editor’s Choice CD March 2006)
Let me say at once that even in a heavily competitive marketplace this ranks among the most remarkable of Chopin Nocturne recordings. Courting controversy at one level yet burningly sincere at another, Bernard d’Ascoli goes his own heartwarming way unburdened by tradition. For him, the Nocturnes are not a world of sweet dreams but possess a troubled and assertive life. True, simplicity is hardly has byword (in nos. 1, 6 and 11, his intense rubato often tugs against the music’s natural line), yet such bold and declamatory playing is never less than enlivening, positively forbidding the listener to sink into complacency or repose. An impetuous thrust given to the D flat Nocturne’s long-breathed Italianate lines, and the sudden plunge into darkness at the end of op.32 no. 1 are two among many examples of performances of a living, breathing presence, the opposite of studio-bound.

The two extra posthumous Nocturnes are added for good measure and the ever-popular Op.9 no. 2 comes complete with flashing variants authorised by the composer. The recordings are vivid and immediate and the outstanding notes (a provocative sideswipe at Fauré notwithstanding) are by the pianist himself.

Loves of a personal but more customary Chopin style will turn to Maria Joao Pires and most of all to the elegant and silken-toned Rubinstein whose inimitable readings are available on Naxos. But hopefully, d’Ascoli’s most stimulating Chopin series will continue.
Bryce Morrison
A revelatory, probing disc from Bernard d'Ascoli. Anyone who thought of the Chopin sonatas [sic] as comfortable, even somnolent music must think again. D'Ascoli unflinchingly plumbs the underbelly of these works, finding a deliberately uncomfortable sense of bleakness. Many have recorded these pieces, but d'Ascoli proves that there is still more to be said. And, at the same time, announces himself as a top-flight pianist.

If one polarizes different approaches to performing Chopin’s Nocturnes, with Artur Rubinstein’s elegance as one ideal and the intense dramatic undercurrents of Maria João Pires as another, Bernard d’Ascoli’s approach sits firmly at Pires’s end of the spectrum. His are deeply probing, exploratory, at times unsettling performances, yet they undoubtedly carry an underlying authority and conviction that is persuasive even – perhaps especially – when they challenge preconceived notions. D’Ascoli prefers a full-bodied gutsy sonority to a more obvious caressing beauty, and his approach can be dangerously brusque or volatile. In some Nocturnes – the famous E flat major, Op.9 no. 2, for example, which is hardly ‘espressivo’ or dolce’ – he shuns surface seductiveness and tonal nuance, yet he retains an imperious sense of line and his direct style of playing is compelling.

Overall, d’Ascoli’s bold playing is better suited to the more complex, later Nocturnes (his limited range of pianissimo is an issue in some of the earlier ones) and Chopin’s two Op. 48 Nocturnes in particular are outstanding. D’Ascoli’s rubato – often intense, sometimes counterintuitive – lies at the heart of his music-making, and makes his Chopin alive and self-renewing.  

Performance ****  Sound ****
Tim Parry

How good it is to hear an artist of such exceptional sensitivity and tonal refinement in music that suits his style so well. It is a long time since I‘ve heard the blind virtuoso Bernard D’Ascoli yet it seems only yesterday that I saw him being led onto the platform for the 1981 Leeds Piano Competition. He didn’t win first prize, but then the Leeds is almost as famous for the runners-up (Schiff, Uchida, Berezovsky, Donohoe). D’Ascoli was always assured an international career. He hasn’t done all that much on disc, but Athene are putting that right with an excellent series of recordings, the last of which was a well-received Chopin Impromptus and Scherzi, when various reviewers actually mentioned looking forward to when he tackled the Nocturnes. Well, here is the two disc set, and very good it is too.

It strikes me that D’Ascoli plays in a tradition that goes back to Artur Rubinstein, whose Nocturnes recording has held sway for so many years. There are differences of course, but the emphasis on legato and the singing line are clearly paramount to D’Ascoli. That view has been challenged in recent years by Maria Joao Pires, whose DG set seemed for a while to topple Rubinstein, certainly in the eyes of Gramophone magazine. I have also stood by Pires and her muscular, no-nonsense approach; she seemed to be saying that these pieces have far more fire in their belly than people have given credit for, and we shouldn’t mollycoddle them. Some years on, and listening side-by-side with D’Ascoli’s gentler but still dramatic spontaneity, Pires seems in places to be just too aggressive 

That’s not to suggest for a moment that D’Ascoli shirks from the darker side of these amazing pieces. Many of them have a troubled undercurrent, something Pires exploits fully; D’Ascoli’s innate subtlety makes his a more selective process and in the end we get a more rounded blend of poetry and fire.

Take, for instance, the central con fuoco passage of the F major, Op.15 No.1 (track 4, 1’20 in). Here, Pires’s bass line is so fast, furious and over-pedalled as to sound muddied. D’Ascoli holds back a fraction and delineates Chopin’s textures with more emphasis, bringing out both harmony and line to perfection. He also observes more fully Chopin’s andantino marking in the G major, Op.37 No.2, his slightly reflective approach giving an almost filigree lightness to the main semiquaver figuration. Here, he is more at one with Barenboim, who I find unbeatable in this particular Nocturne, mainly because he keeps a steady tempo throughout. This brings me onto the thorny question of rubato, which I have to say D’Ascoli employs more sparingly, but ultimately more satisfyingly, than Pires. Take Op.15 No.2, where Pires leans rather indulgently into all the main phrase repetitions, whereas D’Ascoli keeps things fairly strict until the central doppio movimento section, where he expands and contracts the phrases as the flow of the music dictates to him – very personal to each artist but entirely convincing to my ears.

All the huge variety of moods within these miniature masterpieces strike me as fully realized by D’Ascoli. He rarely courts controversy, certainly not to Pires’s degree, but is fully alive to the improvisational aspects of the works. This leads him to indulge in the now-frequent practice of inserting those little extra flourishes in the famous E flat, Op.9 No.2, apparently all down to the composer jotting some markings in a number of student copies. Angela Hewitt does the same on Hyperion and though D’Ascoli is a little more tasteful, I have to say I could live without it. Still, as his scholarly and immensely readable insert not tells us, he does not include these variants to ‘overburden this essentially simple, nostalgic text ... but to reinforce the improvisatory character and refined virtuosity of the work’. That word, improvisatory, crops up time and again in D’Ascoli’s note and, along with his frequent reference to operatic bel canto and the singing line, could sum up his performances in one. It is surely playing that the composer himself would have recognized, and though these pieces were never meant to be heard at one single sitting, it’s very easy to do so with this recording.

Of course, in mainstream repertoire competition is always fierce. Alongside the previously mentioned Pires (DG, upper mid-price), Barenboim (DG, budget), Hewitt (Hyperion, full price but with the Four Impromptus as coupling) and Rubinstein (RCA, mid-price) we have an excellent budget version from Ricardo Castro (another ex-Leeds winner on Arte Nova) and Livia Rev on budget Hyperion Dyad, to say nothing of Katin, Arrau and a brand new (full price) set from Pollini. But with those excellent notes, wonderfully refined pianism and a very decent recording that captures D’Ascoli’s full expressive range – as well as his beautifully voiced grand – this is a very considerable achievement, especially at not much above budget price.
Tony Haywood

This is the third recording of the Chopin Nocturnes that I have reviewed in the three most recent issues of IRR – a veritable plethora, even for pieces as well known and loves as these. Fortunately the present version is of considerable interest, as it presents a personal and individual view of the Nocturnes that also remains a “central” one. Bernard d’Ascoli has a sound that is clear, liquescent and very appropriate to Chopin. He includes the two early Nocturnes, nos. 20 and 21m but they are sensibly placed at the end of the second disc, which not only reflects their numeration but means that they can be heard immediately after no. 19 in E minor, Op. 72 No.1, which is likewise a youthful work published posthumously.

During the lovely B flat minor Nocturne, Op.9 no. 1 (first in the published edition) I was initially concerned about some audible “splits” where the left hand comes in fractionally before the right, but was relieved to find that this never becomes intrusive as the cycle unfolds. In fact, d’Ascoli employs it rather less that certain other pianists who consider it an idiomatic feature of Chopin –playing. The climax of the middle section almost exceeds the bounds of the piece, but this is a rare misjudgement and he compensates with a magical pianissimo at the echo effect in Chopin’s D flat major “horn call”. In the E flat Nocturne, Op. 9 no. 2 d’Ascoli introduces several of the composer’s own melodic variations, confirming it as a pianistic Bellini aria. This doesn’t quite withstand repeated listening, though at first it does bring some freshness to a piece that is almost overly familiar.

The sequence proceeds with many incidental pleasures en route. D’Ascoli is very sentient to the acoustical construction of Chopin’s textures, and he knows how to balance the left and right hands so that they blend into an overall sonority, as in the A flat major, Op. 32 no. 2. On the other hand, in the G minor, op. 37 no. 2he is able to alternately emphasize the higher or lower harmonics of its shifting chiaroscuro. These performances are very “shape” and d’Ascoli’s use of rubato is noticeable, though never excessive. What justifies it is that he expands or contracts the pulse in a way that supports the contours of a phrase. In pieces that contain contrasting agitated sections, whether in the middle (Op.9 no. 3, Op.15 no. 1) or at the end (Op.31 no.1), d’Ascoli projects “the nightmare within the nocturne” while conserving pianistic and textural clarity.

D’Ascoli’s literate, beautifully expressed booklet note (very well translated by Eleanor Harris) finds exactly the right balance between technical and expressive comments. He is a pianist who sounds at one with the instrument, and convey the feeling that this really is his music. He plays it in a natural, instinctive way that sheds particular light on a self-generating, freely associative piece like the E flat, Op.55 no. 2, which he describes as a “never-ending melody, here reaching its apogee.” This is a release whose totality upholds the distinction of its individual parts, and for anyone who loves the Nocturnes it is well worth adding to the versions, either classic or more recent, in your own collection.
Stephen Pruslin

This superb double CD presents Chopin by a pianist of astonishing skill and musicianship and the fact that he is blind makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. A devotee of the music of Fredyryk Chopin, Bernard d’Ascoli’s interpretation of the Nocturnes is full of feeling, drama and serenity, demonstrating his genuine love for the music.
(2006 New subscriber offer CD)

The Frenchman Bernard d’Ascoli has perfect command of [tempo rubato] and I’ve enjoyed his new 2-CD set of the Nocturnes. Pollini’s is on DG; this one, also at full price **, is from Minerva. Bernard d’Ascoli understands that Chopin’s eloquent melodic line and wonderful flair for creating a resonating effect - as if the music were being born out of the piano, on the spot, as if improvised - are contained within a structured framework. The notion of contained freedom is at the heart of the tempo rubato Chopin calls for, where the free expression of the melody disturbs as little as possible the classical mould which frames it.

[This is typified ] in one of the later Nocturnes, the E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2 - derived from ‘bel canto’ vocal models, as all the Nocturnes are, but transforming the commonplace - in this instance, some stock-in-trade sentimental formulae of the lyric stage - and burning away sentimentality with intensity. No-one else ever wrote for the piano like this. 

[As an example in the E flat major Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 2] there is playing of authority and definition of character in a passionate song without words. And Bach as well as Chopin would have approved of the exemplary part-playing. This Minerva set has been nicely recorded in deepest Sussex in (I take it) a large private house - absolutely appropriate given that none of this music was composed with large concert halls in mind. As  recordings go of a full-size concert instrument in a space, however, it seems to me that Pollini on DG in the Herkulessaal in Munich has the edge.

 And Pollini has the wider range, musically. Whereas he takes you, ineluctably, on a far-reaching journey, in his set, with d’Ascoli I notice a tendency for the Nocturnes to occupy more circumscribed worlds, to sound a little less various, to have similar frames. A wider dynamic range at the quiet end of the spectrum might have helped. But there is drama and declamation here, as well as lyricism and sensitivity to the fundamental alliance of vocal music with Chopin’s writing. And praise be, like Pollini, d’Ascoli is no sentimentalist, making much of the central storms. Bernard d’Ascoli’s set on Minerva (2 CDs, at full price) also includes three that are outside the canon, early ones not published until after Chopin’s death. Good production and notes on every piece by the pianist himself.
Stephen Plaistow ( *slightly edited from broadcast script)
** except that our set is 2 CD for the price of one. DG’s is not!

LA MARSEILLAISE: (english trnaslation below)
Nul n’est besoin, forcément, d’aller chercher bien loin les solistes talentueux. Le pianiste Bernard d’Ascoli est né à Aubagne (où il réside encore), et a étudié à Marseille avec Perre Barbizet. Lauréat des concours Marguerite Long ou Chopin de Varsovie, primé à Barcelone et à Leeds, Bernard d’Ascoli s’impose, d’abord outre-Manche, puis sur les scènes internationales : Vienne, Amsterdam, Sydney, Tokyo, Montréal… S’il joue au Festival de la Roque d’Anthéron ou aux « Nuite pianistiques », l’artiste n’a pas, semble-t-il, aussi bien en France que dans notre région, acquis la reconnaissance qu’il mérite. On sait par ailleurs qu’il dirige, toujours à Aubagne, une école de formation professionnelle (Piano Cantabile) destinée aux jeunes pianistes de haut niveau désirant se perfectionner, préparer des concours.

A l’écoute de ces Intégrales Chopin, on est frappé par la simplicité apparente du style, la souplesse, la clarté et la respiration des phrasés. Là où d’autres durcissent leur jeu de percussions digitales exubérantes, ou, à l’inverse, affadissent un discours nécessitant un minimum de flamme et d’emphase, Bernard d’Ascoli oppose un climat fondé sur l’équilibre, l’élégance, à mi-chemin entre la virtuosité nécessaire et une sobriété intime. Les Scherzos ont ce qu’il faut de souffle héroique et de frayeurs expressives, les Impromptus de finesse et de lyricisme, les Nocturnes de grâce mélancolique. Un très beau travail pianistique, engagé, qui invite naturellement à l’éloge !

(English translation):

One does not need, inevitably, to go far to seek talented soloists. The pianist Bernard d' Ascoli was born in Aubagne (where he still resides), and studied in Marseilles with Perre Barbizet. Prize winner of the Marguerite Long Chopin competition in Warsaw, preceded on Barcelona and Leeds, Bernard d' Ascoli imposed himself, initially on the other side of the channel, then on the international scene: Vienna, Amsterdam, Sydney, Tokyo, Montreal... Whilst he played at the Festival of the Castling of Anthéron or "Harmed pianistic", the artist does not have in France and especially in our area, the recognition which he deserves. We know in addition that he directs, also in Aubagne, a school of vocational training (Cantabile Piano) intended for the young high level pianists wishing to improve, and prepare for competitions. Hearing these two Chopin CDs, one is struck by the apparent simplicity of the style, the flexibility, the clearness and the well-phrased breathing. Where others rely strongly on exuberant digital percussions, or, contrary, effect a musical language requiring a minimum of flame and of emphasis, Bernard d' Ascoli presents a climate based on balance, elegance, halfway between necessary virtuosity and an intimate sobriety. The Scherzos have what it is necessary of heroic spirit and expressive frisson, the Impromptus of smoothness and lyricism, the Nocturnes of melancholy grace. A very beautiful pianistic work, which from the start invites one naturally to praise!