|REVIEWS: athene ath 23201 Bernard d'Ascoli: Chopin Nocturnes|
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!
THE GRAMOPHONE: (**Editor’s Choice CD March 2006)
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.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
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 ****
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.
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW:
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.
BBC RADIO 3 “CD REVIEW” *
[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.
LA MARSEILLAISE: (english trnaslation below)
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 !