BBC Radio 3 CD Review

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