International Record Review

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