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.