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Perfect for those who enjoy a strong 'masculine' approach to these works
on 23 November 2012
The Nocturnes on this disc were recorded over a span of six years from 1979-85. They were never recorded as a complete set but were recorded as part of a chronological set of the complete works. That is also how the Ballades were fitted in to the schedule. As a result the pieces work more as individuals, rather as conceived by Chopin of course, than as a unified set and that was the original intention. This re-packaging changes those parameters. The recording quality is good and surprisingly consistent bearing in mind the span of time involved.
The original recording intention seems to have suited Ashkenazy's character very well as he has always taken a fairly strong individual line over his interpretations. He is by no means the only one like this and Perahia springs readily to mind in his individual approach to Chopin - see his preludes or sonatas for example. Listening to the Ashkenazy performances of the Nocturnes, there seems to be an unmistakable Russian feel to them with the frequently passionate central sections being encased by the slower sections reminiscent of those desolate empty spaces of an epic nature to be found in the Rachmaninov Etudes Tableaux and some of the Preludes. Generally I would describe Ashkenazy as producing performances suitable for the concert hall whereas pianists such as Rubinstein, Moravec or Pires for example are more intimate in style - perhaps more suitable for a private audience such as in venues frequented by Chopin. All of these pianists of course, are playing on pianos of far greater power and tonal heft than originally known of by Chopin so one ought to be careful when making value judgements based on scale of interpretation and delivery.
The four Ballades are given performances of equal scale with considerable virtuosity and undeniable excitement in the faster passages and with poetic sensitivity underlined elsewhere. These are also performances given on a large scale and have less varied rubato than Moravec for example. These are generally straighter and less complex readings than some but no less impressive for all that. These can reasonably be ranked as among the most successful versions of the Ballades on disc.
It seems to me that there are different types of valid performances to suit different occasions. All the above pianists deliver fully in their own particular ways. Yundi Li provides yet another example, very brilliant in approach, on his two DVD recordings of the Ballades from 2004.
Like many collectors, I own a lot of Chopin discs by many of the world's expert pianists and I find them all equally rewarding if in different ways. That is the whole point of collecting - to get more and more of an insight into these multi-faceted works by learning from a range of fine musicians.
This is a generous coupling of these works and given by an acknowledged expert with his own particular style. There will be those who would prefer a less forthright, even at times muscular, approach but these are still remarkably fine and relevant readings in their own way. There can never be a definitive disc of such core repertoire in such a hotly contended market but it is certainly possible to list a selection of outstanding versions, all fine in their own ways. Ashkenazy's performances of these works certainly deserves to be among that elite.
I would therefore suggest that it is deserving of serious consideration as a purchase along with other fine recordings by equally fine exponents of Chopin's music.