Bella Davidovich’s Chopin tends toward the slow, heavy,
poetical side, relying on well-judged rubato and tonal bloom
for its effect. There are great turns of phrase in her Ballades,
and a grounded solidity which recall the simple, powerful expressiveness
of Rubinstein, but there’s also something missing. I would
like a bit more lightness of touch, a greater readiness to gamble
with pianissimo notes and whispered melodies. The main theme
of the first ballade, in particular, can be a little too middling
in its appearances, and the first impromptu sounds rather -
if this is a word - promptu.
It’s a little interesting to me that the booklet notes
explicitly contrast Davidovich’s Chopin with the “more
sombre versions by Claudio Arrau”. Davidovich seems sombre
too, except in moments like Ballade No. 3 and the final pages
of the first impromptu. When the theme of Ballade No. 2 returns
after the first stormy episode, it lacks uplift and sags instead;
the closing chords of No. 4 simply don’t work out well.
Other episodes often sound beautiful; Davidovich coaxes gorgeous
sounds out of her instrument. But so does Arrau, and so, for
that matter, does Ivan Moravec, whose ballade recordings with
Supraphon (and No. 4, live, on Vox) are master-classes in how
to combine lightness of touch, emotional depth, and resplendent
color in this music.
There are good things on this mid-price disc. The “Fantaisie-impromptu”
is given an outstanding reading, fresh and stirringly emotive.
The first impromptu opens stiffly but ends well, and the momentum
carries over into a powerfully hewn second impromptu, the central
section of which rings out clear and emphatic. The third ballade,
as mentioned, goes well too. Still, these performances won’t
be dislodging Moravec, Rubinstein, or Arrau from the top of
my Chopin shelf. The sound quality, for what it’s worth,
is very fine, though the piano has a tendency to clang about
at its loudest. I am not sure I understand the acclaim which
these recordings receive in some quarters, but acclaim there
certainly is. It’s all a matter of taste. This is well-done
Chopin, in the steak sense of the term: cooked to safety all
the way through, but a little dry in consequence. I happen to
prefer my Chopin rare: tender, with greater give and a hint
(just) of rawness at heart. Bella Davidovich feels differently,
and even when her recipe leaves me unmoved it does command respect.