Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor [10:06]
Ballade No. 2 in F [7:47]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat [7:50]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor [12:02]
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat [3:50]
Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp [6:02]
Impromptu No. 3 in G flat [5:44]
Impromptu No. 4 in C sharp minor Fantaisie-impromptu [5:05]
Bella Davidovich (piano)
rec. February 1981, Watford Town Hall, England, and December 1982, Switzerland (Impromptus 1-3)
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802047 [58:25]
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.
Heavy Chopin which commands respect but not my enjoyment.