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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Four Ballades [35:10]
Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60 [8:39]
Nocturnes, Op. 62 [11:27]
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op. 61 [12:44]
Håkon Austbø (piano)
rec. 24-26 March 2014, Østsiden Kirke, Fredrikstad, Norway

Håkon Austbø is a world-renowned expert in Messiaen, Janáček and Scriabin, three of the piano repertoire’s most adventurous and idiosyncratic harmonists. This means Austbø has an interesting perspective on Chopin, coming from the experimenters and radicals Chopin inspired. That said, this recital does not focus on the Polish composer’s most harmonically adventurous and stark works, like the mazurkas. Maybe that was a missed opportunity—except that this CD is still superb.

Austbø provides polished, admirable performances of the four Ballades. It’s hard to describe his playing style in these works, since he is not especially extreme or idiosyncratic. Austbø tends to be slightly fast, not lingering overlong on any melodies. There’s an important pause in the middle of the fourth ballade which is cut unusually short but this is not the sign of a pianist keen to rush, or to oversimplify. He keeps the music anchored in the background of Chopin’s classical predecessors, with a careful ear for the works’ structures. If he underplays some of the emotion in the music, that is okay, because Chopin is bursting with emotions, and the ballades do not need a performers’ additions to be powerful.

Having said that, Austbø does achieve a serene soft touch in the second theme of Ballade No. 1, and No. 4 (my favorite Chopin) is a particular success. One weak point is the ending of Ballade No. 2, which in a few passages (like around 6:15) loses tension.

The other works on the disc are also among Chopin’s best. Austbø doesn’t waste his time. The Barcarolle receives a first-rate performance, well-paced and beautifully voiced. The two final published nocturnes are tenderly played, in contrast to the muscularity Austbø brings to the Barcarolle; he is certainly a flexible performer. I don’t really ‘get’ the Polonaise-Fantaisie and am ill-equipped to comment in detail, but this is as good a performance as I have heard.

Recorded sound is good; maybe a bit bright or close at times, but not a real problem. I do enjoy the full sound of Austbø’s piano, and his playing’s wide dynamic range is preserved intact. There’s a long, detailed booklet. This is a very good Chopin recital, and if you, like me, collect whole shelves full of good Chopin, this definitely deserves a respected place in your arsenal. It’s yet another strong performance from one of the most underrated pianists around.

Brian Reinhart