Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Autour des Ballades
Andante spianato et Grand Polonaise brillante in E flat, Op. 22 [14:04]
Fantaisie-impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66 [4:56]
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 [9:36]
Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2 [6:04]
Ballade No. 2 in F, Op. 38 [7:47]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47 [7:23]
Nocturne No. 13 in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 [6:05]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 [11:28]
Nocturne No. 4 in F, Op. 15 No. 1 [4:07]
Etude No. 3 in E, Op. 10 No. 3 [4:23]
Kotaro Fukuma (piano)
rec. Cosmos Hall, Tokyo, 7-9 March 2013
EDITIONS HORTUS 118 [75:54]

Right from the lovely bed of sound created at the opening of the Andante spianato it is clear that Kotaro Fukuma is a terrific interpreter. That bed is one in which all the different notes are clearly audible – this is no mere pre-Debussian mist. His projection of the right-hand melody is perfectly judged. Fukuma’s touch is very varied, which works perfectly for Chopin, as long as it is intelligently applied; and on the basis of this audition, there is little to worry the listener on that score.

For the Grande Polonaise, Fukuma marries fantasy with Polonaise rhythm. He plays the 1835 version of the Fantaisie-Impromptu. His refusal to over-pedal increases, rather than decreases, the tension in the opening section. The contrasting section finds Fukuma taking risks, inasmuch as he takes rubato as far as it can go without rupturing the sense of forward movement.

The recital, as the disc title suggests, revolves around the four Ballades. The First is heard in a fascinating reading that moves from the rock-like octaves of the opening to a grim determination in the first main area that in turn melts into the long, flowing contrasting subject. There is a sense of abandon in the latter stages that threatens to break the confines of a studio recording. Putting the A minor Waltz Op. 34/2 straight after is a wise mood: the tender, drifting line is just what is needed after the virtuosity of the G minor Ballade's coda. The Waltz also melts beautifully into the opening of the Second Ballade. Here, perhaps there is just a touch of stiffness in the opening section; almost as if to compensate, the faster section has extra fire in its belly. Even at super-speeds, one can hear all the details, and the coda is technically remarkable, even more so as via Fukuma's handling this piece seems like a pointer towards Scriabin. There is a heady exhilaration to the final stretches that in its perfumed way is quite remarkable.

The Third Ballade’s opening has depth of utterance shot through every note; no stiffness here, although ironically the lilting rhythms of the second section could perhaps swing gently back and forth a little more. More, his left-hand agility, and its ability to speak, just after five minutes in, is quite remarkable. The recording’s depth in the bass, too, adds substantially to the experience.

It is the deep seriousness of the C minor Nocturne (Op. 48/1), almost a tone-poem in itself, that acts as a prolongation of the Third Ballade here; on the other side of that Nocturne is the slowly evolving opening out of the Fourth Ballade, heard here in a gloriously lyrical performance.

Another tone-poem-like Nocturne follows: the F major, Op. 15/1. Fukuma captures the extremes of the sections. Perhaps, surprisingly, the final Etude is a touch pedestrian but not enough to detract from a recommendation for this splendid disc.

Kotaro Fukuma is a multiple prize-winner in major competitions and has already come to critical attention for a number of discs (review ~ review). Do try to hear this as it is a splendid, often radiant, addition to the Chopin discography.

Colin Clarke

Previous review: Brian Reinhart (Recording of the Month)
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