Angela Brownridge’s Beethoven Sonatas CD was welcomed by John Whitmore (review), and with Challenge Classics’ full-fat piano sound this Chopin recital looked promising. Alas, the Second Piano Sonata doesn’t make the best impression from the outset, with rather choppy if suitably turbulent forte sections in the first movement. Textures become rather thick in the Scherzo, with some accents in odd places, and a rather lumpy Più lento. The famous Marche funèbre is weighty but, as in the rest of the piece, I find it hard to winkle out much poetry in the playing. The left-hand accompaniment to the lyrical central section in this movement moves together with the expressive rubato taken in the right hand, making its progress rather halting and uneven. That remarkable presto Finale is a tour de force at any time of the day or night, but is here rather a fistful of notes rather than a subdued storm filled with colour and direction. My comparison for this sonata happens to have been recorded in the same location, that with Naum Grubert on Navis Classics (review). With a much more expressive lyrical line in the second theme to the first movement, Grubert’s characterisation of the more dramatic sections has more variety and interest. The dynamic shading of the Scherzo is more convincing, the Più lento full of amorous expectation and graceful depth, while that funeral march becomes an architectural edifice, its moments of hope the light shining through stained glass.
The four Ballades have some of the most glorious music and some of the most extreme contrasts in the romantic piano repertoire, and competition in the field of recordings is of course deadly fierce. While I needed some convincing after the sonata, I feel we are on firmer ground here with Angela Brownridge. She relishes the fantasy-like qualities in the Ballade No. 1, pulling the notes around perhaps a little more than to my taste, but certainly drawing out both the dramatic flow and a sense of flamboyant fun in the score. The Ballade No. 2 has that charming, almost chorale-like opening that breaks out into stormy seas that are weathered masterfully here. The A-flat major sun comes out for Ballade No. 3, though things are never simple with Chopin, and after leading us on with music of a more dance character there are all kinds of diversions, the narrative given plenty of layers in this performance. The final Ballade No. 4 is the crowning masterpiece: at first understated, but with a world of glorious exploration and discovery in petto, that final coda like an additional palace thrown in for good measure.
Revisiting well-worn repertoire gives one the chance to brush the dust off some former acquaintances, and in this case it was Evgeny Kissin’s collection on the RCA label (review). Recorded more distantly, the textures give a more even and legato impression in the legato passages, the dramatic storms snapping more into a fiery focus that takes us into wilder territory than Brownridge. Kissin has the edge in terms of a personal inventiveness and freshness of vision while holding a little closer to Chopin’s inner world, or at least to that reported dislike he had for extremes of rubato. Yes, Kissin does plenty of shaping, but generally as notated and with a more widely arching vision for each piece. This seems hard to pin down in writing, but if you go back to Artur Rubenstein (review) you can trace a line when it comes to sticking to the text and essence of each score, Brownridge at times removing us from the identity of the page almost altogether – for instance at the opening of Ballade No. 1: would you ever guess that these were all 8th notes? You can also hear where some of Brownridge’s touches come from, like those little messa voce rises of speed within each phrase of the opening of the Ballade No. 3 that are almost identical to Rubenstein.
The programme concludes with the Fantaisie Op. 49, another adventurous pianistic journey that encapsulates an entire sonata-in-miniature in its by no means diminutive 12-minute span. This is given a powerful performance by Angela Brownridge and makes for a memorable close to an intriguing and mostly impressive recording. As a recital this is a fine Chopin programme, and if this were a concert we would all be on our feet and cheering loudly at the end. With superb SACD sound quality there is a great deal to get one’s teeth into, but with so many classic recordings around this or any other release is always going to have a hard time standing out. By no means an ‘also-ran’ I would recommend anyone to have a listen and make up their own mind about Angela Brownridge’s Chopin, especially in the Ballades and Fantaisie.