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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op.23 [9.00]
Nocturne No. 4 in F Major Op.15/1 [4.47]
Ballade No. 2 in F Major Op.38 [7.12]
Nocturne No. 13 in C Minor Op.48/1 [5.45]
Ballade No. 3 in A Flat Major Op.47 [7.42]
Nocturne No. 17 in B Major Op.62/1 [6.34]
Ballade No. 4 in F Minor Op.52 [10.23]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
rec. 2018, Sendesaal, Radio Bremen
SONY CLASSICAL 19075822932 [51.23]

Leif Ove Andsnes is one of those rare pianists who can play an extraordinarily wide range of repertoire to an exceptionally high standard. Chopin is one of the composers upon whom Andsnes has not focused in recent years although he recorded the Chopin Sonatas together with a selection of Mazurkas and Études in the mid-1990s. With this new recording of the Ballades together with a selection of Nocturnes he shows what a truly gifted Chopin interpreter he is.

Chopin’s four Ballades were written at various points in the composer’s career and they are at the pinnacle of the Romantic piano repertoire. They were inspired by poems by Adam Mickiewicz although the precise inspiration for each of the pieces is not clear and is disputed. All the Ballades have a shifting rhapsodic virtuosity moving from moments of intimacy to full blooded heroism. They are all in compound duple time – either 6/4 or 6/8 – a musical metre which is common to traditional folk dances.

The G Minor Ballade opens in an authoritative way with Andsnes displaying an impressive range of dynamics from the outset. The rubato is subtle but effective and Chopin’s bel canto melodies float in a sweet and carefree way. As the music progresses, Andsnes whips up turbulent storms and engulfing passions but there is also an element of aristocratic reserve about the playing of which I am sure Chopin would approve. Andsnes’ handling of the leggiero section is absolutely wonderful as sprightly Schumannesque fantasy elements come to the fore. The climactic coda is a virtuoso tour de force although I would have liked to hear a little more fire. The F Major Ballade is dedicated to Schumann and is often seen as portrait of that composer representing the two extremes of his personality. The graceful idyllic opening melody has a sweet simplicity while the ensuing musical storm has an expansive, elemental feel. This particular Ballade can sometimes come across as fractured but it has a highly integrated feel here. The coda is handled with amazing digital dexterity and enormous musicality although I would have liked to hear a little more of that unbridled feeling that the music calls for.

Andsnes’ performance of the third and fourth Ballades is among the best I have heard. There is elegant shaping of the line in the A Flat Ballade and Chopin’s accents are closely observed without being overdone. The playing is refined and tasteful with Andsnes bringing out Chopin’s inner voices in a highly musical way. There are elements of caprice, gorgeous colour changes and highly imaginative textures. The high point of this recording is the performance of the F Minor Ballade. The music evolves in a rich and organic way as Andsnes seamlessly integrates Chopin’s contrapuntal textures and rich counter melodies into the evolving textures. Chopin’s fioritura are played with enormous delicacy and imaginative fantasy elements come to the fore. The section immediately before the coda is absolutely wonderful: the left-hand runs are played with gossamer lightness of touch before the music builds in a rapturous way. The coda is a wonderful rhapsodic piece of playing which would bring the house down in a live recital.

The four Ballades in this recording are interspersed with performances of three of the nocturnes. The melody of the F Major Nocturne has a crystalline beauty and the ornamentation played with understated elegance. The stormy central section is played with weight and depth of sound as turbulent passions boil up. The C Minor Nocturne with its funeral march opening has gravitas and poignancy. Andsnes produces a torrent of octaves which build up to an explosive climax. Andsnes’ performance of the B Major Nocturne is masterful. One can only marvel as he conjures up glowing timbres and gorgeous colour changes while the sequences of trills and ornaments in the final section of the piece is exquisite.

There are some very fine recordings of the Chopin Ballades by artists such as Zimmerman, Perahia and Hough. There is no doubt that Andsnes belongs in that exalted company. His performance of the nocturnes is also exceptionally fine and compares well with the leaders in the field such as Rubinstein and Arrau.

Overall, this is an exceptionally fine recording and is highly recommended.

Robert Beattie

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