Music: A Polonaise without Fantasie/Bernard d'Ascoli/Wigmore Hall

Wintry gusts drove hard over London on the last Wednesday night of 1994, yet even by 6.30 the Wigmore Hall foyer was packed with fans of Bernard d'Ascoli, a pianist who, although much respected and still only in his mid-thirties, is not well repr esentedon records. The programme, too, was irresistible: "Chopin's last five years: the complete piano works", a celebration of melodic richness, harmonic ingenuity and much meaningful counterpoint. And it was indeed a case of "standing room only", as t he French-born d'Ascoli - tall, reserved and blind - edged around the piano, eager to launch into Chopin's epic Polonaise-Fantasie.

The introduction was fairly commanding, but the Polonaise proper, although warmly articulated, lacked colour and panache: it was too strait-laced, more a formal statement than the swaggering, heroic dance-form we know from other interpreters. The middle

section, though, was thoughtfully surveyed, the ensuing storm of trills well handled, and when the crowning peroration finally arrived, the structural logic of D'Ascoli's vision hit home with the appropriate weight, warmth and feeling of exultation.

Next came a quartet of Mazurkas, all composed during the same period (1845-6): the three pieces Op 59 and the celebrated A minor, Op 67 No4. Here D'Ascoli's cosseting touch and artful rubato paid high dividends: he had the measure of the music's eleganc e , sophistication and shifting perspectives; and he could be strongly assertive, too - as in the A flat major. And when it came to the majestic Barcarolle, D'Ascoli refused to rock the boat with excessive rubato; rather, he would modulate his tone accordi ng to the changing complexion of Chopin's harmonies, while the music's crucial bass-line was kept securely within earshot.

Then came two of the greatest Nocturnes, the B major and E major that share Opus 62, the former so full of fantastical pianistic incident, the latter, broad, ballade-like, and warmly played. D'Ascoli seemed more in his element here than anywhere else in the programme, certainly than in the Waltzes (Op 64, Nos 1-3) which, although admirably fluid and unfussy, seemed to me rather unmemorable.

lt was a long but rewarding first half, and the audience loved it. After the interval, D'Ascoli returned with another five Mazurkas, the three Op 63s and one each from Op 68 and Op 67. Once again, the requisite lilt was there, and the tone was nicely graded.

The real test, though, was still in store: Chopin's magnum opus, his Third Sonata. The first movement went reasonably well, with some felicitous phrasing and rather more in the way of dynamic inflexion than we heard in the Polonaise-Fantasie. But althou g h there were many fine moments to savour, I would have welcomed a stronger line and a tighter grip between individual episodes. The Scherzo's trio was very well focused, the Largo had an almost Brahmsian glow and the Finale was both thrilling and unmista kably conclusive. The audience was delighted and D'Ascoli responded with three encores, including the famous E flat Nocturne and the stormy Etude, Op 10 No 4, reminders both of Chopin's brilliant youth and of his own.

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