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Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, July 2011

Bella Davidovich’s Chopin tends toward the slow, heavy, poetical side, relying on well-judged rubato and tonal bloom for its effect. There are great turns of phrase in her Ballades, and a grounded solidity which recall the simple, powerful expressiveness of Rubinstein, but there’s also something missing. I would like a bit more lightness of touch, a greater readiness to gamble with pianissimo notes and whispered melodies. The main theme of the first ballade, in particular, can be a little too middling in its appearances, and the first impromptu sounds rather—if this is a word— promptu.

It’s a little interesting to me that the booklet notes explicitly contrast Davidovich’s Chopin with the “more sombre versions by Claudio Arrau”. Davidovich seems sombre too, except in moments like Ballade No. 3 and the final pages of the first impromptu. When the theme of Ballade No. 2 returns after the first stormy episode, it lacks uplift and sags instead; the closing chords of No. 4 simply don’t work out well. Other episodes often sound beautiful; Davidovich coaxes gorgeous sounds out of her instrument. But so does Arrau, and so, for that matter, does Ivan Moravec, whose ballade recordings with Supraphon (and No. 4, live, on Vox) are master-classes in how to combine lightness of touch, emotional depth, and resplendent color in this music.

There are good things on this mid-price disc. The “Fantaisie-impromptu” is given an outstanding reading, fresh and stirringly emotive. The first impromptu opens stiffly but ends well, and the momentum carries over into a powerfully hewn second impromptu, the central section of which rings out clear and emphatic. The third ballade, as mentioned, goes well too. Still, these performances won’t be dislodging Moravec, Rubinstein, or Arrau from the top of my Chopin shelf. The sound quality, for what it’s worth, is very fine, though the piano has a tendency to clang about at its loudest. I am not sure I understand the acclaim which these recordings receive in some quarters, but acclaim there certainly is. It’s all a matter of taste. This is well-done Chopin, in the steak sense of the term: cooked to safety all the way through, but a little dry in consequence. I happen to prefer my Chopin rare: tender, with greater give and a hint (just) of rawness at heart. Bella Davidovich feels differently, and even when her recipe leaves me unmoved it does command respect.

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, July 2011

Bella Davidovich will be 83 years old on July 16 of this year. I had forgotten that, just a few months ago, I purchased a Brilliant Classics reissue (93528) containing just these recordings, plus, on a second CD, Chopin’s 24 Preludes and the Krakowiak in F. Why should Newton Classics reissue duplicate half of Brilliant’s release? Surely not just to honor the pianist’s birthday!

Well, one way or another, you should acquire these performances, if you didn’t get them the first time around. (They originally appeared on Philips.) Davidovich, who was in her early to mid-50s when these recordings were made in England (the first three impromptus) and Switzerland (everything else) was in peak condition, and the engineering team complemented her work admirably. (I have this pianist’s Melodiya LP of the ballades, and the sound is cruder. Not only that, the Russian vinyl seems to have been recycled from old tractor tires.)

Davidovich is one of those pianists who is always tasteful, but in the most interesting manner. In music that encourages many pianists to stretch the concept of interpretation into one of exaggeration, Davidovich remains sane, and even serene. Now granted, if you demand that a pianist paint the sorrows of Chopin’s struggling motherland, or heroes dripping their lifeblood onto scorched Polish soil, Davidovich might not be fanciful enough for you, and someone like Kissin (RCA Red Seal) should satisfy that not unreasonable expectation. However, if you prefer a more objective approach, and playing as well tuned as the engine of a European race car, Davidovich is an excellent choice. Her playing excites not through the application of external pianistic effects, but through her precise and always musical realization of the notes on the printed page. Although her ballades and impromptus are buoyant, they are never inflated! In this, she resembles Arthur Rubinstein.

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8:18:05 AM, 4 March 2015
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