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Remembering a

Most Remarkable Woman

Bernard d'Ascoli & Joanna

Bernard's Chopin CDs

Joanna: We did some wonderful Chopin discs, in fact the entire Nocturnes, the Schertzi and Impromptus. I hope we got the results that you wanted.

Bernard: I certainly got more than I expected. No, it was wonderful; it was always understood from within, because [as an editor] you just know the music more than anybody else - and Chopin in particular. It was something - we just didn't have to say - you understood what I preferred; why I preferred [it] and you understood why it was important to [edit] do it before the change of pedal or just after, and it was great.

Joanna: It was wonderful working with you Bernard.

Bernard: Well it was for me too. And yes, we managed three CDs altogether. But hearing your latest Chopin I understand why we got on so well with that particular repertoire. In fact you play a nocturne on your CD. . .

Joanna: The D flat Nocturne.

Bernard: . . . and I really found - what's wonderful is the way it flows so naturally. I had the real feeling that you were - this is something one says, but it was really true - as if you were improvising it; as if your were creating it in front of us.

Joanna: Oh Bernard, what a lovely thing to say.

Bernard: It’s true; it’s really what I felt. It didn't feel calculated; it was really spontaneous.

Joanna: The thing is that I found that I was getting back a bit more to the type of playing, perhaps more refined because I had been doing more technical work in between; getting back to how I actually felt the music on my own terms.

Bernard: Yes.

Joanna: Before perhaps being told this and that in master classes - and sometimes learning a lot from the master class - but my interpretation, I felt I was able to get back to my own feelings about it because I always say I don't decide - I do have to work jolly hard at my sort of vision of the piece . . .

Bernard: You must do because of the quality of the texture . . .

Joanna: I do have to because I'm not . . . I'm very aware of the fact that I have to work jolly hard to get anywhere, but I do find that the music seems to come to me - and it may not be necessarily everybody's idea of it at all - but it comes to me, and I can't do it any other way. I just interpret what seems to come to me. And so therefore, perhaps that's what makes it sound natural because I'm not actually trying to do it.

Bernard: Yes.

Joanna: I do feel very pleased indeed, that being at the moment rather vulnerable, being ill and perhaps not having much time left; it is the greatest comfort to me and encouragement to me to feel that someone with your fantastic critical ability and your own wonderful playing of Chopin actually likes my playing . . .

Bernard: I do.

Joanna: . . . that is just a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Bernard: I do, I do; its not being polite or anything. It’s absolutely true. I do because it feels exactly what you describe, that it couldn't be any other way. And it appears to us like that. I absolutely understand what you mean. I feel a bit the same about Chopin: I work hard at it, but I don't hesitate about which tempo to take; I take the tempo I feel it should be at. It's not the same for all composers. There are composers where I need to think hard and look three times - oh he put andante, he put con moto, so I should be careful. With Chopin, I hardly need to look at the tempo. When I check the tempo it’s a confirmation of what I felt.

Joanna: Do you think that is because Chopin himself played in that way, very much on the spur of the moment perhaps . . .

Bernard: One hopes so but . . .

Joanna: . . . when he was playing to his friends; I know he struggled to write it down, but his actual playing from what I gather from various writings, he had this natural touch, he had hands - you see you have tremendously wonderful hands - I'm lucky that I've got these hands that open up.

Bernard: Yes.

Joanna: And Chopin was described as having hands that looked small but opened up like as snake.

Bernard: Yesss.

Joanna: And I think that I'm lucky to have that ability to play some of these widely spaced things.

Bernard: Yeah, in a supple way. You're A flat major Study sounds wonderful; so effortless . . .

Joanna: Oh Bernard, thank you.

Bernard: . . . and yet without holes in the texture; its pianistically achieved as well. I know you can benefit from editing and so on, we all do; but if you had edited it, every single note it wouldn't sound that spontaneous!

Joanna: I did work jolly hard at it . . .

Bernard: You must have.

Joanna: . . . there were many times when I swore and cursed because I had fallen down and made some awful mistake, but I love it. And you must hear the Debussy I have done, which Mike loves. Its just three little pieces . . .

Bernard: La Fille aux cheveux de lin

Joanna: Yes, and Clair de Lune and the First Arabesque. They are all things that friends of mine - like my doctor - love. I didn't do it to impress people with my wonderful kind of Fur d'Artifice . . .

Bernard: 'Faurian' Debussy . . .

Joanna: It’s sort of . . .

Bernard: Gentle and subtle . . .

Joanna: . . . and I did play Fur d'Artifice at one point - not recently - I don't think I could do that now; I don't have the energy. But I loved making the disc; it was hard work and I was swearing like mad, wasn't I Mike? . . .Chuckles off . . .

Story-Telling in Music

Joanna: I just love the F minor Ballade; I know you play it very beautifully, because I heard the disc that you did a long time ago with somebody else. I just love that and I always feel its a ballade; it actually is a story, although one doesn't know what the story is . . .

Bernard: No, but there is a narration . . .

Joanna: Its got to sound as if you are actually telling this story and I do hear it often played without that kind of feeling; beautifully played, but it’s music and not poetry.

Bernard: The sense of narration has been very often lost - I mean someone like Alfred Cortot had a wonderful way to tell the story with the music. It is true that it’s a quality that has got a little bit lost over the years. I think it is coming back and if you take some conductors like Nikolhaus Harnoncourt for example, he brings back the story-telling with music. I have seen a rehearsal where he explains to the orchestra things that a school music master would explain, almost naive in a sense which inspires the players and we have moved away from that purely academic intellectual cold fish approach. Its coming back and you can see in Harnoncourt how alive me makes his interpretations.

Joanna: There are so many people who can play practically everything; there are so many wonderful pianists who can rattle off the most difficult works. One listens sometimes and one thinks that its terribly, terrible clever and gawd how did he manage to play that so fast and listen to the clarity of their trills and everything, but it doesn't say anything to me.

Bernard: Yes.

Joanna: Of course I was brought up with old 78s of pupils of Liszt or people like Friedman - various big old pianists - so I suppose that I was very influenced - I don't want to play like them, in fact I haven't heard them for a long time . . .

Bernard: Yes, but you keep that in your subconscious.

Joanna: . . . sort of that seemed to be Chopin and things to me. I wanted to play in a way that it meant to me as a child.

Bernard: The proximity with improvisation; after all most of his compositions were first of all improvised and then reconstituted. Georges Sand explains, doesn't she, that he would improvise something wonderful, would try to write it; would tear his hair out and went mad for several days and finished writing more or less what he had done in the beginning.

Joanna: Sometimes it was a bit different in different editions and how he taught his pupils.

Bernard: Yes, it kept changing. Yes, because he was a perfectionist. Of course the improviser would not be a perfectionist; but he was a perfectionist as well and he wanted the music not to be distorted, but had originally been felt as a whole, as something organic. It’s true that the best interpreters should try to find that natural flow and I honestly found this in your record.

Joanna: Oh Bernard, I am so grateful to you because it means such a lot coming from someone like you. Andreas has also been very nice about my playing and he actually was listening to a tape we had made when Isobel Buchanan came and we did the Frau Leiben und laben and some Fauré and Duparc songs - I was accompanying her. Andreas, he was interested in Isobel because he had met her and everything; so we played it to him and he was so complimentary and I felt, god I had to struggle really to do those quite difficult accompaniments. Anyway he spoke to Stephan [Loges] who said he would love to come down and do some Schubert Leider. So you see, it’s given me this . . . and to get it from somebody like Andreas as well . . . well I feel life's been worthwhile if I die tomorrow! You know what I mean (laughing).

Bernard: You are the most in-demand accompanist.

Joanna: Well, I can't read music very quickly and I take a long time to learn it; I'm not as good as a lot of people - Eugene Asti and all these wonderful people who can play anything. Alexander Schmalcz who did the piano on our disc of Stephan singing Brahms and Schumann Dichterleibe; he is wonderful and can play suddenly in a different key - just like that. Maybe you can do that.

Bernard d'Ascoli - Chopin Nocturnes:

"This ranks among the most remarkable Chopin Nocturne recordings - performances of a living breathing presence. A revelatory probing disc . . . Bernard d'Ascoli announces himself as a top-flight pianist."

Bryce Morrison (Gramophone)

Bernard d'Ascoli