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CHOPIN // 4 Ballades

Philippe Bianconi,

Since his success at the Van Cliburn International Competition in the 1980s, Philippe Bianconi has made an international career, pursuing his musical itinerary and patiently carving out his path far from media hype. The release of his disc of Debussy’s Préludeson La Dolce Volta was one of the major recording events of the year 2012, winning a deluge of international distinctions and a nomination at the Victoires de la Musique Classique in the category ‘Recording of the Year’.

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First of all, it was a foregone conclusion that Bianconi’s first Chopin disc would feature the ballades, given the place they have occupied for so long in his musical universe. He preferred to follow the ballades with an exploration of the later Chopin in the Fourth Scherzo and the Barcarolle. Chopin’s last years display an extraordinary evolution of his musical language, with a harmonic freedom and a refinement that look far into the future.
Having recorded the complete Debussy Préludes for La Dolce Volta in 2012, Philippe Bianconi was all the more likely to be alive to the extent to which the music of Chopin opens up new perspectives and heralds the innovations of musical Impressionism. In what ways this immersion in the Debussyan universe has influenced his approach to Chopin. The great harmonic freedom Chopin discovered in the course of his career was the very foundation of the attitude of Debussy, who went on to emancipate the language of music. One can add to this point a shared love of colour, of the instrument, a physical rapport with the keyboard, which is always coaxed, never treated aggressively.

The choice is evident: to speak before singing – which does not mean not to sing, but to sing in the shadows, in the darkness, with reserve. The result is like an etching, a refreshing change from so many performances that make the ballades seem like descriptive tone poems, and clearly brings out the structure, that hidden strength of Chopin’s music.

Pianism of such sombre radiance recalls the nature (though not the intentions) of Samson François’s playing, and shows the degree of maturity Philippe Bianconi has now attained. We are prepared to bet that, whatever repertory he may record next, you will be gripped by his personal universe.


  • Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23 9’53
  • Ballade no.2 in F major, op.38 7’45
  • Prelude in C sharp minor, op.45 5’30
  • Ballade no.3 in A flat major, op.47 7’42
  • Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52 12’00
  • Scherzo no.4 in E major, op.54 12’00
  • Barcarolle in F sharp major, op.60 9’02



Philippe Bianconi has not enjoyed an exactly high-profile career since winning the silver medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Competition in 1985. In the extensive booklet (French, English, Japanese, German) attached to this handsomely produced release, the French pianist (b1960) speaks eloquently of his lifetime’s attachment to the music he plays here.

I cannot recall another version of the Four Ballades in which every note is so clearly articulated or phrasing which lends such lucid narrative to the unfolding drama – try the final pages of the F minor Ballade, which usually fly by in a flurry. There is an unshowy integrity and honesty about Bianconi’s interpretations that is entirely admirable. The downside is that by thus highlighting Chopin’s contrapuntal ingenuity – no right-hand Chopiniste he – and adopting far slower tempi than the norm, Bianconi misses the propulsive drama of these tone-poems. In the G minor and F minor Ballades, for instance, both Cortot and Perahia agree on timings of 8’49” and 9’46” in their benchmark recordings, compared with Bianconi’s 9’53” and 12’00” for the two works.

The enigmatic Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 45, was composed between the Second Ballade and the Third – which is where Bianconi places it in his programme, thoughtfully and sensitively played, like the Barcarolle which closes the disc. Preceding that is the Scherzo No 4 in which, like the Ballades, drama is sacrificed for textual clarity in a performance that fails to take flight.

Philippe Bianconi: the smouldering passion under the ivory


It is from Italy that he takes his name and the passion concealed within him, which gives him his vibrancy when he is on stage. The passion that overwhelms his audience. Italy sings in him with the colours of its language, so familiar to him, of its Mediterranean exuberance in which his childhood was bathed. But it was in Nice that Philippe Bianconi was born and raised, and it was France that moulded him. Which is why artist and man alike are a blend of poise and ardour, discretion and inner flame, clothed in an elegance and a luminosity that may be read in his presence, in his eyes, and can be savoured when he is at the piano.

As a young man, he progressed by leaps and bounds, propelled into international competitions by Pierre Cochereau as soon as he left the Nice Conservatoire. His career path was marked out from the day he entered the class of Simone Delbert-Février, a student of Marguerite Long and Robert Casadesus. ‘Sing!’, ‘Listen!’: even today, he can still hear the injunctions of that refined, enthusiastic woman, stirred by an inner fire, and he utters them in his turn to the students he trains at the École Normale de Musique de Paris. On the byways of those early years, he met Gaby Casadesus: with her he put the finishing touches to the purity of style, the clarity of musical expression he had cultivated since the start of his musical education. With the Russian pianist Vitalij Margulis, he found that density of sound which is his alone, and drew from the innermost recesses of the text, from the depths of the harmonies, that expressiveness which he always places at the service of meaning. And then: two birds with one stone! Having won First Prize at the Robert Casadesus Competition in Cleveland, then Second Prize at the Van Cliburn Competition, he triumphed at Carnegie Hall, and his American career was launched . . . Then came Europe, France, the world, in recital or alongside today’s most eminent musicians. And, still following in the footsteps of Gaby and Robert Casadesus, but also of Nadia Boulanger, it was only natural that he should succeed Philippe Entremont as artistic director of the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau for five years.

In concert, the vibration of the air when silence fills the hall is precious to him, liberating and inspiring. He sometimes takes on the most incredible challenges, such as playing the two Brahms concertos in one evening. When he returns to his corner of paradise somewhere in the south, between the sea and the mountains, he remembers his youth, his parents who took him to the opera, and the love for the voice that he felt at a very early age and that will never leave him. He remembers Hermann Prey, whom he met at the age of twenty-two, and Schubert, who brought them together on record and, for eight years, on the great stages of the world, the Wigmore Hall, La Scala, Munich, New York . . . Then his piano sings, breathes, becomes body and soul. And Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, not to mention his beloved French masters, Debussy and Ravel, in sublime abandonment, confide the secrets of their treasures to this musician-poet.

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