Ashkenazy and Cortot play Chopin Ballade No. 1


The Ballade No. 1 in G minor by Frederick Chopin (1811-1849) is one of the most performed and most loved in the piano repertoire, for good reason. It combined beautiful, memorable melodies, harmony decades ahead of its time and breathtaking virtuosity. At times, the imagery which comes to mind is that of birds singing by a brook. At others, it is the pounding of cannons on the battlefield. As my old piano teacher said, in terms of difficulty, it is a 9 out of 10.

Two exquisite recordings are provided here. The first is by Russian Vladimir Ashkenazy, (born 1937) one of my favourite pianists. I was lucky enough as an 8 year old to be given a recording of his playing “the best of Chopin” and my love for the piano, and Chopin, was set. In this recording, (made more or less recently) every note is absolutely deliberate. The tone is rich and the performance is pure power. I hope you enjoy.

The second recording is quite old. It is by Swiss-French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), (yes, he does indeed look like a vampire), one of the most renowned pianists of the Twentieth Century. Cortot studied under Èmile Decombes, who was himself a student of Chopin, thus the connection is very close.

One of the first things you will notice about Cortot’s recording, in fact, just about any recording of Cortot’s is that he makes mistakes. But they don’t matter in the slightest. The music leaps off the piano, and the way he emphasises the pulse, or the off-beat accents, ensure that the dance aspect of the ballade is at the forefront. He takes risks which sometimes cause stumbles, but which always pay off.

Again I hope you enjoy.

So we have two different interpretations of a remarkable piece. Both are exquisite. Both are valid. Both are a tribute to one of the greatest achievements of our Western civilisation.