Chopin: Three Ecossaise, Op. 72

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Three Ecossaises, Op. 72; Two Nocturnes, Op. 27; Impromptus, Opp. 29, 36 & 51; Mazurkas, Opp. 6 & 17; Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. posth.; Waltz, Op. 64/1
PERFORMER: Leon McCawley (piano)

The virtues of Leon McCawley’s Chopin playing are impressive, which will come as no surprise to those who know his earlier recordings. These beautifully recorded performances are characterised by a refined musical intelligence, cultivated taste and lack of exaggeration.
Yet, while McCawley’s emotional reserve may please those who like their Chopin more ‘Classical’ than ‘Romantic’, for my money his restraint goes beyond this, and leaves much of the music rather diluted. Dynamic and expressive contrasts are ironed out to an extent that some pieces lose their shape, climaxes fail to register, and volatile inner tensions are often unduly relaxed.
The pieces that require fleet fingerwork – the ‘Minute’ Waltz, Ecossaises and Impromptus -are adroitly despatched. One may need to look elsewhere for more exploratory pianism, for a keener sense of colour and imagination (to Cyprien Katsaris or Mikhail Pletnev in the Ecossaises, for example), but these are well-judged and naturally conceived readings, even if the Impromptus are at times rather foursquare and underplayed.
Lines are well sustained in the Op. 27 Nocturnes, where McCawley brings a greater freedom of dynamics and pedalling, although others (notably Maria João Pires) manage to give the phrases more scope to breathe, as if extending beyond the bar lines. Sadly, the Mazurkas don’t feel such a natural habitat for McCawley (the lovely shaping of Op. 7 No. 4 notwithstanding), and he doesn’t quite capture their folksy charm or aristocratic melancholy. The thoroughly musical but overly polite performance of F minor Fantaisie would seem to be an apt conclusion and a fair summation of the disc as a whole. Tim Parry