I have Vladimir Ashkenazy's set of Chopin Nocturnes. I also have Claudio Arrau's. The former has not been accorded much critical acclaim. The latter has. Even though I understand the critical distinction – a profounder, more poetic touch from Arrau – I find myself always drawn to Ashkenazy in this work.
His tone is not bell-like, and his piano is a bit too resonant for my taste...what I call “chordy.” But there is some quality in his performance that brings the night. With Arrau's exquisite rubato and freer movement through melodic, harmonic lines, one is in the presence of rarefied artistry. But the darkness is not dark enough. By contrast, listening to Ashkenazy's languid traversal is a candlelit experience. The hour is very late, the shadows heavy but uncertain. A subtle, beautiful pathos rises from the keys, mixes with the night, and enchants the ear.
Again, Ashkenazy's tone is slightly irritating to me, but after a minute or two, that reservation is canceled. A bittersweetness is tasted on the soul's palate. Not exactly melancholy. More like a suspended sigh. And soon, as the nocturnes roll by, that suspension takes on a numbed, gray quality. A kind of narcotic haze. I think it must be akin to the effect some piano jazz has on me. Something existential. Something between life and death. Something to do with love dreamt, its refusal, and the dissolution of foolish hope. A stunned calm.
Besides those things, Ashkenazy also brings out the elusive personality of very late hours. This is dark music, and one should listen with a bottle of deep-red wine.