Monday, May 23, 2011

Chopin's Nocturnes

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the fourteenth installment, I re-examine the 21 nocturnes of my favourite composer for piano solo: Polish grandmaster Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849). Although the nocturne as a genre was invented by John Field, it will forever be linked with Chopin. The 21 nocturnes span almost the entirety of his career, beginning in 1827, when he was a student at the Warsaw Conservatory, and ending in 1846, when he was suffering from tuberculosis and his relationship with his lover George Sand was falling apart.

Three Nocturnes op.9 (1830-1831)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 17 min)
The first set of nocturnes is also the best in my opinion. The first in the set is simply gorgeous in its rich melodies, the even more melodious and very famous second is a perennial favourite (I used to play this on on the organ), the playful third is bittersweet. All three are great and different, and this set is my all-time favourite amongst compositions for piano solo.

Three Nocturnes op.15 (1833)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 12 min)
A clear change in approach: in the first nocturne, a pensive melodic line is interrupted by a fast emotional middle section, turning dream into nightmare, before the calm returns once more. The second one is far more subdued in its pastoral quality and gives the impression of an extended improvisation. The third brings more melodic richness in a mood that shows a brief hint of seriousness amidst the overall relaxed attitude. A fascinating set, just marginally less than the fantastic first.

Two Nocturnes op.27 (1835)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 11 min)
This set marks the transition from triplets of nocturnes to contrasting pairs that Chopin would use from now on. The first one is amongst the most dramatic and highly regarded of the lot, with a haunting feeling of suspense, thrilling arpeggios, and fascinating mood swings. We are by now far away from the original examples of the genre - an absolute masterpiece. Its companion is based on variations on a single dreamy mood, deceptively simple, and a perfect contrast to the first nocturne in this set. Another combination that has to get the distinction of "hors concours".

Two Nocturnes op.32 (1837)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 11 min)
After the tension of op.27, Chopin returns to a more conventional nocturnal composition, highly melodious without too much contrasts (except for the ending). The second nocturne in this set brings one of his most famous melodies, which was also orchestrated for the ballet Les Sylphides. Some interesting variations in mood, even though it never comes close to the drama of op.27.1. Although not the very best, this is an excellent set, and for me it is essential.

Two Nocturnes op.37 (1838)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 12 min)
The first nocturne is a bit of a step back in time, as its style is more akin to the first two sets than later compositions. Good as it is, it lacks the fabulous melodic lines of the early masterpieces, or the complications of the later ones. Its companion starts as a Venetian barcarole and then transforms into one of his most beautiful melodies, creating an atmosphere of a warm summer evening at the Mediterranean Sea. Taken by itself, this could just be hors concours, as a set, it still qualifies as essential.

Two Nocturnes op.48 (1841)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 14 min)
A very subdued and subtle elongated introduction to the first nocturne, with the mood slowly becoming darker and increasingly more emotional. It is a powerful depiction of grief, even though in the end the lack of a memorable tune works against it. The second of the set is lighter in many ways, and although definitely more melodious, the set is still a small step down from his earlier work in this genre.

Two Nocturnes op.55 (1844)

My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 10 min)
A welcome return to melodious form, the bittersweet lines that open and close the first nocturne are amongst the best in Chopins repertoire. The dramatic short middle section provides a suitable contrast. The second nocturne shuns the use of contrast altogether, the melody meanders from start to finish. It is curiously effective in conveying an atmosphere of oppression and resignation. A beautiful set.

My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 13 min)
His final two nocturnes are accomplished elegant works, which would have made a stronger impression if they had not been in the company of such masterpieces. The first one particularly makes an almost bland impression. The second one is stronger, but as  a whole, this set is the least satisfying to my taste.

Besides these eighteen nocturnes in sets, Chopin composed three separate nocturnes:

My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 4 min)
Actually his very first attempt at the genre, even though it was not published until 1855. It is a moody piece, an accomplished composition and it would not have been out of place in one of the later sets (although definitely not in the first three sets).

Nocturne in C Sharp minor (1830)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 4 min)
His second nocturne, it was only published 26 years after his death. A beautiful, at times playful and at times intimate piece that is as popular as many of the regular ones, getting quite some exposure in popular culture as well (see wikipedia link).  

Nocturne in C minor (1837)
My version: Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca, 1985, 3 min)
Another nocturne that never made it into a published set during his lifetime. One of his better efforts in the genre, dark, brooding and with a lovely continued melody.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: Three Nocturnes op.9, Two Nocturnes op.27
Essential: Three Nocturnes op.15, Two Nocturnes op.32, Two Nocturnes op.37; Two Nocturnes op.55
Important: Two Nocturnes op.48, Two Nocturnes op.62; Nocturne in E minor; Nocturne in C sharp minor; Nocturne in C minor
Good to have: none
Not required: none

Taken as a whole, Chopins Nocturnes undoubtedly get my qualification "hors concours".