Chopin Nocturnes and Impromptus

2005-01-01 / Piano Magazine / Daniel Stearns

Piano Magazine, England
January-February 2005

Daniel Stearns

To start, no fewer than four accounts of the complete Nocturnes, among which Angela Hewitt’s survey for Hyperion must take pride of place. From the very beginning of the very first Nocturne—the Bb minor, Op 9 No 1—Hewitt’s Bachian credentials pay off handsomely. Through a characteristically deft use of rubato and a keenly perceptive balancing of the two hands, she cues the ear to hear polyphonically. The contour and character of the “accompaniment” (for such it seems in less discerning hands) are directly derived from the opening figure, being a varied contrapuntal imitation of it. As she emphasises in her excellent booklet notes, Chopin’s favourite composers by far were Bach and Mozart (the only score he took with him on his ill-fated sojourn in Majorca was The Well-Tempered Clavier—most of which he already carried in his head, and which inspired his own 24 Préludes, completed in Majorca). Temperamentally and aesthetically, he was a born classicist, in many ways out of tune with the music of his own time, including much of Beethoven, whose life overlapped his own by 17 years. Appropriately, and without being in any way austere, Hewitt approaches Chopin through the lens of the classics, with their elegance and restraint, their reverence for form, and their use of structure as a fundamental element of expression. She does not abjure rubato—far from it—but as in the opening phrase of the first Nocturne, she uses it not only to enhance the expressivity of utterance but to illuminate the structure. She is among the most penetratingly (and least ostentatiously) intelligent players of our time. She is not, however, an “intellectual” performer, much less an academic. She takes her cues directly from the music. In accordance with Chopin’s metronome markings in the Nocturnes Opp 9, 15, and 27 (but not using them as a starting point), her tempi in several of these still underrated masterpieces are on the brisk side of tradition. Seldom has a record cover been less indicative of the playing within than the hazy, impressionistic, highly erotic nude reclining very beautifully on the cover of this one. There is nothing obvious or prurient in Chopin’s undoubted eroticism. Still less are his melodic and harmonic contours fuzzily titillating. Hewitt’s playing throughout this outstanding release is far removed from the hackneyed vision of Chopin as the consumptive, lovelorn poet, dipping his pen in moonbeams. Yet the Nocturnes, more than any other branch of his output (and for obvious reasons) are the works most responsible for that image. Precisely because they give us Chopin at his most intimate, because, as Hewitt observes, they are “secret confessions of the soul”, there is no room here for sentimentality. What we get in many of these riveting performances is deep, raw emotion, of a sometimes agonising immediacy, all the more painful for the almost impossible beauty and elegance of its expression. To describe, or to perform, any of Chopin’s mature pieces as “miniatures” is appropriate, in most cases, only in terms of duration. It was among his greatest gifts to distil the most intense experiences of a lifetime with an economy and brevity out of all proportion to the immensity of the underlying emotion. I know of no more compelling or more searingly beautiful demonstration of that fact than this treasurable and superbly recorded release.