Leonard Ip writes
Chopin’s nocturnes are “hits” in classical music. I recall having once soothed myself with the ubiquitous Op. 9 No. 2 in my early days of discovery. Invariably, it was at night when I thought to myself this music creates seemingly everlasting serenity. I even imagined playing it before going to bed – the solitary scene darkening gently as I fall asleep.
Later, of course, I encountered a number of pieces that led me to different levels of spiritual calmness. In my hitherto industrious journeying in music, much as I have read about the unique magic of Chopin’s nocturnes, the pieces meant to me no more than peaceful, meditative episodes of Chopin’s turbulent genius, which I so fervently savoured in large-scale and essentially dramatic works such as the ballades and the F minor Fantasie. Gradually, they interested me neither like the craftsmanship of the Etudes nor the kaleidoscope of the Preludes. Notwithstanding, a recent re-discovery prompts me to take a new look on these familiar pieces.
Surely, appreciation of the nocturnes only comes on the premise that patience and openness are the foremost qualities of the listener. All too often the hugely accessible attraction of the pieces is obscured and even inhibited by their fame, and as Chopin’s music they are perhaps the most easily hackneyed and sentimentalized. Even if the clichéd conception towards the nocturnes of the general public be put aside, many music lovers have little understanding towards the music – a result of multitudinous superficial performances that are content with the pieces’ lyrical surface and downplay the drama and deeper meaning of the music.
The nocturnes, though not lacking in magnificent readings by old-time masters, garnered a reputation as soothing, lyrical pieces, which is best represented by Arthur Rubinstein’s complete recordings. Rubinstein’s deeply sincere and loving performances remain a reference point for posterity, yet his deceptively simple approach is sometimes wrongly adapted in other performances as the superficiality aforementioned. Distortion and sentimentalization began to prevail in pianists’ attempts to showcase their affinity with such irresistibly lyrical works. The critical acclaim of Claudio Arrau’s recordings, thus, was not for nothing: in his performances, Arrau renders the passion and drama more unfalteringly than ever by the inward gravitas of his playing. Even the lyrical is taken from a structural perspective to reinforce the innate eloquence of Chopin’s writing.
Individual pianists have shed light on Chopin’s nocturnes over the recording era. For me, a special place is always reserved for Vladimir Horowitz’s rendition of two nocturnes (Op. 55 No. 2 and Op. 62 No. 1) in his Last Recording. Resorting to tonal refinement and shading in his late years, Horowitz sings out the nocturnes in sensitively punctuated phrases (a faithful statement to his admiration for bel canto singers), illuminating inner voices, textures and lines like no other does.
In fact, what urged me to put my thoughts into words now is Maurizio Pollini’s recording of the complete nocturnes. Pollini’s account of the music, actually, reveals much of today’s problem in appreciating Chopin’s nocturnes – the approach Pollini took in examining these works gave me much food for thought.
Since his career launched after winning the Chopin Competition in 1960, Pollini has long been noted for the structural integrity and natural outlook in his playing as much as for his strong affinity with Chopin’s music. Pollini did not record the complete nocturnes until 2008, though he did recorded four of them in 1968, which shows a poised, sensitive and flowing approach to the works. 40 years later, Pollini, an artist known for his consistency, changed little in terms of style and temperament. The nocturnes emerge as remarkably substantial works under his structural-oriented and finely balanced fingers.
It is, therefore, such presentation of the works that led me to much thinking. The nocturnes, no doubt, are substantial works rather than light salon pieces, as Arrau has ventured to interpret. In the liner notes, Pollini is quoted saying,
Chopin goes far beneath the surface of bel canto, his music goes deeper. His harmonic writing, which is so unique and wonderful, goes deeper than the simple melodic line of bel canto. Chopin’s harmonic language is very powerful and underlines his music’s depth of character.
In words, Pollini pinpoints the greatness of the nocturnes. The pieces are much more than a simple bel canto melodic line with accompaniment. Not only does formal issues provide ample evidence of Chopin’s compositional development, but in many aspects the nocturnes are works of high artistic merit. In a nutshell, the pianistic, harmonic and textural writing of Chopin, as in all other of his major works, is completely original and extraordinarily well-plotted in such short pieces. With these unique attributes, the music delves deep into human emotions. Such is the true insight of a pianist towards the composer’s works.
But what does Pollini’s performances give us? It is true that Pollini’s natural phrasing, attention to the overall structure and balance of sound bring out much of the nocturnes’ content, but where does that leave us?
To understand the significance of Pollini’s benediction to the music, I suggest going back to the reasons why Chopin’s nocturnes can be hard a appreciate. The nocturnes are difficult to handle – a pianist has to play them with a fresh mind but without over-expression. They are difficult to listen to, too – too often they are associated with a certain banality that established itself with the prevalence of sentimentality. Together, these factors make the true greatness of the nocturnes even more difficult to grasp.
Pollini re-interpreted the nocturnes with his style and deliberations. The pianist is more concerned with the overall picture and naturalness of the pieces than with details – something pianists like Horowitz is best at – and the result shows how exactly an organized, well-balanced and natural rendition reveals the composition’s heart. There is never anything wrong with the performances: there is enough grace and serenity in lighter nocturnes, and enough emotional involvement in heavier ones. Everything is done thoughtfully, and is displayed through a clear, holistic narrative. I would not hesitate to say Pollini’s recording of the nocturnes ranks among the greatest, and is music-making at the highest level.
Nevertheless, there is always room for preference in the appreciation of art. All in all, this is a matter of personal taste and should be perhaps described as a choice between the two paradigms of modern and Romantic pianism.
Masterful as Pollini’s accounts are, their moderate nature sometimes fail to engage me as some other pianists do. While I prefer Pollini’s clearer presentation of the abundant ornaments in Op. 62 No. 1, Horowitz’s fantastically allocated inner voices and a better sense of ebb and flow (crucial in this particular work) in Op. 55 No. 2 win me over. Of course, it will be impossible to speak of this much loved work without mentioning Ignaz Friedman’s legendary performance, of which Horowitz himself thought very highly. The rhythmic freedom, phrasal beauty and tonal warmth in Friedman’s playing demonstrate supreme understanding and love of the work, and the intimacy conveyed exemplifies virtues of last glorious generation of Romantic pianism. Pollini’s clear-cut approach, though refined and coherent, fails to touch like Friedman’s. In the great C minor nocturne (Op. 48 No. 1), Pollini’s middle-of-the-road playing falls pale next to the passion Arrau and Pletnev bring to the Doppio movimento section. At any rate, it is Gilels who, in his two intense performances (studio and live, the latter in particular), brings forth a sense of tragic inevitability in the fullest terms, and truly imbues the opening section with desolate pathos. To me, Pollini’s approach sounds somewhat more at home in less dramatic and weighty works, with which lyricism Pollini never does less than elucidating with great style and attunement. Another personal favourite, Op. 32 No. 2, found Pollini at his most affectionate and unaffected, with its middle section (not dissimilarly written in comparison with the C minor nocturne) finely contoured and effectively propelled to the reappearance of the first theme (marked appassionato).
Of course, after Pollini’s recordings called my attention to the nocturnes, they have become an indispensable part of my perception towards Chopin. I do not deem it necessary to recapitulate my thoughts on the music, but I do feel obliged to remind those who remain unenlightened to reconsider Chopin’s nocturnes. The hidden riches in these popular pieces are too valuable to be dismissed and, to the blessed, the nocturnes are lifelong companies in musical journeying. I, for one, found myself constantly returning to these inexhaustible gems now.