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8.554531 - CHOPIN, F.: Nocturnes, Vol. 1 (Biret)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 5
Nocturnes Vol. 1

The son of a French émigré of relatively humble origin, who had established himself as a schoolmaster in Warsaw and espoused the cause of Poland with enthusiasm, Fryderyk Chopin was to make his home and career in Paris, after early success at home, where he was trained at the Conservatory and gave a series of public concerts before trying his luck in Vienna. Paris, however, proved more suitable for his particular talents. As a pianist he excelled in a peculiar delicacy of nuance, while as a teacher and as a gentleman he proved acceptable in the elegant salons of the French capital.

For some ten years Chopin enjoyed or occasionally suffered a relationship with the strong-willed blue-stocking Aurore Dudevant, better known by her pen-name of George Sand, a woman of a distinctly liberated cast of mind, who was to find even in her inamorato a source for her own fiction. Chopin was to die of tuberculosis, from which he had long suffered, at the early age of 39.

Among forms that Chopin made his own was the Nocturne, at one time synonymous with the Serenade, but with the Irish pianist John Field and Chopin, his successor, a lyrical piano piece offering, nominally at least, a poetic vision of the night. Field wrote eighteen piano pieces with this title between the years 1814 and 1835 and these introduced a new form of piano music that was developed not only in the Nocturne but in other separate movements for piano throughout the century.

The three nocturnes that make up Opus 9 were written either during Chopin's final period in Warsaw or during his first months abroad. They were published in Paris in 1833, with a dedication to Thomas De Quincey's "celestial pianofortist" Marie

Moke, once engaged to Berlioz, but from 1831 until their separation four years later, the wife of the piano-manufacturer Camille Pleyel, in whose Salle Pleyel Chopin gave his first public concert in Paris. The B flat minor Nocturne, Opus 9, No. 1, with its more embellished melodic line and passionate central section is followed by the familiar E flat Nocturne and a third of rather more energetic character in B major.

The three Nocturnes of Opus 15 were published by Maurice Schlesinger in 1834 with a dedication to Ferdinand Hiller, who had impressed Chopin as a boy with great talent. Hiller was a pupil of Hummel and a close friend of Mendelssohn. The first of the set, in F major, has a passionate F minor central section, followed by an F sharp major Nocturne of greater complexity and a gentler G minor Nocturne, marked Lento, languido e rubato.

Schlesinger, a somewhat unprincipled publisher, satirised by Flaubert, who was in love with Schlesinger's wife, published the Opus 27 Nocturnes in 1836, with a dedication to Countess Apponyi, wife of the Austrian ambassador in Paris, who brought Johann Strauss to Paris in the same year. Chopin had deplored the tastes of Vienna and the dominance of Strauss and Lanner, both enjoying, to his expressed surprise, the title of Kapellmeister. The C sharp minor Nocturne, Opus 27, No. 1, has at its heart a more dramatic A flat major section, while the Nocturne in D flat major, the second of the set, marked Lento sostenuto, includes more elaborate chromatic embellishment.

The eleventh of Chopin's Nocturnes, in the key of B major, opens the set of two published in Berlin in 1837 and forming Opus 32. The nocturnes were dedicated this time to Baronne de Billing, a pupil of the composer. The first of the pair lacks elaborate ornamentation, with a conclusion of dramatic contrast. The second, in A flat major, has a brief chordal introduction before moving into a more familiar texture. Its central section includes an excursion into the key of F sharp minor. The C minor Nocturne of 1837 was only published 100 years later.

The second attempt at the form, the Nocturne in C sharp minor, was written in 1830, Chopin's last year in Warsaw, which he left, never to return, on 2nd November. The direction Lento con gran espressione indicates the character of the work, which was first published posthumously in Poznan in 1875.

Interpreting Chopin by Idil Biret

Although the romantic era in its music and its performances is not so far from our own time, for various reasons we seem to have distanced ourselves from it. As a consequence, often composers very different from one another like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Wagner are brought under the same title of Romantic Composers. In this context it is quite normal to find Chopin and Liszt mentioned together as composers of similar style, while there are no two sound worlds as different from one another as those of Chopin and Liszt. The conception of the piano sound that Chopin created is based on the model of the voice. Liszt, on the other hand, fascinated by the development of the modern piano during his period, challenges the orchestra in an attempt to reproduce on the piano the richness of the orchestral palette.

It must be among the fondest wishes of any pianist to be able to have heard Chopin perform his own music. Fortunately there are some recordings providing indirectly some evidence of this way of approaching the piano. One may in particular mention the recordings of Raoul von Koczalski who studied with Chopin's pupil Karol Mikuli. It is also enlightening to listen to the recordings of Cortot, a pupil of Decombes who received precious counsel from Chopin. Further, Friedman, de Pachmann and Paderewski who were not direct descendants of Chopin were still close enough to his aesthetic conceptions to be able to convey the spontaneity Chopin is said to have brought to his playing as well as the polyphonic and rhythmic richness which are so apparent in Chopin's conception of the piano. In spite of the inferior quality of the recordings from the earlier part of this century, a considerable number of common points are audible in the performances of these pianists. Notably, a very fine legato, a piano sound that never loses its roundness since intensity replaces force, the exact feeling of rubato, recognition of the importance of inner voices and consequently a remarkable sense of polyphony. Contrary to the popular image of the romantic virtuoso, simplicity and naturalness remain exemplary in the way these great Chopin interpreters approach music.

It is interesting to note also the evidence left by musicians, contemporaries of Chopin, and Chopin's pupils about his interpretations. A perfect legato drawing its inspiration from bel canto and unimaginable richness in tone-colour were the product of subtle variations in a sound full of charm and a purity that lost none of its fullness even in its forte passages. Chopin could not sound aggressive, especially on the pianos of that period. Berlioz wrote, "To be able to appreciate Chopin fully, I think one must hear him from close by, in the salon rather than in a theatre."

Chopin's sense of rubato was unrivalled. The temps dérobé (stolen time) assumed under the hands of the great master its true meaning. Mikuli gives a description of the rubato as Chopin conceived it, which seems to be of penetrating clarity. After recalling that Chopin was inflexible in keeping the tempo and that the metronome was always on his piano, Mikuli explains, "Even in his rubato, where one hand – the accompanying one – continues to play strictly in time, the other – the hand which sings the melody – freed from all metric restraint conveys the true musical expression, impatience, like someone whose speech becomes fiery with enthusiasm."

Together with a certain classicism, moderation was the basis of the world of Chopin. Hence, playing his music on the powerful modern pianos and in large concert halls is often problematic. One should ideally never go beyond a self-­imposed limit of sound and keep in mind as the criteria the possibilities of the human voice. It is therefore better to somewhat reduce sonority without sacrificing the quality of the sound.

In performing Chopin's works one should neither try to reconstruct nor imitate the interpretations of the past which remain unique, but try, with the help of all the recorded and written material we are lucky to possess, to penetrate deeper into the musical texts and advance further in the unending quest for a better understanding of the art of Chopin.

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