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8.554532 - CHOPIN: Nocturnes, Vol. 2

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)
Complete Piano Music Vol. 6
Nocturnes Vol. 2

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.

Two nocturnes were published in 1840 by Eugéne-Thèodore Troupenas, who briefly replaced Schlesinger, whom Chopin now accused of sharp practice in disposing of one of his German copyrights, giving vent, in private correspondence, to his rooted anti-semiotic suspicions. The G minor Nocturne, Opus 37, No. 1, encloses a tranquil chordal E flat major section, and is followed by a G major Nocturne, with a lilting secondary episode.

By 1841 disagreement with Schlesinger had been put aside and he published a set of two nocturnes, the first in C minor and the second in F sharp minor, dedicated to Chopin's pupil Laure Duperré. Opus 48, No.1, moves forward to a central C major section of gentler character, increasing in excitement as the opening material returns.

The F sharp minor Nocturne that completes the set moves into a relatively sombre D flat major section of some harmonic complexity.

Two more nocturnes were published by Schlesinger in 1844, dedicated to Jane Stirling, a middle-aged Scottish pupil of Chopin whose nuptial ambitions outweighed her musical talent. It was through her that Chopin travelled in 1848 to London and to Scotland and to an endless round of tedious social visits that lasted seven months, until he could escape back to Paris again, his health now much worse. In 1844, however, Chopin was still involved with George Sand, although their relationship had its difficulties as her two children, Maurice and Solange, grew up and used him in their own rivalries and jealousies. The F minor Nocturne, Opus 55, No. 1, allows the opening material to re­appear in more elaborate form in conclusion. It is followed by a second, the Nocturne in E flat, marked by its use of a second melodic voice, accompanying the first.

Chopin wrote his last two nocturnes in 1846 and they were published in the same year by Brandus, who had bought Maurice Schlesinger's business and was later to acquire Troupenas. They were dedicated to another of the composer's piano pupils, Mlle. de Kînneritz. Opus 62, No.1, in B major, is introduced by two chords, the first suggesting another tonality. There is an A flat major central section and an elaborated return of the material of the opening section. The final work, the Nocturne in E major, has a secondary episode with a more energetic accompanying figure. The two nocturnes were written in the autumn of 1846 at Nohant, which Chopin only left in November to return alone to Paris, giving rise to rumours about a quarrel with George Sand, with whom he quarrelled definitively the following year, after her daughter's marriage.

Chopin became a student at the Warsaw Conservatory, a relatively new institution, in 1826, committing himself to a continuation of his studies in harmony, counterpoint and theory, but in fact largely going his own way, under the supervision of the head of the institution, Josef Elsner, with whom he had already studied for some years. His second year brought a variety of compositions, waltzes, a polonaise, a mazurka and the first of his nocturnes, the Nocturne in E minor, published only posthumously, in 1855, as Opus 72, No. 1. It is a work of relative maturity, marked by its translucent texture.

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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