Chopin: Nocturnes (CD review)

Complete Nocturnes Nos. 1-18; 19-21 (posth.). Yundi, piano. EMI 50999 6 08391 1.

Pianist Yundi is a Chinese musical prodigy, who in 2000 became the youngest person ever to win the International Frederic Chopin Competition. After making several recordings with DG, this is his first release with EMI, the complete Chopin Nocturnes, including the three posthumous titles.

A few questions, though, before we begin: How is it that China produces so many talented young musicians? They surely must put a lot more stock in serious music than America does. And the musicians are always such attractive people, making for handsome album covers; it can't hurt sales. Second, why do so many artists insist on using only a single name?  It seems a pretentious affectation to me: Liberace, Cher, and the like. At least violinist Nigel Kennedy has seen the light and gone back to using his full name, all the better for it. OK, maybe Yundi is now using only the one name on the advice of his publicist or his new record company. Li Yundi (or Yundi Li) still sounds better to me, it's just as distinctive, and it's just as easy to remember. Finally, on the disc cover is it really necessary for a record company to place the performer's name above the composer's in letters three times as big? I dunno.

Anyway, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) wrote his twenty-one Nocturnes over a period of some twenty years, and while he didn't invent the form, he certainly popularized it. Since Chopin's day, audiences tend to associate the composer's name with the genre probably more than anyone else's. And since the Nocturnes have such a prestigious reputation, it must have been something of a daunting decision for a young man in his twenties to attempt recording all of them. The question, then, is whether Yundi's interpretations measure up to the recorded work of older, more-established artists like Arthur Rubinstein, Ivan Moravec, Claudio Arrau, Earl Wild, Tamas Vasary, Daniel Barenboim, Maria-Joao Pires, or, more recently, Maurizio Pollini. To put it definitively, yes. And no. Well, maybe.

Yundi exhibits dazzling skill, with a light touch when needed (which is frequently) and a sure hand always. Moreover, his speeds are consistently relaxed, which helps to reinforce the music's dreamy, melancholy, elegiac moods. However, foremost in the Nocturnes the pianist needs to communicate heart, and it is here that a comparison to Pollini's DG set finds Yundi coming up a bit short. While I admired Yundi's virtuosity, the playing did not always move me as Pollini's so often does. Still, this is a highly subjective reaction, and another listener might find Yundi's renditions even more compassionate, meditative, and soulful for their deliberate pacing and frequently sentimental nuances. Certainly, there are more than a few truly heartfelt moments in these realizations, as in the case of Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp (Op. 15, No. 2) or No. 8 in D flat (Op. 27, No. 2).

So, OK, he not yet a Pollini. But I cannot imagine anyone not appreciating the beauty of these readings just the same. I could live with them very easily.

Complementing the performances, EMI's sound displays a slight glow or aura around each note, making them seem all the more nocturnal. It's quite pleasant, actually, and adds to one's enjoyment of the music without ever impairing but, rather, enhancing the clarity of the playing.

In closing, if I had to pick just one favorite Yundi interpretation on this disc, it would be Nocturne No. 10 in A flat (Op. 32, No. 2). In it, the pianist provides everything Chopin requires: concentration, sympathy, dynamism, and, yes, heart. It's a lovely album.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa