Chopin: Nocturnes (CD review)

Fazil Say, piano. Warner Classics 0190295821814.

According to the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music, a nocturne is "most often, a romantic character piece for piano with an expressive melody over a broken-chord movement accompaniment." And, of course, the nocturne is usually suggestive of the night. No, the Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) did not invent the form (that honor is commonly accorded to the Irishman John Field, 1782-1837), but Chopin probably did more than anyone else to popularize the form, writing twenty-one nocturnes during his lifetime, three of them published posthumously.

On the present album, the Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (b. 1970) gives us fifteen of Chopin's twenty-one nocturnes, including all three of the posthumous ones. (For those keeping score, the six he leaves out are No. 1, Op. 27; No. 2, Op. 32; No. 2, Op. 37; No. 2, Op. 55; and both pieces in Op. 52.)

In the liner notes, Say tells us that "For the first time I'm recording a Chopin album, because I had a particular idea about playing Chopin. Chopin revolutionised piano music, introducing so many new sounds that are very poetic. His music is poetry. We're facing very difficult times in the world, but if you play this music, you forget everything."

And that's the way he plays the nocturnes--poetically--with all that the word implies, including the qualities of imagination, feeling, and lyricism. It also means, however, that he takes a few more liberties with the music than many other Chopin interpreters do. The other complete sets I had on hand for comparison were from Claudio Arrau (Philips), Maurizio Pollini (DG), and Arthur Rubinstein (RCA), all of whom play the music at a steadier pace: Arrau more gently, Pollini more tersely, and Rubinstein more eloquently.

Fazil Say
Mr. Say is looser with his rubato, his tempos and dynamic contrasts more pronounced compared to Arrau, Pollini, or Rubinstein. Not that there is anything wrong with this approach since a certain degree of idiosyncrasy is always welcome in a performance if it is not exaggerated to the point of distraction. With Say his singular renditions do not draw one's attention away from the music, unless, that is, you are a Chopin devotee who will allow for no such meddling in the composer's work. Then, you may want to stick with old favorites.

Anyhow, as I mentioned, Say's interpretations are on the creative side, following a poetic pattern that emphasizes slightly speedier sections than we may be accustomed to, followed by calmer, more leisurely ones, with strong accents throughout. While Say's playing is virtuosic, as goes without saying, he uses that virtuosity to the advantage of the music, not merely to show off. Chopin's nocturnes are exquisite little gems, and Say does his utmost to underline, accent, and shed new light on them. The posthumous nocturnes are especially welcome as one so seldom hears them.

If the light Say sheds is a bit more specific to his particular style of piano playing than others may display, it never takes away from the beauty of Chopin's work. In all, I wouldn't say these are performances that listeners might want as an only set, but they are recordings many listeners might easily want to fit in with older, more-cherished ones. For me, the older, more-cherished set is from Arthur Rubinstein, who seems to do every piece to perfection. Nevertheless, I doubt even Say would claim his set of nocturnes should supplant everything that went before. His set is like a supplement, a new look, and as such it works fine.

Producer and engineer Jean-Martial Golaz recorded the music at the Great Hall, Mozarteum Salzburg in March 2016. The miking leaves a lot of room for hall ambience, which gives the music an extra measure of nocturnal mystery without being so reverberant that it wholly clouds the notes. In addition, the detail, definition, and dynamics are a tad on the soft side, which is also OK given the type of material involved and the naturally warm flavor of piano music in general. This is a lush, warm, full recording that complements the music making.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 John 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa