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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa