WORKS: Nocturnes Nos 1-20
PERFORMER: Nelson Freire (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 478 2182
Spanning much of his creative life, Chopin’s Nocturnes add up to one of the most important parts of his work. They are also among the most misunderstood music in his output, perhaps because the genre tends, wrongly, to evoke the idea of saccharine, moonlit miniature tone paintings.
It was Chopin who raised the form above the sentimentality of John Field’s essays, filling his Nocturnes with poetry, reflective intimacy and depth.Pianists can perhaps get away with pulling them around too much when playing just one or two, but never when putting all 20 together – and that is the test of complete recordings.
Nelson Freire takes ‘complete’ to mean 19 works with opus numbers plus the posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne; Yundi adds a extra posthumous work, in C minor, making for a total of 21 pieces.
Winner of the 2000 Warsaw Chopin Competition, the artist formerly known as Yundi Li – now rebranded since moving from DG to EMI – gives fluid, deeply felt performances with musicianship that puts his compatriot Lang Lang in the shade. Stressing the singing lines that reflect the music’s bel canto inheritance, his approach yet becomes a little one-dimensional over the course of the entire sequence.
Freire makes a deeper impression cumulatively because he is a more searching artist, but is seldom as satisfying as the greatest pianists in this repertoire, such as Claudio Arrau or Adam Harasiewicz. Yundi is better served by clean recorded sound, whereas Freire’s tone can be curiously muffled in the middle of the instrument – a welcome change from many unrelentingly bright piano recordings, but not exactly ideal.
Take the Nocturne in F major, Op. 15 No. 1, as a test case, and the differences between these two pianists becomes clear. Yundi has power in the fiery middle section, but is too inclined to take to take the rest of the notes at face value. His well-behaved performance probes less than Freire’s slightly faster account, but Freire makes less of those magical escaping triplets; and, while interestingly pointing up the middle voices, his balance is not always satisfying.
It takes Harasiewicz (winner of the 1955 Chopin Competition, when he beat Ashkenazy into second place) to remind one that this is a mini-Ballade. The patrician Harasiewicz represents the best of the classical Polish school, playing with crystalline elegance but never being afraid of the big emotions.
At every turn, further comparisons reveal the same. For instance in the F minor Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 1, Freire has poetic freedom and Yundi greater delicacy – though his stormy octave triplets in the middle section sound rhythmically unstable. Again, it is to Harasiewicz one returns for profundity and the most beautifully refracted colours. John Allison