Chopin’s Nocturnes and an Unfamiliar Artist

by Glenn on February 14, 2015

The other night I had some hours of tedious computer work ahead of me, so I turned for some accompaniment to a collection of pieces that I hadn’t heard in a long time—years, perhaps?—the Chopin Nocturnes.

These 21 short pieces for piano are, as the title suggests, appropriate for nighttime listening. They are gorgeous. There is a hint of melancholy in many of them but each of them offers a gentle affect that is perfect for the end of the day. They are enjoyable without being terribly demanding, like the little chocolates they put on your pillow at night at The Ritz-Carlton as opposed to, say, a Mahler symphony, which can be like a large chocolate sundae you try to process right before bed.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Mahler, but sometimes something different is in order. You want to be whelmed and not overwhelmed. The Chopin Nocturnes envelop without overpowering.

While these pieces were composed over nearly twenty years and published in opus groups of two or three  (plus three published posthumously), I have normally listened to them all at one sitting. That may be worth noting—I can listen to them in one sitting, as opposed to Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites, for example. The performance I have of them, by Yo-Yo Ma, is miraculous, but I can only listen to a few tracks at a time.

Until the other night, I had only listened to one recording of the Nocturnes, featuring Vladimir Ashkenazy on London/Decca. That recording I have listened to perhaps dozens of times. I’ve always thought it wonderful. (It should be in my desert island collection of CD’s, but I can’t put my hands on in right now, which is a little troubling. We have moved a couple of times since I last played it, but how did this one recording get away from the 99?)

Cover art of the Chopin Nocturnes, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Cover art of the Chopin Nocturnes, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Some months ago I found a used CD album at Music Millennium of the Nocturnes as performed by Maria João Pires. With that computer work ahead of me, I thought, “Maybe this is a good time to test drive that new (to me) version.”

What a revelation, both of the music and my own thinking about music.

Covert art of the Chopin Nocturnes as played by Maria João Pires.

Covert art of the Chopin Nocturnes as played by Maria João Pires.

As I listened to the two CD’s in this album, I found myself moving through three distinct stages of consideration of this music.

Stage One: This is wrong.

There is a “stamping” process that comes when you listen to a single recording of a single work. How you’ve heard it played, becomes, as you listen to it over and over, how it should be played.

And so as I listened to Ms. Pires, I thought, “This isn’t how you play the Nocturnes.” I was not thinking in terms of the quality of her playing, which to me seemed both beautiful and proficient. It was a different interpretation. At first I didn’t like it.

It took me a moment to realize how ridiculous this thought was. I don’t play the piano and I don’t listen to a lot of piano music. Who am I to judge? And, as I said, the only experience I remember of hearing these pieces was that collection by Vladimir Ashkenazy, wherever it is right now. Somehow that recording had become a sort of lodestar for how the Nocturnes should be played.

At some point I was able to stop reacting. The judgmental, “This isn’t how you play these things,” transitioned into the observation, “This is how someone else plays these things.”

Stage Two: This is different.

It was exciting to get past a moralistic (right and wrong) listening to be able to appreciate the fine work of another capable artist. Once I stopped being critical and started listening without judgments, I heard a great recording artist approach great music in a different way: a rubato here where I didn’t remember one there (and vice versa), an alternate handling of a fluorish, variations in tempi, an interesting coloring, and behind the playing of the music itself a contrasting approach to the music, a different intention, perhaps. My memory of Mr. Ashkenazy’s recording is that it was played on a grand scale—night music for a large crowd in a big concert hall. It was extroverted. Ms. Pires seemed to offer a more intimate performance of these works, like she was playing in a home rather than a concert hall.

Stage Three: This is not definitive.

Near the end of this recording I began to realize that probably neither Mr. Ashkenazy nor Ms. Pires have all the answers when it comes to the Nocturnes. I began to wonder what other artists are out there who will play these pieces phenomenally well but offer a different intention and flavor and give you a different experience of this glorious music.

Recordings are a blessing and a curse. How incredible is it that I can “play” the Chopin Nocturnes any time and any place where I have this recording and an “instrument” that can bring it to life. It’s extraordinary to think about the evolution in the quality of recordings over the last hundred years or so. Through recordings I can hear artists I would never otherwise be exposed to. I may also hear the works I like as much as I like.

The curse is that recordings are static things. The context in which they are played has no effect on the actual playing, which will always be the same. And there is a kind of remove for me as a listener from the artist. Hearing any musician live is a different experience from hearing them on a recording. (Also, a recording is a kind of fiction. More on that some other time.) And I suppose I should own up to a kind of laziness that comes from not interacting with the music itself. Because I don’t play the piano well, I don’t sit down with the notes on a page and pluck out the sounds for myself, interacting directly with the composer’s script.