The 21 Nocturnes Opp.9, 15, 27, 32, 37, 48, 55, 62 & 71; in C sharp minor, Op.posth; in C minor, Op.posth
Impromptus in A flat, Op.29, in F sharp, Op.36, in G flat, Op.51
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op.66
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Recorded 16-20 November 2003 in the Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2005
CD No: HYPERION CDA67371/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 13 minutes
Angela Hewitt’s forays outside Bach – to Couperin, Ravel, the unlikely choice of Liszt’s B minor Sonata, and now to Chopin’s Nocturnes, are clearly overdue. As in previous recordings, she has the advantage of excellent, rich recorded sound. It also features the ravishing, warm sound of the Fazioli piano that Hewitt always plays – more predictable in touch and evenness than a Steinway, if with fractionally less edge and character.
Hewitt has widely praised the qualities of the Fazioli in interviews, and it perfectly suits her carefully judged interpretations. Non-pianists may underestimate the effect the instrument has; the Fazioli is a piano re-designed from the ground up, smooth in action and tone beyond description and, it must be said, immensely flattering to any performer.
Hewitt’s is Chopin-playing where everything is in its place, the aesthetic, genteel, charming Chopin of the salon. Chords are beautifully weighed (the start of Op.15/1, say), decorative flourishes rendered with a perfect pianissimo (at the beginning and end of Op.15/2) – piano and pianist are in perfect congruence. Occasionally, there are also moments of interesting originality – such as the dance-like style with which No.3 of the same opus begins. Old favourites, like Op.9/2 and Op.72/1, are given every chance to show their prettiness.
So, there is polished playing throughout; Hewitt rises to the technical demands of the latter section of Op.15/1 and the Fantaisie-Impromptu. If you do not already have a set of the Chopin Nocturnes, this is a very serviceable collection. As we have come to expect, Angela Hewitt’s own erudite booklet note accompanies this set, and she has also placed the two Op.posth nocturnes in chronological order, at the beginning.
Hewitt’s scholarship is always an ornament to her playing; however, it is also the case that what is scholarly in approach can lead to what is over-studied in execution. The closer you listen to these performances, the more each rubato seems calculated in advance, each flourish archly delivered. There is a curious sense of detachment in the interpretation.
The Impromptus, thrown in as a bonus, fare least well – the beginning of No.1 is sprightly enough, but No.2 is frankly boring – it is as if Hewitt does not know what to do in order to preserve the interest of the melodic line.
What this set ultimately lacks is the imagination and mystery of Pires or the spontaneity and continual surprise of Argerich. Hewitt often plays the lyrical passages more as lullaby than seduction; the night is a place of rest and healing, not of excitement or danger. Listen to how the rocking accompaniment and the calm melodic line smooth over the disturbances of Op.27/2, and how earthbound and lacking in virtuosity the heroic passage in the middle of Op.27/1 is.
Hewitt, then, holds back at the very point where other Chopin interpreters take off. She has written that Liszt’s Sonata is neglected as a piece of lyrical writing. While such views highlight the beautiful, they neglect the sublime. The very reason that we speak of Chopin (or Liszt) as more profound than their salon contemporaries is because they saw beneath the surface attractions of the romantic style and finessed the celebration of individual self-expression with a far darker, more tragic undercurrent. This undercurrent is missing from Hewitt’s Chopin, which seems learned rather than springing from the heart.
Hewitt’s written notes conclude with Chopin’s much-quoted words: “simplicity is everything.” Hewitt continues that “one has to have studied a lot, even tremendously, to reach this goal; it is no easy matter.” Hewitt makes a rod for her own back. It is as if she is speaking a foreign language in which she has perfectly learned the grammar, but is still not quite fluent in the colloquialisms. There are many kinds of simplicity other than the divine transparency to which Chopin alludes, and this recording evinces that the composer is not (yet?) in Hewitt’s soul. Listened to at a distance, these discs have many virtues – sheer beauty of sound above all. It is, however, very unlikely to displace any of the classic accounts: Rubinstein, Barenboim or Pires, for example.