Nocturnes 1-20 [Opp.9/1-3; 15/1-3; 27/1&2; 32/1&2; 37/1&2; 48/1&2; 55/1&2; 62/1&2; 72/1; in C sharp minor, KKIVa/16 (Lento con gran espressione)]
Nelson Freire (piano)
Recorded 14-21 December 2009 in The Priory, Liverpool
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: September 2010
CD No: DECCA 478 2182 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 42 minutes
There has been no shortage of new Chopin recordings in his bicentenary year, and this set of the almost-complete Nocturnes (Nelson Freire plays all but one, leaving out the without-opus-number C minor Nocturne that was not published until 1938) is one of the prize jewels in the piano-repertoire recording crown. Freire, now in his early sixties, plays them with a rare degree of flexibility and with a peerless grasp of Chopin’s growth as a composer, which takes us from the salon to some very remote, dark places. More than that, though, he leaves us in no doubt as to the non-miniature stature of some of these pieces – Opus 27/Number 1, the two Opus 48 works, Opus 55/Number 1 and Opus 62/Number 1 show Chopin as a very great composer indeed, admirably served by this master pianist.
Freire’s probing musicality is there for all to hear – in the way the typically ‘nocturne’ accompaniment of the first in the set, from Opus 9, drives the character of the piece and inflects its colour; in the displacement of hands in Opus 9/Number 2 as an expressive tool that doesn’t draw attention to itself; in his intuitive grasp of Chopin’s complex phrasing, that gives the music its vital pulse.
Freire also clearly identifies with the music’s complex range of emotions, at its most obvious, say, in the beautifully handled transitions into and out of the middle sections in Opus 15/Number 1 and Opus 9/Number 3, and at its most developed in the later nocturnes, where Freire infuses the music with a tantalisingly ungraspable blend of nobility, introversion bordering on distraction and self-effacement – at their best, these pieces have an inscrutability that plays very satisfyingly with the listener’s responses. Try the opening idea in Opus 27/Number 1 to hear a whole soundworld expressed in just five notes of melody, given an extraordinary sense of abandonment by Freire, which hands on an attractive diffidence to the salon-inflected Opus 27/Number 2 that I’d not been aware of before.
An overview as magisterial as this cannot help but expose the famous ‘Les Sylphides’ Opus 32/Number 2 Nocturne as the weakest of the set; indeed, one of the weakest of Chopin’s works. Freire plays down the middle section’s bombast, but not even he can quite justify the appassionato designation for the return of the opening tune. But the later nocturnes can take any amount of listening – just listen to the discretion of the spread chords in Opus 48/Number1, leading to the Study-like double octaves section; the serpentine rhythmic complexity of Opus 48/Number 2; the way in which Freire takes the pavane-like solemnity of Opus 55/Number 1 into increasing isolation; the sequence of trills in Opus 62/Number 1 that have a sense of transcendentalism similar to the close of Beethoven’s Opus 111.
The Steinway sound has an attractive clarity that can easily turn a corner into that typically veiled Chopin sound. Freire’s pedalling, phrasing and rubato are models of tact, and there is no sense of nocturne ‘droop’ – in every bar you can hear a powerful musicality at work, from a pianist amazed by but in command of the music’s originality.