The Complete Nocturnes
Piers Lane (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 December, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This was very much a Chopin journey, his Nocturnes written over the course of his composing life, between 1827 and 1846, his birth-death dates being 1810 to 1849. Fryderyk Chopin didn’t invent the nocturne as a musical form, but he did cultivate it magnificently and in doing so left John Field somewhat out of things.
Piers Lane has long been a Chopin champion and he was in excellent and searching form. It would be easy to describe these works as 21 miniatures; and while each is short, they all inhabit diverse and large worlds. Not every pianist agrees on how many Chopin nocturnes complete the genre, for some were published posthumously, and although Lane played them all, the irony – if it is one – was that he played the earliest ones at the end, those that became known long after the composer’s death. It was a sort of “In my End is my Beginning” (Mary, Queen of Scots) and aided by periodic asides from Lane who had asked for no applause until the end of the recital’s halves. This was respected, if not the house instruction to switch mobiles off; one rang during a quiet moment (of which there are many), and my eye caught an infernal, surreptitious and sad texter.
But, to a higher plane. The first Nocturne of the Opus 9 set found Lane gently floating and strumming a gracious line, with more daylight apparent in its successor and with some glitzy embellishing (Lane had explained that there are alternative printings to some pieces, quite often with greater ornamentation). In the third Opus 9 piece we reached feverish expression.
Liszt was effusive in his praising of this aspect of Chopin’s art: “Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they often give rise.” Ravel was more obtuse, citing Slavic and Italian qualities in the music. Certainly, the 21 Nocturnes are not samey or predictable. In the first of the Opus 15 collection one might sense delicate confiding before a tempestuous contrast arrives. The Second of the set is a sotto voce hymnal, or seemed so here. Generally, the melodies are sweet, the emotions complex, and fastidious worlds are created. In later pieces, harmonic instability can be pronounced. Some nocturnes are evergreens, while others are less familiar and enigmatic.
Piers Lane caught their moods, occasionally balletic to contradict the stillness of the night, and always suggestive of something. Or a musical phrase can haunt the mind, the refrain of Opus 37/2, for example. The interval occurred between Opuses 37 and 48, the first of the latter pair tolling into life, desolate and daringly spacious and clangourous at its climax; by contrast, the second piece suggested lemon groves. Opus 55 brings sleights of harmony and figuration, the second nocturne heavily embellished – a night-sky with many stars; and with Opus 62 (1846), one sensed (probably with hindsight) valediction, a distillation of everything that had gone before.
The earliest Nocturne is the one in E minor from 1827, which has the highest Opus Number, 72, and stands alone. Lane then added the posthumous pairing, written around 1830, the C minor and the C sharp minor. The circle was fully rounded. Just occasionally. This long evening was blessed with Piers Lane’s dedication and perceptions, perfectly tailored to the Wigmore Hall’s uncluttered acoustic, and enormously illuminating as a voyage, forwards and back.