Maria João Pires – Chopin Nocturnes

Nocturnes – Op.9/1, 2 & 3; Op.15/1, 2 & 3; Op.27/1 & 2; Op. 62/1 & 2; Op.71/1; Lento con gran espressione in C sharp minor

Maria João Pires (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 July, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Maria João Pires. Photograph: Christian SteinerThere’s no such thing as coincidence, is there? Only an hour before the diminutive figure of Maria João Pires stepped on to the platform for that rare Proms accolade of a solo recital, Paul Lewis had been the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth, the concerto Pires had played, unforgettably, at her last Proms appearance in 1999. The contrast between these two great players was telling, Lewis getting in touch with his feminine side, Pires, in her late-night programme of Chopin Nocturnes, constantly edging away from cosy enchantment to present these pieces in all their baffling inscrutability.

It’s in the nocturnes-crucible that the great Chopin interpreters are forged, and Pires is in the premier league. In the Opus 9 set, she gave us the essentials for these elliptical pieces – a veiled tone that can evoke long aural perspectives and a tactful displacement of left and right hands that becomes part of her amazingly sure and intuitive sense of rubato.

As she moved chronologically through her choices, she showed that basic Chopin paradox – that, as the increasingly elaborate decorations take more and more risks with the melodic line, so they become more bedded into the texture of the music. Pires was a genius at holding back, just, the shape-shifting proliferations from sending Chopin’s serene melodies into deconstructive meltdown; another great pleasure was the way in which Pires reprised the opening material, its significance mysteriously enhanced and changed by the contrasting middle section. In the Opus 62 set, it was as though the openings were being reluctantly summoned back over a long distance, and the effect was extraordinarily poetic. The last piece in her programme, the early Lento con gran espressione, was a reminder of the extent to which Chopin grew into and transformed this early-romantic genre.

For all their generally restrained idiom, the nocturnes have the variety to sustain an hour-long programme, but Pires took them into another realm, where an already muted palette could still yield a finely graded variation of colour, and where her playing’s extremes of intimacy opened out into moments of great nobility, with that indefinable aura of grace. Pires says she would like to retire, and performing to this degree of finesse, intensity and expectation must take its toll – but on the evidence of this Prom she has much to give, including an encore in the form of the first Nocturne from Opus 37, although it was lost on the people around me snoozing, snuggling, checking their emails, coughing and taking photographs, and then further annihilating any sense of rapture with perfunctory, desultory applause. Some people are just weird.

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