As winter approaches why do classical music lovers tend to whip up the nocturnes to play or to listen to? Nocturnes conjure up winter evenings, after dinner digestifs by the fire, and Chopin being played by a family member or friend. When I was a child, record covers of Chopin, certainly propagated this image. This is probably why Chopin’s music seems accessible, approachable. A little too accessible at times, since he has been played and heard so much.
Stephen Hough’s new recording of Chopin’s entire output of nocturnes has put me straight on Chopin. Chopin nocturnes are a lot more subtle and complex than one would think. Chopin’s nocturnes can be beautiful and a little frilly with much ornamentation, but mostly there is a point to his compositional turn and there is always the Chopin add on, which sets his nocturnes apart from those conceived by Irish composer, John Field, who initiated the genre on solo piano in 1811 .
Starting with the nocturnes in B-flat minor and E flat of his Opus 9, Hough goes on to play more intricate nocturnes with three-part structures. With a lyrical outer section and middle section resembling etudes, some may even resemble mini sonatas, some of them modern sounding like the C Minor op 48 No1. Stephen Hough charts this evolution clearly in his excellent CD notes.
In his play, Hough pitches it just right. The melody is never over sentimentalised. It’s almost a business-as-usual approach, except Hough has the intelligence to lightly bring out the nuances and let the melody lead him. A mixture of extreme concentration and detachment if that is possible! When the more complex, contrasting middle sections of the nocturnes occur, he handles the changes in tone, volume, timing in a controlled way, holding back on the crescendos or gradually upping the pace, until it is really time to let rip. The G minor Op 15 No 3 illustrates this well where the imploring high notes are played to perfection, also in the C Sharp Minor where the spilling over of sounds is handled with care as are all the pianos.
His notes on ornamentation are interesting and show to what extent Chopin left the player room to improvise if he felt confident enough to. For his choice students however, it was a step too far. Chopin wrote them each a variation of the original ornament.
Hough wraps up the CD with a new version of the E flat major nocturne with new ornaments to illustrate the point. Also, some new nocturnes, some misattributed to Chopin – and instead composed by his pupil Charlotte de Rothschild in 1847.
It is hard to pinpoint one’s favourite nocturne in this recording – for all offer up surprises, especially if you haven’t listened to Chopin in a while. What is wonderful is to have them all there. This is an album for Chopin lovers but also one for those wishing to revisit the nocturnes after a break. You won’t be disappointed.
Chopin Nocturnes played by Stephen Hough on Hyperion Records https://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68351/2 and other streaming platforms.