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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Nocturnes. CD 1: Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op posth. [3’53], Nocturne in C minor, Op posth. [2’46], Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, no. 1 [5’59], Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 [4’34], Nocturne in B major, Op. 9, No. 3 [6’20], Nocturne in F major, Oop. 15, No. 1 [4’47], Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2 [3’32], Nocturne in G minor, Op. 15, No. 3 [3’34], Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1 [5’41], Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 [6’05], Nocturne in B major, Op. 32, No. 1 [4’48], Nocturne in A flat major, Op. 32, No. 2 [5’21], Nocturne in G minor, Op. 37, No. 1 [6’18], Nocturne in G major, Op. 37, No. 2 [4’57]; CD 2: Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 [7’16], Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op. 48, No. 2 [6’56], Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1 [4’38], Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 55, No. 2 [4’57], Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1 [7’29], Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No. 2 [6’09], Nocturne in E minor, Op. 72, No. 1 [4’54], Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29 [4’19], Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 36 [6’20], Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 51 [5’48], Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66 [5’22].
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 16-20 November 2003 DDD
HYPERION CDA67371/2 [2 CDs: 132’53"]
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Fans of Ms. Hewitt, rejoice. Although Chopin is not exactly an under-recorded commodity in the catalogue, many listeners will no doubt welcome Hewitt’s highly thoughtful takes on these pieces, and this is easily one of the finest recordings I’ve heard in the last few months. I’m a fairly recent fan of her artistry, ever since my brother bowled me over with some of her Bach Toccatas about a year ago – and this from someone who generally prefers a more regular diet of Bartók and Shostakovich. Hewitt has developed a reputation for illuminating Bach with as much intelligence as technique, and then went on to achieve similar success in Ravel and Messiaen.

And now she turns her considerable talent to Chopin, with lovely and engaging results. The very word "nocturne" implies introspection, quietude, and a bit of a dreamy state, and this recording has all of this in spades. In her superb notes, Hewitt describes the day she first explored playing the pieces faster, slightly more flowing than some pianists do, "enforcing" Chopin’s metronome markings. The result preserves what everyone enjoys about these works, but with a swirling energy that may give admirers of these works a fresh new viewpoint. Hewitt’s interpretations never sound rushed to my ears.

The Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1 made an immediate impression, with its glittery top registers, and Hewitt plays this so beautifully, with the clusters of notes seeming to just drip from her fingers. But everyone will have favorites. In the later E flat major, Op. 55, No. 2 she writes "how far we have come from the early Nocturnes," and then demonstrates this by matching Chopin’s masterly writing with seemingly effortless grace. This is gorgeous and subtle piano playing. The one that follows, in B major, Op. 62, No. 1, ends with some sensuous trills that Hewitt dispatches with the kind of ease that marks the entire enterprise – not that any of these works should be characterized as "easy," mind you.

Her technique is very clean, and seems relatively unstudied in its clarity. This is not heart-on-sleeve Chopin, but played with an appealing modesty – not that Hewitt’s virtuosity is ever in question, let’s be clear. But as with her Bach, it is straightforward, without artifice and in this case, highly evocative of dusk and perhaps mild sleeplessness.

The remaining pieces, the Impromptus, almost serve as encores to this generous recital (two discs’ worth). Their fluttery textures soothe the ear after the somber, shadowy Nocturnes, and couldn’t be better placed at the end of this programme. I particularly like the final Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, with its delirious opening that gradually gives way to the broadly satisfying theme that is probably familiar to many music lovers.

My first exposure to the Nocturnes was through old LPs of Artur Rubinstein and (if I recall) Alexander Brailowsky. I probably owe it to myself to acquire these on disc for a rehearing, but I still recall these pianists’ delicate shadings and colors. But Hewitt’s intimacy here is most ingratiating, and I really can’t imagine piano lovers, Chopin devotees, or Hewitt admirers being even mildly disappointed. And as mentioned earlier, Hewitt’s notes are a model of good writing and helpful erudition – admirably clear without being pretentious. She wears her scholarship as lightly as her technique.

Hyperion’s sound, as usual with this fine label, offers little room for complaints. The concert was recorded in Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, an (apparently) idyllic town in Germany, and from the sound of Hewitt’s playing this must be a divine setting in which to perform and record music. Even the cover art, Reclining Nude by Jean-Jacques Henner, adds luster to a very appealing package. I can tell already that this recording will be finding its way back to my player quite often.

Bruce Hodges


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