It is wholly appropriate in Chopin centenary year that we should
have a new recording of the music of John Field. Though we tend
nowadays to think of him solely as the inventor of the Nocturne,
long before Chopin made that form his own, Field’s reputation
as a performer and composer was very considerable in his own day,
with many preferring his performance and composition to Chopin.
Now there is not one single entry for him in the current Gramophone
. Like most modern listeners, I yield the palm to Field
over Chopin only in terms of quantity - seven concertos against
two - not quality, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to be
If you haven’t yet added recordings of the two Chopin concertos
to your collection, however, read no further until you have done
so. You can find strong recommendations for Argerich and Dutoit
(EMI 5567982), Zimmerman as soloist and conductor on DG 459 6842
and Pollini/Kletzki (No.1 only, EMI 5675492) in my February 2010
and of Demidenko and Schiff in the April
- the last-named the least expensive recommendable
version that I know, on Hyperion Helios CDH55180 at budget price.
As is so often the case in righting neglect, we owe recordings
of Field’s music to the independent labels. Brilliant Classics
already have box sets containing his solo music, coupled with
that of Chopin and other contemporaries, performed by Bart van
Oort and others, and Naxos have given us two discs of his Nocturnes
and Sonatas. Van Oort’s 4-CD recording of the Chopin and
received a rather mixed review from Jonathan
Woolf (Brilliant 92202). My reaction to the new set is rather
more positive, though I had never encountered the soloist or conductor
The chief competition for the new CDs comes from a Chandos set
with Míceál O’Rourke and the London Mozart
Players, conducted by Mathias Bamert, also on four CDs at budget
price (CHAN10468X, or available separately), which adds to the
seven concertos some short pieces of Field’s chamber music.
Em Marshall made this her Bargain of the Month - see review
The performances are ... outstanding. The London Mozart Players,
under the assured direction of Bamert, and soloist O’Rourke,
show a great affinity for this wonderful music, and bring out
a glorious sense of joy in lively and exciting performances.
With few exceptions, O’Rourke and Bamert are consistently
rather faster than Restani and Guidarini, especially in the outer
movements. The Chandos set is also more generous in providing
the Quintet in A
and some shorter works as fillers; the
fourth CD of the new Brilliant Box is short value, with only Concerto
(32 minutes), but the price advantage even over the inexpensive
4-for-2 Chandos set -around £13 as against around £20
in the UK - compensates.
The obvious comparison, then, is with the Chandos recordings.
First, however, I listened to the four Brilliant CDs over four
evenings without making any comparison and found myself well satisfied
in all departments - soloist, orchestra, direction and recording.
Don’t try playing them all in one evening. I listened particularly
carefully to the Second Concerto, which, as Em Marshall notes,
was something of a favourite with Field’s contemporaries
- Schumann described it as ‘divinely beautiful’ -
and was not aware that the outer movements sounded too slow or
the slow movement too fast, as the comparison with O’Rourke’s
timings might suggest. The opening movement does outstay its welcome
a little, but Field is to blame rather than the performers.
I’m sure that Schumann would not have wished to withdraw
his praise of the work if he were to hear the Brilliant Classics
CD. The nocturne-like poco adagio
second movement, as played
here, is particularly beautiful, though all concerned resist the
temptation to draw out the emotion too much, and both parts of
the moderato innocente
marking for the finale are
also very well observed.
Turn to the Chandos recording and there is a slight touch of extra
lightness and affability in the opening movement, achieved partly
as a result of the greater fluency of the London Mozart Players
and the recording, made in the Blackheath Halls, but even more
so by the quality of the solo playing from Field’s compatriot,
O’Rourke. Both pianists negotiate some difficult passages
with ease, but O’Rourke actually makes it sound easy. Though
this movement is taken faster overall than on the new Brilliant
recording, there is never any sense of hurry: the tempo seems
to be dictated by the requirements of the music, with close attention
paid to the markings in the score. I’ve been able to consult
the solo piano part only.
The same slight advantage of the Chandos set obtains for the remaining
concertos and the same is also true of the separately available
recordings on Naxos. There Benjamin Frith, with the Northern Sinfonia
and David Haslam, also mostly come in rather faster than the Brilliant
Classics team (Nos. 1 and 3, on 8.553770; 2 and 4 on 8.553771;
5 and 6 on 8.554221). These recordings are the most competitive
price-wise if you wish only to purchase one or two CDs, though
the Brilliant and Chandos sets are less expensive if you want
the whole set. I’ve been able only to sample them, but what
I have heard has given me no cause to doubt the critical acclaim
which they have received. The same is true of the Telarc recording
of Nos. 2 and 3, featuring John O’Conor and Charles Mackerras.
(CD80370). Subscribers to the Naxos Music Library - my source
for hearing the Frith/Haslam performances - can sample both that
and the Chandos versions.
The Naxos and Chandos notes are good, but the Brilliant Classics
booklet is superb, almost de luxe - they seem either to do the
listener proud, as here and with their Monteverdi opera recordings,
or to leave us feeling slightly short-changed, as on some of their
single-CD recordings. On this occasion, the notes by Ateş
Orga leave nothing to be desired.
Good as the rivals listed are - slightly preferable to the Brilliant
Box - I don’t think that the margin is wide enough to withhold
recommendation of the new set, with its significant price advantage
and those excellent notes. Until I started making comparisons,
I was more than happy with Restani and Guidarini. Having purchased
the new set, I don’t recommend that you then start to compare
it with its rivals - a luxury (or folly) best left to reviewers.
You will miss the very enjoyable music which completes the fourth
disc of the Chandos set, but you could always purchase that CD
separately on CHAN9534: as a download, it could be yours for just
an extra £7.99 (mp3 from theclassicalshop, classicsonline,
or passionato) or £9.99 (lossless from theclassicalshop
only). With or without that extra purchase, the Brilliant Box
allows you to obtain some enjoyable and unjustly neglected music
in recommendable performances and recordings at a modest cost.