Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Complete Nocturnes
CD 1
Trois Nocturnes Op. 9 (1832) [18:56]
Trois Nocturnes Op. 15 (1833) [14:47]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 27 (1836) [11:59]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 32 (1837) [11:48]
CD 2
Deux Nocturnes Op. 37 (1840) [14:41]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 48 (1841) [14:04]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 55 (1844) [10:21]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 62 (1846) [14:56]
Nocturne Op. post. (1827?) [4:01]
Lento con gran espressione [Nocturne] Op. post. (1830) [4:08]
Nocturne Op. post. (1847/8) [2:49]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. January 2006, Tonstudio Ulrich Klaus, Wörthsee, Bavaria.
CELESTIAL HARMONIES 14260-2 [58:17 + 65:55]

Until receiving a batch of CDs of Roger Woodward’s playing I wouldn’t have associated him with anything other than contemporary music, and possibly Chopin least of all. In fact, these works have been at the heart of his repertoire for his entire career, but it was only at the age of 63 that he felt the time was right to preserve his interpretations for posterity. Why did it take so long? “It takes that long”, was Woodward’s response, “Chopin gives us the questions but he doesn’t give us the answers.”

As with all of these solo pieces, there is no single answer to the questions posed. The quest will always go on, even when great pianists of the past such as Rubinstein and more recently Maria João Pires (Deutsche Grammophon) have covered the ground so sublimely before. Pires is very much a case in point. Where her readings push the boundaries in terms of the drama and intensity to be found in these works, Woodward is to be found shining a more reflective light on the music – both equally valid points of view, and each with their strengths and potential weaknesses. I find Pires wears me out after a while, unbeatably impressive though her recordings are. I’ve somehow never managed to square the circle which has me thinking that Nocturnes should have something of ‘the night’ in them – for all the turbulence which this can imply. Woodward certainly does not shy from the drama and strife in a piece such as the Nocturne Op.15 No.1, and the beautiful contrast between the storm of the opening and the enigmatic, suspended calm of the melody with which the piece concludes is done with tremendous élan.

The commentary on the Celestial Harmonies website sums up the overall impression of these recordings very well indeed: “This not just steel-fingered virtuosity, it’s looking deeply into the hidden layers of these remarkable works, trying to sound out what it all means, reading between the lines, listening to the silence between the notes, playing it all in the most thoughtful way. It avoids the obvious, it looks for understanding rather than outward effect.” These comments also further emphasise the poetic nature of Roger Woodward’s approach, something which is rather subjective, and taken cynically might also be read as ‘freedom to muck about with the tempi’. Listening to a drier, arguably less poetic recording from 1976 by Garrick Ohlsson as part of the EMI 200th Anniversary Edition, and we hear a pianist coming in with consistently more compact timings, the difference frequently hovering around the minute mark. The benefits of this are more of a feeling of dance in those pieces with that as an inherent characteristic, but also with a different kind of cohesion in the melodic lines. With less meditative tempi a pianist will more often than not solve some of the problems of ‘questions’ with which we were confronted at the top of this review. What Roger Woodward does so well is preserve the illusion of line, working on the imagination by drawing us in and making us ‘believe’ – something which all pianists have to do, a true legato line not being in the nature of an instrument for which every separate note has its own set of levers and countless other mechanical bits and pieces. Take the remarkable Nocturne Op.48 No.1 in C minor, over which Woodward takes 6:27 to Ohlsson’s 5:49. The opening line is drawn out over an accompaniment which is fractured by some subtle pedalling, so that it is easy to hear that deceptive melody as a violin line, pure and refined, over a kind of pizzicato bass. This melody emerges triumphantly after the heroic turmoil of the central section, becoming an entire body of instruments in comparison to the solo of the opening. These qualities are built into the way the music is written, but it takes a true master to turn a true masterpiece.

These recordings are the kind which grow on one. It took me a little while to be convinced, but the more I return the more I want to hear, which has been the opposite of my experience with Pires’s stunning but, to my ears, ultimately over-cooked performances. There are one or two moments where the consistency of Woodward’s approach might be called into question. There is that beautifully lyrical opening to the F minor Nocturne Op.55 No.1 which Woodward takes almost too semplice, indeed letting the music speak for itself, but with a rather unexpected lack of the kind of ‘soul’ we have in so many of the other pieces. The experience of making the recording has its own effect on those involved, and Woodward’s own statement at the time reveals the kind of two-way energies which one can feel from these very fine recordings: “Somehow I’m not playing them anymore; they are now playing me.” If there was any kind of music which you would prefer to have in the driving seat of a Hamburg Steinway D with ivory keys, then it’s Chopin’s Nocturnes.

Dominy Clements

Track listing:
CD 1
Trois Nocturnes Op. 9 (1832)
B flat minor [6:07]
E flat major [6:15]
B major [6:34]
Trois Nocturnes Op. 15 (1833)
F major [5:07]
F sharp major [3:44]
G minor [5:56]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 27 (1836)
C sharp minor [5:30]
D flat major [6:29]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 32 (1837)
B major [5:49]
A flat major [5:59]
CD 2
Deux Nocturnes Op. 37 (1840)
G minor [7:32]
G major [7:09]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 48 (1841)
C minor [6:27]
F sharp minor [7:37]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 55 (1844)
F minor [5:07]
E flat major [5:14]
Deux Nocturnes Op. 62 (1846)
B major [8:41]
E major [6:15]
Nocturne Op. post. (1827?)
E minor [4:01]
Lento con gran espressione [Nocturne] Op. post. (1830)
C sharp minor [4:08]
Nocturne Op. post. (1847/8)
C minor [2:49]