Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Jan Smeterlin (piano)
rec. 1954 FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR161/2 [52:19 + 44:13]
Jan Smeterlin’s recording of the Chopin Nocturnes has been held in high esteem by pianophiles since it emerged in the 1950s. It made a brief appearance on CD in the mid-nineties on Philips ‘The Early Years’ series. I regret not having acquired it at the time, as it has now become an expensive collector’s item. It is to be lauded that the French reissue label, Forgotten Records, have restored it to circulation, in digital re-masterings which reveal its true splendour.
Born in Poland in 1892, Smeterlin scored an early success playing a Mozart concerto at the age of seven. He later began studying law but, as luck would have it, won a scholarship to study piano with Leopold Godowsky. He made his debut as a pianist in 1920 and took to the road, travelling and giving concerts as far afield as Australia, New Zealand and The States. He formed a close friendship with his fellow compatriot Karol Szymanowski, who dedicated a volume of Mazurkas to him. In return, the pianist frequently included the composer’s music in his recitals. Outside music, Smeterlin indulged his passion for cooking, even writing a recipe book, which was published posthumously. He died in London in 1967 aged seventy-five.
It’s pretty evident when listening to Smeterlin’s take on the Nocturnes that he is his own man, and stamps each with his own brand of individuality. Dynamic markings do not always conform to the composer’s intentions, and he plays some passages with idiosyncratic articulation. His tempi may seem a tad brisk to some, comparing them with performances today. Yet, on the positive side, he never over-pedals and blurs the harmony, but achieves a wealth of tonal colour. I can forgive him his minor indiscretions for the wonderful spontaneity, poetic insights and intense lyricism he brings to these works. He projects long lines, with instinctive phrasing.
There were two instances where I wasn’t over enamoured with Smeterlin’s delivery. In Op. 32 No. 2, the middle section sounds too quirky and rushed, and in the second half of Op. 48 No 1, again it sounds too brisk, too busy and rather lacking in shape.
The pianist’s recorded legacy is scant by any standards. As well as the Nocturnes, Smeterlin recorded a selection of Waltzes and Mazurkas for Mace, and some Brahms for RCA. There’s a heavily cut Schulz-Evler Arabesques on "An der schönen blaunen Donau." on a Polydor 78, displaying his formidable virtuosic prowess. Forgotten Records have transferred these nocturnes from a Philips LP and an Epic pressing. Of interest is the fact that the Epic cover art is one of the rarer examples of Andy Warhol’s brief but very interesting forays into album art in the 1950s.
Sound quality is perfectly agreeable for the age of the recording. Lets hope that this enterprising label will release Smeterlin’s Brahms at some point.
CD 1 [52:19]
Nocturnes Op. 9: No. 1 in B flat minor [5:03]
Nocturnes Op. 9: No. 2 in E flat major [3:53]
Nocturnes Op. 9: No. 3 in B major [5:41]
Nocturnes Op. 15: No. 1 in F major [4:07]
Nocturnes Op. 15: No. 2 in F sharp major [3:11]
Nocturnes Op. 15: No. 3 in G minor [5:28]
Nocturnes Op. 27: No. 1 in C sharp minor [4:46]
Nocturnes Op. 27: No. 2 in D flat major [5:07]
Nocturnes Op. 32: No. 1 in B major [4:28]
Nocturnes Op. 32: No. 2 in A flat major [4:27]
Nocturnes Op. 37: No. 1 in G minor [6:01] CD 2 44:13]
Nocturnes Op. 37: No. 2 in G major [5:58]
Nocturnes Op. 48: No. 1 in C minor [5:41]
Nocturnes Op. 48: No. 2 in F sharp minor [6:45]
Nocturnes Op. 55: No. 1 in F minor [4:21]
Nocturnes Op. 55: No. 2 in E flat major [3:58]
Nocturnes Op. 62: No. 1 in B major [6:08]
Nocturnes Op. 62: No. 2 in E major [4:47]
Nocturnes Op. posth.: in E minor [2:59]
Nocturnes Op. posth.: in C sharp minor [3:39]