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John FIELD (1782-1837)
Complete Nocturnes
Elizabeth Joy Roe (piano)
rec. 22-15 September 2015, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
DECCA 478 9672 [86.08]

John Field enjoyed fame across Europe as a noteworthy pianist and composer of the early 19th century. He is Ireland’s first important classical composer, and his enduring achievement is in having invented the nocturne. The term had musical antecedents, but he set it down as it came to be understood. That is, not as any fixed form but as music for solo piano with a certain atmosphere - namely, of a tranquil, dreamy character where contoured melodies in the right hand are played over arpeggiated chords (i.e. where each note is played separately) in the left.

Field fans may bristle when his nocturnes are treated as stepping stones to Chopin’s more famous ones. Even the back cover of this CD says Field was responsible for “...creating the form which Chopin perfected.” Those who know them recognize Field’s nocturnes as not just preparatory. While he remains far from famous, they have been available in recordings almost forever because, as anyone with an ear for melodically-inspired music will attest, there is a great deal here to enjoy.

These, too, are high points in pianism. Not perhaps in laying out novel approaches or techniques, an accolade clearly deserved by Chopin - who learned much from Field. Rather, they stand out in terms of felicity: their core tunes, inspired composition, and overall musicality hit emotional home, and resoundingly; more than a few, in addition, are highly memorable.

These works first came to my attention when Field was an obscure musical find, in a recording by Noel Lee on Nonesuch (H71195). Lee also released fine LPs of music by Bartok and Stravinsky, but none have yet appeared in digital form. Even so, his approach to Field (as to Stravinsky especially) still resonates for its lack of interpretive affectation. These works are neither redolent with nuance, as one might associate with Schumann, nor full of the incident and vitality one expects, say, in Stravinsky’s or Martinu’s solo works. Despite their myriad differences and no known direct debt, there are interesting parallels between these Nocturnes and Erik Satie’s solo piano music. Both composers’ music “connects” with listeners despite its compositional simplicity and use of spare means. Satie’s solo piano works are also arguably as rich with inner charm as Field’s eighteen Nocturnes, and the music of both soars far beyond salon pieces mostly due to their special melodic gifts.

Other reviewers remark that the scant variation in the dynamics of Field’s Nocturnes, and their fairly uniform rhythms, may challenge some to hear out an album straight through. This listener has yet to be so afflicted, particularly with Roe’s recording. A remarkable fact about this CD is how Field’s compositional voice in these works, which appear in numerical order, charms from the very First Nocturne. The only challenge here is to find one that is unworthy of being pointed out for close attention, less than touching, or in some way not memorable.

Elizabeth Joy Roe treats Field’s Nocturnes as subtle, unadorned music, and her strength is in drawing out their poetic enchantment. Her gentle dynamics and sparing use of rubato suit the music ideally. Her graceful treatment of Nocturne 8, to choose one among several gems, stands out as a wistful marvel. This CD is excellent throughout, and by far the one to get. That said, Tunisian pianist Roberte Mamou’s (WVH 082) might be consulted for a compelling alternative to Roe’s Ninth Nocturne, as might John O’Conor’s measured approach to the Twelfth (Telarc 80199).

Haydn admired the playing style of the young Field, who came to know Hummel, Czerny, Glinka and Mendelssohn. Liszt championed him, and he was an acknowledged influence not only on Chopin, who felt flattered when likened to Field, but on Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert (especially in the Impromptus).

Field moved before his teens from his native Ireland to London, to study under Muzio Clementi. He also worked as a piano demonstrator and salesman in the store Clementi part-owned, and toured with him later. His maestro was one of the era’s notable pianist-composers, and in Vienna was regarded as Mozart’s rival. A piano duel was once arranged for them before royalty, and it was declared a tie. Clementi was gracious about the outcome; Mozart was not (see article). This was the era when the pianoforte was coming into its own as an instrument, and Clementi was one of its great developers. He held various patents for their design and construction, and the instruments he made were a sensation across Europe. Field made the most of the decade he spent as Clementi's pupil, employee and (reportedly exploited) tour companion. Aside from the deep immersion in that milieu, Field’s own music quite naturally ended up putting to best use some of the instrument's new technical improvements: a more sustained legato, greater variety in keyboard touch, a subtler range of dynamics, and a more efficient sustaining pedal. While most pianists focused on enlarging the instrument’s power and range, Field was not concerned with enhancing its technical brilliance. Instead, he cultivated its possibilities for artful, intimate expressiveness—a vital dimension of romantic music, which dominated the coming century.

Some day we may see Field's colourful life fictionalized in film. A dramatic beginning could situate viewers during the trailblazing performances that made him famous, around when Paganini and Lizst were also storming Europe’s capitals with their onstage flamboyance. Field was an inspired improviser from early on, so those scenes might lead to a flashback to when he began crafting works that featured his particular talents. Young John could have his close-up between demos in Clementi’s piano store, practicing his pedaling and rubato lessons, or tinkering with dynamics while shaping some early opus. The script could take the usual liberties and seat the handsome lad on a piano bench beside some bored London lady, exposing the callow Dubliner to her charms. Some brief brush of their fingers, and more, could culminate in the obligatory torrid scenes, frantically tumbling about her rooms as ticket sales might require. After some such bodice-wrenching, a fade-out could segue into a chaos of later backstage liaisons— which he apparently turned from when he settled into married life in Russia. Field was admired in its aristocratic circles, yet kept being pulled back to dissolute ways, living extravagantly in St Petersburg and Moscow, and fathering an illegitimate child. He was absent when Napoleon raged at the gates of Moscow, although plenty of cinematic fodder remains about the time his candle began flickering out. There was a less-than-stellar final European tour, his wife and son abandoned him, and his former Moscow pals began calling him ‘Drunken John,’ He finally succumbed to cancer at age 54.

The CD under review contains an astonishing eighty-six minutes worth of music, making it the first to include all of Field’s eighteen Nocturnes. The sound on this recording is as perfect as one could want. O’Conor’s recorded sound is often just short of warm, and Mamou’s is also not in Decca’s class. The photogenic Elizabeth Joy Roe, who authored the liner notes for this album, has recorded several discs. One is a well-received pairing of Britten’s and Samuel Barber’s Piano Concertos that includes Barber’s 1959 Nocturne for Piano (Homage to John Field). (see review)

The Naxos label has just finished its Field series, focusing mostly on his unrecorded piano concertos. What gems lie there, especially considering that their appearance was eagerly awaited by none others than Liszt and Chopin? And who knows which other works may, in time, come to be seen as Field’s other crowning achievements?

For now, you are unlikely to find his celebrated Nocturnes played more gracefully than on this disc by Elizabeth Joy Roe.

Bert Bailey


Track listing
1. Nocturne in E flat major H24
2. Nocturne in C minor H25
3. Nocturne in A flat major H26
4. Nocturne in A major H36
5. Nocturne 5 in B flat major H37
6. Nocturne 6 in F major “Cradle Song” H40
7. Nocturne in A major H14
8. Nocturne in E flat major H30
9. Nocturne in E minor H46
10. Nocturne in E major “Nocturne-pastorale” H54
11. Nocturne in E flat major H56
12. Nocturne in E major “Nocturne-caractéristique: Noontide” H13
13. Nocturne in C major “Rêverie-Nocturne” H45
14. Nocturne in G major H58
15. Nocturne in D minor “Song Without Words” H60
16. Nocturne in C major H60
17. Nocturne in C major H61
18. Nocturne in F major H62

 

 




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