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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
A Chopin Diary
Nocturnes 1-21 [99:35]
Nocturne Oubliée in C-Sharp Minor [6:11]
Étude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7 [5:33]
Clare Huangci (piano)
Tristan Cornut (cello: etude)
rec. August 2016, Sendesaal, Bremen
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300905BC [58:38 + 57:58]

I very much enjoyed Clare Huangci's Scarlatti on Berlin Classics from 2015 (review), and as a result have now had the privilege of being sent her complete Chopin Nocturnes for review. The title of this collection 'A Chopin Diary' comes from Chopin's own history with the Nocturnes. Starting in Warsaw in 1827, the 21 pieces that make up the complete collection were composed during the next two decades, "the most interesting period of his life." Clare Huangci has created her own 'Chopin Diary' in the booklet with quotes from French writers of Chopin's time: "In this age of discovery and romanticism, a few lines could open up world of colour. I have included for each nocturne an excerpt 'fitting' to my own personal vision." Such choices are of course highly personal and subjective, and one can easily listen without referring to these snippets of French with their English translations, but to my mind they are an enhancement. The first Nocturne for instance takes two lines from Jules Laforgue, "She left yesterday. Perhaps I mind? // Ah yes! So that's what hurts!" This poignant reflection on regret and the pangs of absence suits the music and Huangci's gorgeous rendition well, and it is not so proscriptive of our own ideas about the music that we need feel dictated to as to how we should respond.

Such textual additions to each piece are a sideline to the actual performances which, to my ears, are superbly crafted and remarkably stylish. Huangci's left hand teases with gentle rubato while at the same time giving enough stability for the melodic right hand to float above, at times almost pushing the boundaries of the vertical relationship between the two but always uniting at crucial points and breathing with an entirely natural sense of flow. There is always the risk of the rhythm becoming 'tortured' with too much expressive to and fro in the Nocturnes, but Huangci gets it right every time - keeping things in proportion while taking us on a very special journey in each piece.

The general mood of Chopin’s Nocturnes is gently lyrical, and while Huangci’s touch is sensitively pearlescent she also knows where and how to deliver more penetration and focus in her tone to point out stresses and moments of darker expression or climactic effusiveness. It’s intriguing to compare Huangci’s style with other players. Roger Woodward on the Celestial Harmonies label (review) keeps his left and right hands synchronised, the flow of elastic rubato moving more vertically and making Huangci’s interpretations almost seem like two-part counterpoint in the independent character she gives between left and right. Somewhat more comparable to Huangci is Bernard D’Ascoli (review), whose lyrical approach is accompanied by a more urgent feel when compared to Huangci’s more reposed narratives. Artur Rubenstein (review) is the ancestor to many a good recording, but Huangci is an imitator of none. The sheen of Rubenstein’s melodies comes from legato phrasing and the projection of his touch rather than a freeing up of the relationship between the hands, and each time I return to Huangci I learn more about the secrets of her expressiveness. By loosening the right hand this allows her to re-integrate the dynamic of the melody more with that of the accompaniment, by which I mean that the left hand need not always be so much quieter, while the melodic line retains its line and clarity through its independence of character. These are by no means qualities that dominate to the detriment of Chopin’s notes as written, nor in my opinion are they likely to prove controversial amongst most listeners – they are by no means mannered and ubiquitous – but they do create a particularly special atmosphere in the subtlest of moments.

Huangci is by no means shy of pushing out some passion, and the Nocturne in C minor that opens the second CD is played with a masterly sense of arc and a tremendous extended climax. The only piece that sounds a little superficial in this set is the Nocturne in F minor, given the text, “Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe // Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.” While the more turbulent section later on has more life, the little voice from under the tomb says of the rest, “is that all I get?” This is perhaps a little harsh, but hearing the inflections of expression Rubenstein gets into that deceptively simple melody makes me wonder if Huangci could have found a little more here.

Elsewhere in the booklet, Huangci writes of the “vivid imagery” she takes from these pieces: “The stories are endless and they are rich fodder for the imagination,” and this is certainly something which is communicated in this recording. As an extra gift we’re given the lovely Nocturne Oubliée in C-Sharp Minor, and the Étude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7 in a version with cello, played with élan and a few audible sniffs by Tristan Cornut. With priceless playing and at times an understatement that reminds me of Earl Wild’s compellingly intimate recording (review), this is a set of Chopin Nocturnes to savour at length.

Dominy Clements



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