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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Nocturnes
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
rec. 2020, Meistersaal, Emil Berliner Studios, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4860761 [2 CDs: 70:38 + 53:21]

This release of Chopin’s complete Nocturnes marks the eighth album the Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has made for Deutsche Grammophon, and the third devoted to the composer. In fact, it was the Nocturnes that provided his first introduction to Chopin’s music, specifically Op 9, No 1. In the accompanying booklet he speaks of the qualities which draw him to the music: “the yearning, captivating melody, the framework he provides for flexibility, the endless fresh ideas”. Because of the pandemic he had the luxury of a full week in the studio, without any external pressures. He spoke of the experience in an interview: “Being in the studio last October was a gift. I felt completely at ease and free from pressure. These were the most pleasurable and relaxed recording sessions I’ve known; they were perfect for the Nocturnes. I could spend time with each piece at my own pace and live with them all in a way that felt completely natural and organic.”

Chopin wrote 21 Nocturnes in all between 1827 and 1846, and they span his compositional career. The form was originally developed by Irish composer John Field, but Chopin popularized and expanded on them. Numbers 1 to 18 were published during his lifetime, usually in groups of two or three, the remaining three were published posthumously.

The Nocturnes encompass an infinite variety and range of emotions. Lisecki delivers searching and probing accounts of these captivating pieces, and imbues them with finesse and poetic expression. He captures the very essence of each. The cycle opens with Op 9, No 1, and the right hand melody rings out above a discreet accompaniment. He seems to emphasize the work’s dreamy quality. I’m particularly drawn to the two Op 27 Nocturnes. The volatile middle section of No 1 is intensely dramatic and strikes terror. The ever-popular No 2 in D-flat major has a hypnotic beauty, with the sensuous bel canto melody poetically shaped against the left-hand semiquaver arpeggio accompaniment. Care is taken never to allow the music to degenerate into distasteful sentimentality. In Op 32, No 1 that enigmatic end is carried off successfully. There are some sensuous trills in the B major Nocturne, Op 62, No 1, and in Op 72, No 1, the lyrical line opens naturally, with the embellishments never over pronounced.

Berlin’s historic Meistersaal provided the venue for this recording. The piano, I presume, is a Steinway, expertly tuned and voiced. The acoustic favours intimacy, totally appropriate for this music, and provides the perfect ambience for Lisiecki to realize his vision. This is top drawer Chopin, and the cycle can comfortably rub shoulders with those by Maria João Pires, Arthur Rubinstein and Ivan Moravec.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Geoffrey Molyneux

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