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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810–1849)
Complete Nocturnes
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
rec. October 2020, Emil Berliner Studios, Meistersaal, Berlin
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4860761 [70:37 + 55:22]

Chopin composed his earliest nocturnes in 1827 at the age of 17 and continued to write them throughout his life. The Opus 9 set, composed from 1830, was published in 1832. As the development of the piano continued, Chopin was able to make use of greater tonal power as this became available, and more sensitivity in expression together with finer detail in articulation became possible. Indeed, the Opus 9 pieces are much simpler and more repetitive than the later nocturnes, which can be more complex and through-composed.

Opus 9 (especially No 2), have always been amongst the most popular and enduring nocturnes. In No 1, Jan Lisiecki demonstrates right from the outset of the first beautiful, but melancholic phrase that his is a very Romantic view. A fluid pulse and tempo within Chopin’s Larghetto marking is adopted, sometimes with rather idiosyncratic rubato. I like his accelerandi combined with crescendos in the middle section. These always reach convincing and dramatic climaxes, each time a little different. After all, there is much exact or nearly exact repetition in this music, but the pianist is able to maintain interest throughout. After hearing Lisiecki, Barenboim seems positively tame, but he moves along with a more even flow and fewer extremes. Barenboim (4530222, 2 CDs budget-price) is perhaps rather more mature in his approach!

The second and very famous Nocturne No 2 in E-flat is given a more regular and ‘normal’ performance. I like the way Lisiecki makes the con forza a sudden, dramatic surprise followed by a strong crescendo to the fortissimo climax just before the end.

Moving on to one of the more substantial nocturnes, Opus 48 No 1, we find that our pianist is well up to the challenges of the flying octaves in the middle section and other more virtuosic passages later on. It is also a challenging piece musically with its many contrasts in tempi and mood. In the very slow first part, Lisiecki uses subtle rubato to help maintain the momentum. He has a real grasp of the overall structure and gives a superb performance. Bernard d’Ascoli (Divine Art ATH23201, 2 CDs, budget-price - review) plays very well too but lacks the passion of Lisiecki and suffers from a less grateful recording.

The famous Nocturne in D-flat, Opus 27 No 2, is given a deeply thoughtful and refined account. The delicacy of Lisiecki’s playing here is outstanding in the fast, flighty and decorative passages, where his beautifully toned and prepared instrument comes into its own. The climax of the piece comes as we lead into the final return of the main theme. As we reach the conclusion of the crescendo from forte to fortissimo, Lisiecki seems to give us a feeling akin to a gentle diminuendo. He interprets the climax as a relief from harmonic complexity on reaching the return of the main melody in all its simplicity. This is just one example of the subtlety of this player’s approach to the boundless expressive possibilities in these nocturnes. A favourite recording of mine in this work as well as the nocturnes as a whole is Jorge Bolet on a Decca Eclipse LP (now on Presto Decca CD 4213632). This is a rather more straightforward account but with finely tuned balance and beautiful melodic lines, although his recording seems a little dated now.

Jan Lisiecki presents the nocturnes, always with beautiful tone, subtlety of nuance, clarity of line and excellent balance, whether the music is basically melody with accompaniment or rather more polyphonic and complex in style. He always captures the wide-ranging moods and emotions expressed by the composer. Lisiecki has a fabulous-sounding instrument at his disposal and superb recording to match. However, I feel that his performance is rather more a one-off concert experience, and the pianist’s view is at times very personal and rather idiosyncratic. But this does not detract from its value. This performance would provide a great evening out in a concert hall as a one-off experience, but would not be my preferred choice to return to frequently. His rubato is sometimes very broad and this could become tiresome on repeated hearings. More definitive recordings for library choices are available, especially in my view, Artur Rubinstein (Sony Originals 88697690412, 2 CDs, budget-price) and Daniel Barenboim. But there is no shadow of doubt that Jan Lisiecki is a very fine pianist and I am sure that anyone who loves these works should listen to these discs.

Geoffrey Molyneux

Contents:
3 Nocturnes, Op 9
No 1 in B-flat minor. Larghetto [6:29]
No 2 in E-flat major. Andante [5:06]
No 3 in B major. Allegretto [6:50]

3 Nocturnes, Op 15
No 1 in F major. Andante cantabile [4:11]
No 2 in F-sharp major. Larghetto [3:28]
No 3 in G minor. Lento [6:15]

2 Nocturnes, Op 27
No 1 in C-sharp minor. Larghetto [5:50]
No 2 in D-flat major. Lento sostenuto [7:14]

2 Nocturnes, Op 32
No 1 in B major. Andante sostenuto [5:36]
No 2 in A-flat major. Lento [5:54]

2 Nocturnes, Op 37
No 1 in G minor. Andante sostenuto [7:47]
No 2 in G major. Andantino [5:58]

2 Nocturnes, Op 48
No 1 in C minor. Lento [5:49]
No 2 in F-sharp minor. Andantino [9:35]

2 Nocturnes, Op 55
No 1 in F minor. Andante [5:12]
No 2 in E-flat major. Lento sostenuto [5:21]

2 Nocturnes, Op 62
No 1 in B major. Andante [7:49]
No 2 in E major. Lento [6:45]

Nocturne in E minor, Op post. 72/1. Andante [4:14]
Nocturne in C minor, Op post., KK IVb/8. Andante sostenuto [3:35]
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op post., KK IVa/16. Lento con gran espressione [5:01]



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