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on 20 October 2001
Maria Joao Pires' set of Chopin's 21 Nocturnes has been extravagantly praised. She certainly performs the nocturnes gracefully, particularly those that come closest to the salon miniatures of the Irish composer, John Field, whose nocturnes Chopin admired. But even at her best, she does not achieve the pliant relationship between melody and accompaniment that marks the best Chopin playing.
So why have most critics hailsed this set as the successor to those of Arthur Rubinstein?
What Pires' fans respond to, one suspects, is the pianist's approach to the nocturnes. Among the most fashionable ideas in Chopin scholarship is that the composer's nocturnes, like those of Field, were direct descendants of the purely vocal nocturnes commonly performed in the aristocratic salons of the day. Music historians such as Jeffrey Kallberg emphasize the importance of Chopin's debt to the graceful, sweet vocal lines -- occasionally with contrasting passages of declamatory recitative -- of these models.
More than almost any of her predecessors or contemporaries, Pires underlines this generic relationship. Her flexible tempos breathe naturally, and she frequently makes the nocturnes sound as if they could be sung. She also makes the listener aware, as many pianists do not, of the speech-like nature of many of their recitatives -- such as that of Opus 48, No. 2 in F sharp minor, in which musical strands wordlessly evoke a sense of statement and response. These are genuine achievements, but they are not significant enough to justify some of the praise this set has received.
Let's look at the one piece in which Pires' failure to play well is most conspicuous: the Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48, No. 1). It's the nocturne that -- superficially, at least -- least fits the quasi-salon pattern established by the others. The opening is freighted with unease; a ferocious octave crescendo leads into a passage of agitated recitative; and the pianissimo conclusion evokes an aftermath of utter desolation.
It is not enough to say that Pires' tiny hands and less-than-complete technique fail her here -- though they do; it is her conception that is faulty. The premise of her nocturnes is that they need to be performed with a beautiful sound and a flexible, unbroken line. But the C minor Nocturne is not about beauty, it is about brutality and grief; and it is not about the sustenance of a line, but about its breakdown.
But how singular, really, is the C minor Nocturne? Paul Dukas long ago suggested that Chopin's most important legacy was the inventiveness that permitted him to move effortlessly from one genre to another. Three of the nocturnes clearly belong to the salon genre, but they are juvenilia -- the posthumously published pieces in E minor, C-sharp minor and C minor.
Chopin's mature nocturnes, from the first three of Opus 9 to the final diptych of Opus 62, are indeed vocal -- but this quality suggests the theater rather than the salon. And it is theatricality -- a sense of the unexpected -- that Pires' nocturnes, fine as they sometimes are, lack. Compare her version of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor (opus 27, No. 1) to the even more flexible version recorded live by Evgeny Kissin (BMG). From the first bars, the Russian makes the listener expect that something is about to happen. And he increases the tension by slowing the tempo almost, but not quite, to the breaking point as he approaches the central section. The storm comes suddenly and terrifyingly, and it is more powerful than in Pires' performance, not merely because Kissin commands more sonority, but because he has more imagination.
It is the imaginative aspect of his music that Field objected to when he called Chopin ``a sickroom talent.'' The remark is usually understood as a disparaging reference to the small forms in which the frail, tubercular Chopin often worked. But what Field was more likely to have been referring to was the delirious, disturbingly hallucinatory and impassioned visions often suffered by the sick and the dying.
In that sense, of course, Field was right. Chopin's music has the power to conjure up disturbing visions, whether in the painful and bitter coda of the C-sharp minor Nocturne, the dark pessimism of the C minor or the mysterious colors of the shadowy final pair in B major and E major.
And it is such visions that Pires' pretty, but generic, performances fail to capture. Kallberg calls the recitative that concludes the Nocturne in B major (Opus 32, No. 1) ``perhaps the most dramatic affirmation'' of the genre's vocal background. But compare Pires' with Guiomar Novaes' dramatic and menacing performance (Vox). The great Brazilian suddenly takes her foot off the sustaining pedal, thereby achieving a sense of disturbing finality that is beyond Pires' imaginative powers. Chopin was not one to encourage programmatic interpretations. But Novaes suggests a tableau in which a feverish person suddenly rises from his sickbed, points to an apparition, cries out and dies.
If Pires' achievement is that she focuses unprecedented attention on the generic vocal origins of Chopin's nocturnes, her failing is that she neglects what is unprecedented and original about the music itself.