CHOPIN: THE NOCTURNES
Move Records MCD 546
I could be getting precious (ha!) but the title of this CD has me querulous. If the cover reads The Nocturnes, then I reckon you should get the Nocturnes – all of them. That’s not the case with Nancy Tsou’s latest album. Of the 21 (19 regular, 2 extras) in my edition, the pianist presents only 13. For reasons best known to herself and the Move production team, she omits Nos. 2 and 3 from the Op. 15 group, both the Op. 37 pieces, the second of the Op. 48 pair, both the Op. 62 works and – not so importantly – the two-page miniature in C minor from 1837. Not that the recording is under-length physically, coming in at about 69 minutes. But, if you were after the lot, you’d better look elsewhere.
Tsou begins with the posthumous C sharp minor; for some reason, this has been a favourite with film-makers in recent times. She is very free-and-easy with the application of rubato, particularly in the con forza bars 13 and its repetition at bar 46. The reading has a clear sensitivity, even if its Lento could have been applied more literally.
Moving into the canon proper with the Op. 9 B flat minor, the metre treatment is even more cavalier, notable for a tendency to linger before a bar’s second half, emphasizing the irregular melodic placement of the main theme. Nothing exceptionable here; the right hand work offers an even line with few surprises, although the second-last bar was rushed. For the famous E flat Major No. 2, the hesitating and pointing of notes is played up; Tsou uses some alternatives in bars 22 and 35, the latter of which I’ve not heard before, but that’s not saying much with a very well-known work that has enjoyed more than its share of differentiating ‘takes’. One of the longer nocturnes, No. 3 in this group, again rings idiosyncratic bells, although the pauses on first notes in some bars did little for the internal fluency of this (initially) light-stepping piece. Later, at the Agitato change to B minor, the texture grew muddy with too much pedal and a lack of clarity in the inner syncopated chords.
The cantabile direction heading Op. 15 No. 1 in F is somewhat sapped by Tsou’s elasticity in the top melodic line, let alone the by-now inevitable pauses/hesitations. Later, when the mood changes to con fuoco and the minor, I would have preferred seeing a more strict adherence to the dotted quaver/semiquaver pattern against the escorting sextuplets, particularly in bars 45-47. The remaining parts of the opus are omitted and sadly missed, especially the perfectly shaped Larghetto in F sharp.
A convincing version of the first Op. 27 in C sharp was only marred by a repeated lingering on the initial strokes of each bar after the Piu mosso change-over. Tsou might have taken the last three-bar Adagio more slowly, although the pivotal bass notes resound satisfyingly. It proved easy to like the player’s command in the D flat No. 2: an informed combination of restraint and lyricism. Still, the fioriture in bar 52 could have been more lightly delineated and I’m not sure that much was gained by the extra ornamentation from bars 66 to 68, piquant though it sounded.
For the following Op. 32 B Major, I’ve not heard before the practice of converting nearly every soprano line first-beat acciaccatura into an appoggiatura; not that it matters over-much but it does flat-line the melodic rhythmic surprises. The D flat Major work that follows, a pianist’s delight, suffered from Tsou’s determination to interpolate pauses where they were not needed. Chopin has gifted this nocturne with a rolling, infectious melody; why interrupt its progress? The decorative work in bars 14 and 22 is laboured; notes failed to register during the central pages, notably in the top left-hand chords, but the whole segment was taken too quickly for comfort.
Skipping Op. 37, the pianist moves to the C minor Op. 48 and things are well enough until the hectic arpeggios start. I suppose you can treat these with a certain amount of liberty; Tsou does – and that would have been fine if the piece had stayed in time, but when the double octaves get under way, the work slows down and the bravura is dissipated in obvious effort. As in the previous work, the inner workings of the doppio movimento return are cloudy, hard to single out in their context.
The plain-speaking Op. 55 in F minor suffers from another overdose of the pointed hesitation, which interrupts the measured pace of its regular bass-line. Sadly, the reversion at bar 73 does not come creeping slowly, the spectre at the feast after a contrasting interlude, but is treated matter-of-factly. At the end, Tsou does not reserve her forte for the last three chords but plays all four last bars at the same dynamic level, which is not the most inspired choice in handling this strong-minded, poignant conclusion. But you could point to other occasions where the listener is left-footed by odd decisions; by this stage, the effects are rarely challenging or informative. The companion No. 2 suits itself about the irregular gruppetti, even as early as bars 7 and 9: the left hand slows down to make way too much space for them to be slotted in, a process that reaches an apogee in bars 35 and 36. Yet again, passages are blurred by sustained pedal work across half-bar lengths.
Last track of all is the posthumous Op. 72 No. 1, the composer’s first nocturne that didn’t come up to his standards. This reading is fluent and competent but lacks a sense of impetuosity where it is needed from bars 31 to 38, at which stage Chopin’s right hand rhapsodises against the relentless quaver-triplet bass line.
Which is eventually the chief problem with these nocturnes. The performances are able, occasionally persuasive, but they lack compelling passion. You can point to pages where Tsou is on the verge of moving into a gripping interpretation, but the rubato brake is applied, or the dynamic stays in a rut, or emphasis falls on a particular note that disrupts a work’s fluency. In a crowded market with complete sets of the nocturnes from Arrau, Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Ohlsson and Pollini still available, you’re spoiled for choice. This CD is not operating at that exalted level, but it makes the most of its executant’s virtues and abilities.