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Hyperion Records

CDA67371/2 - Chopin: Nocturnes & Impromptus
Recording details: November 2003
Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: November 2004
Total duration: 132 minutes 43 seconds

'One of the most elegant pianists around, the Canadian virtuoso Angela Hewitt interrupts her epic Bach and Couperin cycles for Hyperion to explore some of Chopin's most refined music, the complete Nocturnes and Impromptus. Hewitt's innate sophistication and delicacy of touch are perfectly suited to these exquisite pieces, 25 of them over two discs, by a master of the genre at the height of his fragile powers. Spanning almost his entire creative life, the Nocturnes amount to a remarkable graph of Chopin's emotional maturity, touchingly reflected in the affectionate care Hewitt brings to what sounds like a labour of love' (The Observer)

'In a catalogue boasting many distinguished Chopin Nocturne cycles, Angela Hewitt's commands attention' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Angela Hewitt is a sound buy … The delicacy of touch and manicured precision of the phrasing is a delight' (The Scotsman)

'Hewitt is not given to grand effects, whether an extreme rubato or rude dynamic change. Still, she can play grandly as well, as we hear on her powerful performance of the great Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor. This new recording of the nocturnes is what Marlon Brando would have called, if he had cared, a contender. It's richly recorded and beautifully played: it has art's final seal' (Fanfare, USA)

Nocturnes & Impromptus

Angela Hewitt takes a well-deserved break from her mammoth Bach and Couperin surveys to present us with this enthralling set of Chopin’s most distinguished piano pieces—the complete Nocturnes and Impromptus.

Between 1830 and 1846 Chopin wrote eighteen Nocturnes that were published more or less in the order in which they were written. By spanning almost his entire creative life, they give us a marvellous opportunity to see not only how his early works were already totally inspired and original, but also how his style and emotional maturity developed through the years.

The four Impromptus date from 1835 to 1842. The title suggests improvisation; they might very well have been conceived as such initially, but we know that Chopin went through agonies when it came to writing a musical idea down. He would often spend six weeks on a page, only to return to what he had written in the first place. You wouldn’t know it listening to these pieces. They are full of vitality and freshness, and carry us along with great fluidity.

Hewitt’s performances are every bit as fresh as one would expect from the pianist hailed as ‘one of the reliably mesmerising musicians of the day’, with ‘the ability to convey a spiritual seriousness that nonetheless does not exclude an utter charm’ (The Sunday Times).

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The life and music of Frédéric Chopin have so often been romanticized beyond recognition that it is easy to forget he was a classicist at heart, who detested affectation, artifice and sentimentality. He worshipped Bach and Mozart above all other composers (it is said that before his own performances he warmed up with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and that was the only score he took with him on his ill-fated journey to Majorca in 1838), yet had little use for the music of his contemporaries (Berlioz, Liszt, Schumann). From Bach he got his love of counterpoint, which he considered the foundation of a good musical education – more important initially than harmony. With Mozart he shared a mastery of delicacy, fluency, refinement and simplicity. It is interesting to realize that when Chopin was born in 1810 Beethoven would live for another seventeen years. Indeed, in certain slow movements of Beethoven (one thinks particularly of those in his First Piano Concerto and the Sonata Op 10 No 1 – strangely enough, both in A flat major) it is easy to sense that Chopin is not far off.

By the time Chopin reached his late teens, he was already the complete artist and a composer with a style so unique that – despite antecedents we might appreciate with historical hindsight – it seemed to come from nowhere. His teachers had been wise in recognizing his gifts and allowing him to discover things on his own. The toast of the aristocracy by the age of eight, he was often asked to perform at the Belvedere in Warsaw, the home of Grand Duke Constantin Pavlovitch, the brother of Tsar Alexander. After one such public appearance, when his mother asked what the public had enjoyed most, he replied ‘My new English collar’. Chopin learned early on how to move in exalted circles and indeed later in life he spent more money on clothes, white gloves and carriages than he did on books and music.

Chopin was probably one of the best things that ever happened to Poland, and yet he left there when he was twenty, never to return. Instead he settled in Paris, where he earned a substantial income teaching, for the most part, wives and daughters of princes and counts, but giving only the occasional public performance. (In his entire career, he gave no more than thirty formal concerts; all of his other appearances were in musical salons.) The songs and dances of the Polish countryside remained a strong influence on his work; but it was the bel canto school of Italian opera that gave him that extra inspiration. In his own teaching, he was always urging his pupils to learn how to sing (and not just with the fingers). La Pasta and the tenor Rubini were two of the famous singers of his day, and his own playing was often likened to their artistry.

We know from the wonderful book Chopin vu par Ses Elèves by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger that Chopin was meticulous with his pupils over the inflection of each phrase, encouraging them to think of a long musical line, and not to cut everything up. He likened bad phrasing to someone reciting a speech that had been memorized with difficulty in an unknown language, stopping in the middle of words. If he really wanted to insult someone (and he could), he would say that he or she ‘didn’t know how to play two notes legato’. Choppy playing he likened to ‘shooting pigeons’. Choosing the right fingering was essential, and he used as much finger substitution as an organist (putting one finger down on a key, only to change silently to another). This no doubt came from his love of Bach, as does his use of baroque fingering (crossing the fourth finger over the fifth instead of using the thumb). He was also a stickler for playing in time, despite the tempo rubato for which he was famous. The left hand was, according to Chopin, the conductor, the right hand having more freedom. Or as Liszt put it poetically to one of his pupils: ‘Do you see those trees? The wind plays in the leaves, life unfolds and develops beneath them, but the tree remains the same – that is the Chopin rubato!’ If a student was taking too long over a ritardando, Chopin would sarcastically say, ‘Please, do sit down!’ His own physical weakness (he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine) meant that his reserves of power were limited, but he was not against others using theirs, as long as they didn’t bang. On the other hand, he was known for his soft playing in all its gradations; never insipid, this was his trademark and what set him apart from the other pianists of his day. Thalberg, another whizz at the keyboard but very different from Chopin, once exclaimed after hearing the latter, ‘I need some noise because I’ve heard nothing but pianissimo all evening’, and shouted all the way home.

One aspect of Chopin interpretation that I feel has been slightly neglected is the question of tempo, most evident in the Nocturnes which of course are all thought to be slow or very slow. This often bothered me as I felt that a dragging tempo did nothing to help sustain and phrase the melodic line (as is the case with Mozart). One day I decided to enforce the metronome markings left by Chopin for the Opp 9, 15 and 27 sets, and found – much to my delight – that they confirmed my suspicion. They are not meant to be all that slow. This changes the character of many of them, and for me adds far more life, poetry and passion. I have only used them, however, as a confirmation of what I already felt, and not as a point of departure. On the other hand, it then seems even more important than ever to play as quietly as possible when called for. The Nocturnes are Chopin at his most intimate. They are secret confessions of the soul.

Before Chopin, the Irish composer and pianist John Field had begun to publish Nocturnes for the piano in 1812, in a way translating vocal serenades into keyboard compositions. They were characterized by a singing melody in the right hand over a widely spaced accompaniment in the left. Looking at them, it is easy to see that he didn’t have Chopin’s gift for melodic invention or harmonic variety. When playing Field’s Nocturnes, Chopin evidently added little flourishes for extra effect. When Liszt did the same with Chopin’s, the latter was not amused. Chopin told him to play it as written or not to play it at all. Liszt retorted, ‘Play it yourself!’ So he did. Liszt gave in, saying ‘Music like yours should not be meddled with.’

Between 1830 and 1846 Chopin wrote eighteen Nocturnes that were published more or less in the order in which they were written. By spanning almost his entire creative life, they give us a marvellous opportunity to see not only how his early works were already totally inspired and original, but also how his style and emotional maturity developed through the years.

I have begun this recording with two separate works that were published posthumously. The Nocturne in C sharp minor was published in 1875 and was not given the title ‘Nocturne’ by Chopin. He wrote it for his sister Ludwika while in Vienna in 1830, telling her to learn it before she practised his Second Concerto (perhaps a mischievous comment?). It does indeed include several references to that work as well as an echo of his song Zyczenie (‘The Wish’). The section beginning at bar 21 was originally written in two different metres simultaneously, no doubt confusing most people, and he later simplified it. This piece has become very popular with students and amateurs, who struggle to put thirty-five notes in the right hand against four in the left in the final scales – a good starting point for what is to come in the rest of the Nocturnes.

The Nocturne in C minor, published in 1938, is not very inspired. Indeed, we wonder if it is by Chopin at all. It could be his own rendering (or rather correction) of a piece written by his future fiancée, Maria Wodzinska, who had studied with John Field. We know that she sent him one of her compositions, but that is all. The autograph manuscript is definitely in Chopin’s handwriting, but the musical content seems lacking. It is, nevertheless, a useful study in having a free-flowing, ornamented melody over a strict bass.

Now we get down to business with the three Nocturnes Op 9, written between 1830 and 1832. They were dedicated to the pianist Camille Pleyel, the son of the piano manufacturer Ignace Pleyel, who made Chopin’s favourite pianos. The three Nocturnes are strikingly different in character. The first, in B flat minor, is sombre and plaintive, though he ends the piece in major mode. The middle section is the most original: a melody presented in octaves with startling and rapid changes of harmony. It builds up to a pedal point (shadows of Bach) where for sixteen bars the harmony stays in D flat major, then chromatically returns to the tonic key. Sonority is of crucial importance here.

The second Nocturne in E flat major is the most famous of all eighteen, and one of Chopin’s ‘Greatest Hits’. It is easy to see why: the charming melody, the relatively facile accompaniment (though its proper execution is far from easy!), the repetitive nature of the piece – all things which make it within the reach of the amateur player. Being a bit too often reminded of its resemblance to two of Field’s Nocturnes in the same key, Chopin added a number of ornamental variants in copies he made for his students, a few of which I have incorporated in this recording. The melody is a perfect example of how he strove to imitate the bel canto singers. He evidently had his students work on the accompaniment using two hands to start off with, so that they would be totally familiar with the harmonies and also distinguish the bass line from the inner chords. I would go as far as to say that the separate study of the left hand in Chopin is as important as in the music of Bach. It holds the piece together, and without being solid the necessary freedom of rhythm and expression cannot be obtained.

The third in the set, in B major, is already much more adventurous and mature. It is marked allegretto and scherzando, two indications which need to be heeded to the letter. Chopin is also incredibly precise with his phrasing and articulation marks, giving us all the indications we need to shape the melody properly. It can drive us to distraction memorizing all the slight variants each time the theme is presented, especially when we think that Chopin himself probably never played it the same way twice. The middle section, a dramatic agitato, turns to the minor key, with a swirling, ominous accompaniment, and syncopated chords in the right hand. A sudden and brief transition brings us back to the major, and a particularly beautiful coda.

When Chopin’s English publisher, Wessel, first brought these pieces out in 1833 he gave them the title ‘Murmures de la Seine’. Chopin was furious, calling him an imbecile. Wessel’s title was no doubt a ploy to get the public to accept music of great sophistication that they might otherwise not have been tempted to buy. Chopin was not the first and by no means the last composer to be subjected to such treatment.

The three Nocturnes Op 15, published in 1833, were dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller, the German pianist, composer and conductor who was one of Chopin’s closest friends during the seven years he lived in Paris. He tells us in his writings how Chopin hardly ever revealed himself in his dealings with people, but that when at the piano, nobody yielded himself so completely as did he, and that his concentration was total. The first one in F major is in A–B–A form, beginning with a disarmingly simple melody over a sustained bass containing triplets to fill out the harmonies. It is a beautiful study in line. The serenity is then interrupted by the middle section which not only throws us into the minor key, but also into high drama and is marked con fuoco (with fire). The second Nocturne of the group, in F sharp major, begins as a delicate arabesque with the right hand floating over a steady bass. The middle section in this case is marked doppio movimento (twice the speed), and uses a right-hand figuration similar to that of his F sharp minor Prelude. At the end, the music shimmers in a haze of F sharp major.

The third Nocturne of this group, in G minor, is not a typical Nocturne at all. In fact, it begins as a mazurka and ends as a chorale. There is no going back to the opening material once it is presented. This is one Nocturne where I think Chopin’s metronome mark is particularly revealing: too slow a tempo makes it impossibly sluggish. It is still possible for it to sound languishing, as Chopin demands, and for the rubato to be used where needed. His harmonic language is rich and expressive, taking us as far away as F sharp major before reaching a chromatic bridge into the religioso section. This is in D minor/F major and in strict four-part writing. A brief return to mazurka rhythm leads us to the close in G major. Chopin originally subtitled it ‘After a performance of Hamlet’, but then removed it, saying ‘Let them guess themselves’. I doubt that anybody would have done so.

The next set, the two Nocturnes Op 27, was published in 1835 and shows an even greater command of his resources. Dedicated to the Countess d’Appony (in whose salon Chopin frequently performed), they are obviously conceived as a pair, the first being in C sharp minor and the second in the enharmonic major, D flat. In the first, the left-hand accompaniment spreads over a wide range, leaving the right hand to oscillate between major and minor (E natural/E sharp). The D natural that is accented in the melody enhances the sombre mood. A most beautiful counterpoint is introduced in bar 17 to fill out the texture. The middle section, which becomes increasingly faster and impassioned, stubbornly reiterates a dotted rhythmic motif over a triplet bass. When the music reaches the key of A flat major, it is triumphant, before it breaks out into a mazurka in D flat major, allowing the player to really let go. A short recitative in octaves in the bass leads us back to the haunting bleakness of the opening, which Chopin nevertheless resolves in the major key.

Its companion piece, the Nocturne Op 27 No 2 is a favourite of performers. If the C sharp minor Nocturne has a feeling of loneliness, then it is complemented by the duet of voices singing lovingly here. The soaring melody is presented three times in different dynamics: first piano and dolce, then pianissimo, and finally fortissimo. The key is rich, and so is the ornamentation; and yet it must all sing with great naturalness and ease. The final cadence, after an ascending scale in sixths in the right hand (seven notes against six in the bass), is wonderfully accepting and at peace.

All of the remaining sets of Nocturnes were published in pairs, with the Nocturnes Op 32 appearing in 1837. The unusual thing about the first one in B major is that the ending, with its sinister, threatening drumbeats and rather angry recitative, comes in complete contrast to the serene beginning. But it also transforms what could be a rather uneventful work into something much more meaningful. The second, in A flat major, was much later incorporated in an orchestral version into Fokine’s ballet Les Sylphides; I admit that this was how I first became acquainted with it so, like it or not, it is forever associated in my mind with the dance. The middle section in particular lends itself to this feeling with its lightly tripping triplets that become increasingly intense and wild, so much so as to bring back the opening theme fortissimo and appassionato. But Chopin gradually calms down, and closes the Nocturne with the same two-bar cadence and reverential gesture with which it opened.

The Nocturnes Op 37 were completed in 1839 by which time Chopin’s affair with the writer George Sand was already a year old. They had met in 1836 when Sand (or rather Aurore Dupin as was her real name) was married but separated from Baron Dudevant. Her love affairs were the talk of Paris, as was her manly appearance and habit of smoking cigars. Chopin was at first repelled by her, and was still thinking that his engagement to Maria Wodzinska might result in marriage (which it didn’t; her family were too concerned about his weak constitution and the suspicious people he frequented in the Parisian salons). When they became reacquainted in 1838, however, the spark was immediate and overwhelming for them both (an immensely long letter from Sand to Chopin’s close friend Grzymala written in June 1838 makes for compelling reading). They spent the next nine years together, although it seems their physical relations didn’t last much more than a year. ‘Little Chip-Chip’, as she called him, produced some of his greatest compositions during their liaison, despite his worsening health. The first Nocturne of Op 37, in G minor, is very vocal, with the lament sung by the soprano in long phrases, and the ornaments becoming increasingly elaborate. Then comes a chorale in E flat major played in the lower half of the keyboard which gives it a dark colour. The lament returns, but, as he has done previously, Chopin chooses to give us a ‘tierce de Picardie’ ending in the major key. This leads us wonderfully into the companion Nocturne in G major. A barcarolle, and a sunny one at that, it is also an étude in double notes. The major problem facing the interpreter is to find a tempo at which the beginning is playable, and the lyrical section with which it alternates doesn’t drag too much, even though it is marked sostenuto. Chopin builds up the tension at the end, pausing on a diminished seventh chord, but then releases it in the most natural of ways. This set was entitled Les Soupirs by Chopin’s publisher in England. How he must have loved being asked to play his ‘Second Sigh’ by English ladies!

The last six Nocturnes are, for me, the greatest of them all, and they show how Chopin had turned the Nocturne into something more than just a charming piano piece. The Nocturnes Op 48 appeared in 1841 and were probably written in the summer months that Chopin spent in George Sand’s chateau in Nohant. The opening of the C minor Nocturne immediately announces something out of the ordinary, with its pendulum-like bass and its melody which, punctuated by rests, is strongly rhetorical. Chopin was, according to his students, impossible to please when playing the opening phrase. Already in the first four bars he wanted to hear a question and an answer. The following section in C major, marked poco più lento and sotto voce, holds back the drama and keeps us in suspense. Gradually things build up with the help of octaves interjected like the rumbling of thunder in the background. When it all comes to a head, the main theme is presented again, but this time with great agitation and over a chordal, triplet accompaniment. Its passionate outburst is maintained almost to the very end, with only the last two bars fading away, but not dispelling the sense of tragedy.

The F sharp minor Nocturne that follows is melancholic but not totally without hope. The flowing outer sections are contrasted by a recitative-like section in which the composer wanted the first two chords to sound like an order from a tyrant, and the answer begging for mercy. The most expressive part of this piece is the final page where the same descending chromatic line appears twice, harmonized differently. The set is dedicated to Mlle Laure Duperré, a student of Chopin.

The next pairing, the Nocturnes Op 55 of 1842–1844, again contain one very good piece with one true masterpiece. The first in F minor begins simply with a swinging bass, but in a quicker tempo than the C minor Nocturne. Things get almost military-sounding in the middle, but not for long; the song-like opening returns, dissolving quickly into triplets that take us to the top of the keyboard, before harp-like chords bring the piece to a close. Then we have the E flat major Nocturne, announced by a solo high B flat in the right hand. The rhapsodic yearning expressed in this work, and the mastery of counterpoint and rhythm that produces it result in a wondrous piece. How far we have come from those early Nocturnes! The long lines, the uninterrupted flow of ideas, the dialogue between the upper voices that is passionate and spontaneous, the fluidity of the left hand while outlining such rich harmonies, and the poetry of it all give us Chopin at his best. The Op 55 Nocturnes were dedicated to Jane Stirling, his Scottish student and admirer.

The Nocturnes Op 62 were composed three years before Chopin’s death, and at the time when his relationship with George Sand was falling apart. All of Parisian society was aghast at the publication of Sand’s novel Lucrezia Floriani, which, although she vehemently denied it, obviously described the breakdown of their relationship. Considering that, it is amazing that these two Nocturnes are so serene. The first, in B major, is as contrapuntal as anything he ever wrote, with the left hand playing a much bigger role than simply accompanying. The phrases seem unending, one overlapping into the next. The middle section is totally operatic, with the melody boldly sustained over syncopated chords. When we return to the opening material, the melody is richly ornamented with trills and flourishes. As with Bach, the ornamentation is not just superimposed, but rather part of the melodic line itself. A short bridge section after an expressive pause wanders gradually back to the tonic. The coda is dream-like and solitary.

The E major Nocturne sounds rich and expressive with its melody sung by a mezzo-soprano rather than a higher voice. In the turbulent middle section the left hand plays a melodic role as well, with the harmonic ‘stuffing’ lying in the inner voices. The return of the calmer section brings with it a good deal of resignation – perhaps what Chopin was feeling at the time.

I have ended my survey of the Nocturnes with the Nocturne in E minor, Op 72 No 1. It was published six years after Chopin’s death and it is still not clear when it was written. Some experts believe it to be among the earliest of his compositions, perhaps dating from 1827. Others believe it to date from the last years of his life (substantiated by Liszt’s claim that the last of his Nocturnes was still in manuscript at the time of his death). The autograph has been lost. The form could certainly be that of an early work, but somehow the melodic material, rather than merely being slightly melancholic, seems to utter a haunting farewell.

The four Impromptus date from 1835 to 1842. The title suggests improvisation; they might very well have been conceived as such initially, but we know that Chopin went through agonies when it came to writing a musical idea down. He would often spend six weeks on a page, only to return to what he had written in the first place. You wouldn’t know it listening to these pieces. They are full of vitality and freshness, and carry us along with great fluidity. Alfred Cortot, the great Chopin interpreter, wrote concerning the Impromptus: ‘The music should in some way seem to be born beneath the pianist’s fingers.’

The Impromptu in A flat major, Op 29 (1837), marked allegro assai, quasi presto, begins with bubbly triplets that, though brilliant, must sing and have direction. The lyrical middle section in F minor has a broad melody which becomes increasingly ornamented. The end is a stroke of genius: a cadential sequence of chords is interrupted by the returning triplets, and then becomes more and more fragmented until it finally comes to rest.

The Impromptu in F sharp major, Op 36 was composed in Nohant during the summer of 1839. It is the most challenging of the four to interpret, both musically and technically. The left hand begins with a walking accompaniment – the melody in the right hand only appearing in the seventh bar. When it does, it seems calm and secure (with a slight tinge of regret passing into A sharp minor). Along with a chordal section, it certainly doesn’t prepare us for what is to come. A dramatic change to D major brings a military-like theme which becomes quite heroic. Then two bars of swift modulation bring us to the unlikely key of F major where the initial theme makes a reappearance, but this time accompanied by triplets. Half way through that, Chopin makes a step up to the tonic key and remains there until the end. But the surprises don’t stop: a sudden flurry of demisemiquavers in the right hand (marked leggiero) is unexpected, leaving the left hand to sing in counterpoint. The chordal passage from the opening brings this imaginative piece to a close.

Chopin’s favourite of these four pieces was the Impromptu in G flat major, Op 51 (1842). It begins rather like the first of the set with triplets in both hands, but is harmonically more adventurous. The ascending scale which appears initially in bar 9 makes our spirits soar. The middle section, however, is what makes this piece very special. The left hand must sing like a cello and capture something of the darkness of the key (E flat minor) while the right hand accentuates the restlessness beneath the surface.

The Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op 66 was published posthumously in 1855 by Chopin’s lifelong friend and fellow musician, Julian Fontana. It is not known why Chopin didn’t publish it himself, but has been suggested that he was a bit too conscious of its resemblance to Moscheles’s Impromptu Op 89. It certainly has become one of his most popular compositions. The outer sections are a moto perpetuo marked allegro agitato. Even in the midst of all those notes, however, there is a melody that sings out clearly. The middle section does indeed have one of those tunes that somebody always puts words to (in this case, ‘I’m always chasing rainbows’), but it is also beautiful in its simplicity. In fact, that is what Chopin sought in the end:

‘Simplicity is everything. After having exhausted all the difficulties, after having played immense quantities of notes and more notes, then simplicity emerges with all its charm, like art’s final seal. Whoever wants to obtain this immediately will never achieve it: you can’t begin with the end. One has to have studied a lot, even tremendously, to reach this goal; it is no easy matter.’

Angela Hewitt © 2004

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