Aptly described by musicologist Jim Samson as ‘the music of a sad smile’, Chopin’s Nocturnes inhabit—for all their central, B-section storms—a world of dreamy melancholy. But as a particularly rich discography of the complete Nocturnes reminds us, the great interpreters of this music never confuse the melancholic with the sentimental. Stephen Hough is even more ‘objective’ than most while bringing pianistic poise to everything and breathing with lines that trace their ancestry to the bel canto aria. Where they exist, Chopin’s own metronome markings are his guide, with the result that his performances are also slightly swifter than many. Very occasionally, this might lead you to want more contrast between the pieces, but no one could feel shortchanged by the radiant beauty Hough brings out in the early opus numbers, or the way in which he builds up the solemn march of the C minor Nocturne, Op 48 No 1, with its tempestuous middle section.
As anyone who follows the playing of this leading British pianist will know, Hough is fastidious about ornamentation and his attention to decorative detail is one of the hallmarks of this set. One of the last Nocturnes Chopin wrote, Op 62 No 1 is distinguished by the reprise of its main theme being ornamented entirely in trilled notes—an original touch that requires and receives extra virtuosity from the pianist.
Hyperion’s new release offers a fuller-than-usual assortment of the posthumously published Nocturnes and those of dubious authorship, and Hough adds the embellished version of Op 9 No 2 as a perfectly judged encore.