I have never really sat down and listened through the Chopin Nocturnes in one sitting. I have them all in my collection, most of them in lots of versions, but to date not a complete set. Now this marvellous set pops into my lap! Listening through the complete set in one sitting is eye-opening in a way; it is easy to forget what a world of invention and drama Chopin explores in these mine-epics, what contrasts of light and dark, hope and despair, calm and clamour are found in their relatively short spans. Their form is that of an advanced song without words but other forms peep from within their pages; Op 15 No 3 is virtually a mazurka while the central sections of the other two Op 15 Nocturnes are études, a title that could easily also be applied to the lilting G major Nocturne, Op 37 No 2 or the spinning song agitato section of Op 9 No 3. The simple lyricism of the popular E flat Nocturne from Op 9 contrasts with the polyphonic writing found in the final examples that he wrote, notably Op 62 No 2. Hough describes these pieces as the opera arias that Chopin failed to write for the voice and their utter lyricism combined with such drama, passion and invention certainly serves to confirm this idea.
What a joy it is to explore this wonderful music through Stephen Hough's playing. He brings a marvellous flow to the melodies, with speeds generally on the brisker side, happily banishing wayward sentimentality. In Op 15 No 3 this brings out the dance-like nature of the piece and emphasises the surging drama of the central sections of Op 9 No 3, Op 27 No 1 or Op 55 No 1. From the first note this is magisterial playing with incredibly well balanced sound, miraculously graded dynamics and nothing forced or distorted. Evident in bars 18 to 22 of Op 48 No 2 is a subtle sense of rubato that is exactly how I imagine rubato should work; that almost imperceptible sense of disconnect between melody and accompaniment with neither part lagging or pushing but truth to tell this subtlety is in evidence throughout the set. He makes judicious use of tone colour whether that is in the chorale of Op 15 No 3 whose weightless hymn tune sings effortlessly over the simplicity of the bass line or in the first appearance of the slowly unfolding melody of Op 27 No 1, marked sotto voce in my score which is just that, a hushed and veiled iteration that only comes into its own at its second appearance in bar 19 where it is joined in duet. It's companion, the D flat Nocturne Op 27 No 2, is a wonderful barcarolle under Hough's fingers and it is here that we can point to his choice of decoration. Most performers of Chopin's time had the ability to decorate a passage on the spot or at least to have something up their sleeve to produce on demand; this was often expected though whether it was always needed or not is another question. The vast number of variants that singers would come up with probably had many composers despairing at their inability to recognise their own melodies under such a welter of decoration. Chopin, aware that many of his pupils' improvisatory abilities were little to none and wanting to at least try to avoid the potential for banal and tasteless embellishment, was wont to write new decorative passages into their scores. These new and mostly composer-authorised variants made their way into published editions even in Chopin's lifetime and Hough has made a judicious choice from different editions; in Op 27 No 2 this is a small arabesque in bar 22 and a repeated high note rather than the long held note in bar 28 and in Op 9 No 1 the octave passage at bar 45 is given a little extra passion. He also helpfully gives us a second version of Op 9 No 2 that includes just a few more examples of these alternative arabesques; for the most part they are slightly more extended versions of decoration already written in or passing notes joining two notes of a melodic line but the final cadenza is extended with the kind of shimmering cascade that Liszt was fond of, albeit somewhat less extrovert. Some of the variants here can be heard in a 1938 disc recorded by Raoul von Koczalski, a Polish pianist who plays with authentic Chopin variants, presumably taken from the edition published by Koczalski's teacher, the Chopin pupil Karol Mikuli (1821-1897) (available on Marston Records 530162).
In the quest for completeness Hyperion include the early, and deservedly popular Nocturne in C sharp minor, composed as a wedding gift for his sister Ludwika which references two of his compositions of which she was particularly fond, the F minor Concerto and Zyczenie from his songs. Then there is the C minor Nocturne that appears to actually be by his pupil Charlotte de Rothschild (1825-1899); it is close enough to his style that he perhaps helped in its composition and there are manuscripts of it in Chopin's hand. Finally there is the Nocturne oubliée, published in Russia with Chopin's name attached though the actual composer is unknown. This lyrical and touching pastiche is actually quite welcome here; certainly I have heard far, far worse attempts to copy the Polish master's style and Hough plays it as if it were the real thing.
This goes into my recordings of the year pile. Hough plays with an elegance and suppleness that sounds as natural as breathing, every melodic line played with a weightless touch that belies the percussive nature of the instrument and decorative flourishes very often sounding like a spontaneous creations. I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this set.