A New Reference Recording for the Chopin Nocturnes – Stephen Hough

First of all, sorry for my long absence, there was just too much going on in my day job. I even skipped my traditional section “reflections on the Gramophone awards”.

The Chopin Nocturnes

Which of the many works of Chopin are his true masterpiece? The Etudes, the Préludes, the Sonatas, Scherzi, or even the Mazurkas that Chopin cherished so much? As always, these things are impossible to judge objectively.

But I know which ones are my favourite: The Nocturnes. They are simple enough that even I with my very limited piano skills could try to play some of them (I’d butcher them…), but they have such a melodic charm and such an intimacy to them, that if I’d have to live with only one category of his works, this would be it. It is clearly inspired by Belcanto, and as I’ve written many times here, I’m a sucker for beautiful melodies.

Has Chopin invented the Nocturne? Almost certainly not, it is a much older category, and even the solo piano one was invented by Irish composer John Fields according to some musicologists.

But Chopin truly mastered this category, which by the way, unlike the Préludes and the Etudes, aren’t just one or two large collection of works, but actually a lot of smaller collections of 2-3 Nocturnes per opus.

So the way we listen to them today, as one end-to-end album experience, probably wasn’t something that a lot of people would have heard during Chopin’s lifetime, given that they were written over a period of nearly 20 years.

I’ve already written about my favourite version of the Nocturnes, in the legendary Supraphon recording by Ivan Moravec, which also features in my Top 10 Chopin albums and my 25 Essential Classical Albums.

I’ve also mentioned the other legendary version, by Maria-Joao Pires, have reviewed Fazil Say’s recent recording. Beyond Moravec and Pires, there are other legendary classics like Rubinstein obviously, Claudio Arrau, or Nelson Freire.

So I wasn’t really searching for yet another Nocturnes recording. But then I read that Stephen Hough had released on the Hyperion label.

Until recently, Stephen wasn’t even fully on my radar screen. I had heard his name as a great pianist, of course, but I hadn’t really listened to many of his recordings yet.

This is mainly due to the fact that Hyperion, his record label, still categorically refuses to be streamed anywhere. While I can understand their reluctance, given how little streaming revenues must mean to any classical label, it just really doesn’t help discovery.

Chopin: Noctures – Stephen Hough (Hyperion 2021)

Chopin Noctures Stephen Hough Hyperion Records 2021 24/192

The first album that I truly appreciated Stephen Hough is his recording of a collection of works I particularly care about, Brahms’ Late Piano pieces. I already had several recordings of this that I considered to be my absolute references, including Volodos, but then I read several reviews of Stephen Hough’s recording, bought it blindly, and was blown away.

So when I read another outstanding review of this recording by Jed Distler on classicstoday.com, I just went ahead and shelled out the GBP26, without thinking too much.

I was glad I did. Very much like with the Brahms above, Hough just finds something new to say about these works that are so familiar, so often played, without ever feeling like he had to force himself to do something different (which was one of my issues with the recent Say recording).

The entire playing sounds so natural, light, and charming (in the most positive sense of the word), that when you listen to this you’re kind of wondering how these little masterpieces could ever have been played in a different way. Take one of my favourites, op. 37 No. 2. So deceivingly simple, it could be mistaken as a Children’s lullaby. But when you listen closely, in spite of all the apparent ease in which Hough takes this, you’ll see all the depth and complexity underlying this little gem of a song.

I’d go as far that if you buy only one classical piano album in 2021, this should be the one (And yes, I still plan to do my top albums of the year post in the coming days, this one is already set).

I should probably at some point add Hough to my Top 10 Favorite Pianists.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion)

Fazil Say´s Chopin Nocturnes – Charming

Fazil Say

Fazil Say, a classical pianist from Turkey usually doesn’t leave people cold. Its often a love it or hate it affair.

The first time I heard Fazil was in a duo with a similarly polarising artist, Patricia Kopachinskaya, playing the Beethoven sonatas. It was clearly a memorable concert. And while fro Kopachinskaya I really don´t like everything she does, I really admire her artistic courage and ambition. She´s always in there with all her heart.

Fazil Say seems also quite emotional, but at least from his performances, his emotions typically translate into very sensitive playing, whether he plays Western classical music, or his own compositions.

I omitted to write about his great recent complete Mozart sonatas cycle recording, which I can really recommend you check out. There is not one boring moment in there.

So I was really intrigued when Say released his very recent Chopin Nocturnes album.

Chopin: Nocturnes – Fazil Say (Warner 2017)

Chopin: Nocturnes - Fazil Say 24/96 Warner Classics 2017

As expected, it is a beautiful recording. You get Say´s characteristic playfulness, sensitivity, interesting play with beautiful rubato.

The feeling you get is of a warm Mediterranean summer night. Chopin being one of the first tourists on Mallorca comes to mind, and Franz Liszt claimed the Nocturnes were inspired by Italian Bel Canto. Both very much apply here.

These are nuanced, intelligent interpretations. The only reproach I have is sometimes the tempi feel a bit fast.

Overall, Moravec´s legendary version not under threat of being kicked of the throne, but Say´s version is very much worth exploring. Recommended!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (HDTracks).

UPDATE Oct 1, 2017: Classic agrees, and gives this album 4 stars as well.

My Favorite Versions of Chopin’s Nocturnes

Another post on Chopin? Why not, given that the Chopin competition in Warsaw is going on right now, and I’ve mentioned in my previous post on the Préludes how important this competition is.

The Nocturnes

Furthermore, I’ve just had an interesting discussion on the Nocturnes on a forum, which triggered me to listen to several of my Nocturnes again.

The Nocturnes actually are not one single opus, they are individual or coupled words Chopin wrote over nearly 20 years. They share however a common character,  not surprisingly, nocturnal.

Chopin is the name everybody associates with this “genre” these days, but actually other composers (e.g. the Irishman John Fields) have used this title previously.

They are less focused on virtuosity and glamour, but are much more intimate. So you don’t need all the pianistic firepower to shine here, you need delicacy and insight.

Moravec

The are many good recordings out there. Rubinstein has recorded them at least 3 times (my preferred version dates from the 1930s), the Chopin legend Samson François has done a version, Claudio Arrau, Nelson Freire, and many others are worth considering.

However, my personal favorites are Ivan Moravec and Maria  Joao Pires.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

Moravec’s Nocturnes are legendary, are rightfully so. I’ve never heard the Nocturnes played with more intensity and emotion. The recording is from the 1960s with only average sound quality but you’ll quickly for get that listening to this album. Just outstanding.

Chopin The Nocturnes Maria Joao Peres Deutsche Grammophon

I haven’t been very friendly to Pires in my recent review of her album with Gardiner, but there  is absolutely no fault to be found with this recording. Less intense then Moravec, but even more intimate. You feel like you’re sitting at home late at night in front of your fireplace, having a nice glass of wine in your hand, and she’s in the room playing just for you. This is the image that ever always comes up when I listen to her version.

I wouldn’t want to miss either one of these two outstanding recordings.
My rating for both albums: 5 stars

You can find the remastered Moravec here (Prestoclassical).

classical life

A classical music blog by music critic Tim Mangan

This Week's Music

Making Classical Accessible

From my Macbook to the Net

Evaporation of my thoughts and observations

Elestra

Author: Artienne

My Life in Music

Piano Teaching, Playing, Singing and Listening

ArsX3

A brand new journal reviewing books, cinema, music

LawrenceEz's Blog

Creative and Performing Arts: Writing, Classical Music, Photography

Laetitia Strauch-Bonart

Contemporary Politics & Culture

sibling revelry

reveling in all things classical

It's A Raggy Waltz

I collect jazz on vinyl, I dig the Dave Brubeck Quartet, & I write about it

La Musica

By two cousins

Music Enthusiast - At the junction of rock, blues, R&B, jazz, pop,and soul

#𝟏𝟐𝟖 208 Top Music Blogs To Follow in 2022, #𝟓0 Top 80 American Music Blogs 2021, #𝟗𝟒 Top 200 Most Influential Music Blogs 2019, 𝐓𝐨𝐩 𝟐𝟎 Music Blogs 2019 (no ranking).

thejazzbreakfast

Dishing it out from the heart of England

only jazz

random thoughts about music that matters to me

Le Corso del Destino

a journey in classical music

The Culture Project

Exploring the world of literature, wine, art, music and more.

René Spencer Saller

The music causes me to dream of fabulous empires, filled with fabulous sins.

The High Arts Review

Βιβλία, ταινίες, μουσική

Breaking Baroque

Blog of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir

Tasting Nirvana

Eating your Dosha

The Immortal Jukebox

A Blog about Music and Popular Culture

April Greene

Writer + Editor

a pianist's musings

A history of your favorite classical music.

Classical music for all

Boris Giltburg's blog

%d bloggers like this: