The Piano Files

Historical Recordings of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2

Great pianists' different approaches to this famous work open up a world of interpretative possibilities.
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Chopin Nocturne 9

Our previous postings have explored the individuality that the pianists who were trained in the 19th and early 20th centuries brought to their performances. Rather than aiming for a uniform approach with one standardized ‘ideal’ interpretation, artists of these generations sought to merge with compositions in order to bring out the richness of the work without withholding their personal perspectives.

One would certainly not expect an actor to monotonously deliver all of the lines from the script without any personal interpretation — as I stated in my introduction to historical recordings video, it would be incredibly boring if each actor were to intone Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in exactly the same meter, at the same volume, with the same emphasis. These words can be spoken in many different ways that can reveal the meaning behind them.

And so it is with music. Even while maintaining the relative note values of a musical phrase, there are subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that these can be varied — particularly when a pattern is being repeated throughout the work. One can adjust not just timing but also dynamics (loudness/softness), tonal quality, and other nuances such as the fluidity or articulation of the phrasing. It would be exceedingly boring if each artist played a given work the same way — indeed, this concept was alien to performers trained in the eras whose music today’s performers approach in this very way… how ironic!

Comparing the recordings of several pianists playing the same work can reveal the varied ways one can follow the score while still bringing personal touches to a piece. Historical recordings of works by Chopin are particularly fascinating, as this composer’s output was so ideally suited towards a range of expressive devices, such as timing, dynamics, pedaling, and tonal color. Expanding on the example of the famous Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat Major Op. 9 No. 2 that I introduced in the video in my first post is a fine opportunity to explore this concept in more detail; as I could only feature about a minute of three versions in that video, I thought I’d include the full performances that I introduced there, plus a couple more, to allow for a more in-depth experience of the rich interpretative possibilities that different pianists can bring to this beautiful piece of music.

As I suggested in my video presentation, if you sing along with the pianist, perhaps silently (or out loud if you feel like it), you’ll be able to tell exactly where they are slowing down or speeding up, getting louder or softer, and adding effects by adjusting the tone or pedaling. You can notice these changes just by listening, but if singing along, you’ll feel the shifts more acutely and can notice how these might vary from your own expectations. In all of these performances, the pacing of the rhythm is different, even though you can recognize that the pattern is the same, and the dynamics, tonal quality, depth/lightness of touch, and other factors all vary as well, making each interpretation unique.

Let’s start with Sergei Rachmaninoff, who gives quite a slow and deep reading of this piece. I was intrigued when I played this recording for a group of university students. They said they were surprised at how his rubato (adjustment of timing to add expression) was implemented. It seemed exaggerated to their ears. (I asked whether today’s playing might sound exaggerated to Chopin’s or Rachmaninoff’s ears, and the students suddenly ‘got’ the relativity of their personal preferences.) Rachmaninoff was born in the same century as Chopin — a quarter-century after his death, in fact — and while that doesn’t mean he played like him, he was certainly trained in a tradition far closer to Chopin’s than to ours. His beautiful 1927 performance features a deeply forged melodic line, and he slows down quite expansively at transition points in the work and at key moments in phrases.

Rachmaninoff’s favorite pianist was Josef Hofmann, whose 1937 concert performance couldn’t be more different: he plays it about a minute faster (in a short work like this that’s a 20% difference), a speed that would be almost unimaginable today. His lightness of phrasing and directness of approach can seem emotionally detached to modern ears, but this is very much like a singer delivering the melody in a clear and unadulterated way. Once again, if you sing along, you’ll notice some remarkable adjustments to timing and nuance. His trills and accents are also quite surprising to modern ears, as are some of the secondary voices he highlights, something he does to make the work sound like a vocal duet. His approach to the elaborate passagework is also different from anyone else’s, not done in a pedaled haze like most artists’ readings — I won’t say any more so that you can experience it ‘fresh’!

British pianist Solomon (he went by his first name) is not remembered as being an exponent of Chopin’s music as he left behind more recordings of Beethoven and Brahms, but his readings of the Polish composer’s works are sublime. His dreamy account of this Nocturne is incredibly consistent in dynamics, tonal color (what a bell-like sonority!), and rhythm, which allows any nuance to have more impact. A slow and truly hypnotic performance of exceptional refinement and beauty.

Alfred Cortot studied with Chopin’s pupil Émile Descombes and is still revered for his Chopin performances. He played with a tone that was almost aromatic in nature and with a personal style of rubato, just as Hofmann and Rachmaninoff had theirs. His 1949 recording of this work was made as he was entering the last decade of his long career and captures his rich sonority and sumptuous nuancing beautifully — and his inimitable timing is a marvel.

One of the most fascinating accounts of this work was made by Raoul Koczalski, who had lessons with Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli. In 1938 Koczalski produced a record whose label says “with authentic Chopin variants” in which we can hear quite a few extrapolations that are not in the printed score. Apparently, Mikuli had once heard Chopin play the work this way and took note of these additions, passing them along to Koczalski, who left them for posterity in this remarkable recording. While we cannot expect that Chopin would have played the work this way every time — and we do not need to imitate this, not having been trained in the same way — it is fascinating to hear an account that comes directly from Chopin’s lineage and that more clearly demonstrates that the printed text was not necessarily the composer’s final statement about a composition.

With these five great pianists, we hear five radically different interpretations of the same piece — and all of them are wonderful in their own way. Despite all the individuality in these performances, I am not suggesting that these pianists just did anything they felt like and that ‘anything goes’ is the philosophy we should adopt today. There were very clear parameters for how these artists employed their timing adjustments, for example: where in a phrase they did so, and how they varied tonal color and dynamics along with the timing, as opposed to just pacing itself. Attentive listening is required to fully comprehend the logic behind these artists’ choices and the skill with which they were employed.

What glorious inspiration these recordings provide, and how fortunate we are to be able to hear them!


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