Yet again, one dead guy playing another’s music (I promise a return to the living after this): The Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), as recorded in 1977 and 1978 by Claudio Arrau (1903-1991). Each of the last three (this, Mozart/Brain, and Bach/Kremer) are fine music which has been recorded by many fine performers, but where I never bothered checking any other performances out after hearing the record in question. The Nocturnes have no raw edges, no starkness, but are ravishingly romantic and irresistibly pretty, while still being involving and deep. They’re nocturnal all right; two solid hours of sweet dark-brown ebb and flow, bedtime music for sure. (“5★♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

The Context · I have really nothing new to add about either Chopin or Arrau. I understand there are people who don’t like Chopin, finding it too busy or too melodramatic or whatever; hard for me to understand. It may not be true that Chopin never used one note where twenty-seven could be fit in, but nobody would call him economical with ink on music paper.

I find it doesn’t bother me; I like minimalism as much as the next man, but I’ve always found that Frédéric got it about right. I will say this, though: while I love watching a hotshot virtuoso like Yundi Li rip up the Chopin live, it’s this slow stuff that I listen to again and again. Probably because in a Nocturne, there just has to be space between all those notes.

Frédéric Chopin


I visited Chopin’s grave once, in Père Lachaise Cemetery. It still had flowers, lots of them and fresh ones. This was in 1991; Yves Montand had just died and I think his was the only grave with more flowers than Frédéric’s.

Claudio Arrau


Arrau was uncontroversial, a child prodigy at age five and busily recording more or less into his grave. I have his Beethoven Apassionata, which I’m very fond of, and in poking around to prepare this piece, discovered you can watch that on YouTube; worth checking out I’d say.

Arrau plays Chopin’s Nocturnes

The Music · There are twenty-one Nocturnes, scattered fairly evenly through the years of Chopin’s composing career. They get progressively free-er and darker and, it must be said, weirder. One wonders what strange territory Chopin would have explored if he’d lived another decade or four.

There’s a lot to like about them. The opening notes of the opening piece, written in Chopin’s twenties, reach out like a hand, inviting you in. There are flows of melodic gold, sparkles of diamond arpeggiation, snarls of low-note molasses, and always a feeling of endless legato flow, music pouring through the night, as much as you could ever want to listen to.

I have to be careful how late I start listening to this, because I almost always end up listening to both CDs, end to end. How could you walk away from this much beauty? I find a small scotch adds to the enjoyment, but don’t have two or you’ll get all weepy that the music has to end.

Sampling It · The disk is still on sale, new, at Amazon. I bet there are tons of used ones if you poke around, and I must observe that neither Frédéric nor Claudio will miss the royalties. But do get the shiny disk, the sound is at once huge and intimate, and I don’t think MP3’s really go there.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward (Nov 26 2007, at 10:05)

For many Chopin sounds like out of left field because his sound is so original. But you could be extremely suprised to find out how much like Chopin, John Field sounded like (and before Chopin). There are several recordings that feature the piano music of the inventor of the nocturne.


From: peter keane (Nov 26 2007, at 20:39)

Arrau is a beautiful player, although I occasionally find he can be a wee bit too romantic (lush? willfully slow?). Artur Rubinstein's traversal of Chopin's nocturnes display an amazing balance of mood & sentiment (which the Nocturnes are chock full of) without any of the dreaminess/sentimentality that you sometimes hear with pieces. Highly recommended. Meanwhile I'll check out the Arrau (I have not heard these). Among other things, Philips got a hell of piano sound with Arrau.


From: David Bergin (Nov 26 2007, at 22:17)

Tim, not sure whether you intended for it to be read like this or not - but the introduction above makes it sound like Gidon Kremer is dead, whereas in fact he's alive (aged 60). Great series by the way.


From: Mark Alexander (Nov 28 2007, at 12:03)

I fell in love with Arrau's Nocturnes when I was doing a horrible commute in the early 90s and needed some stress-relief music. This did the trick. I listened to these CDs almost every day for several months, and never got tired of them.

I had also started playing the piano again a couple of years before that, and the Arrau recordings inspired me to learn a bunch of the Nocturnes, eventually seven in all. I still play four of them regularly (the F sharp, the D flat, the terribly difficult C minor, and the E major).


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