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.
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.
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.
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.