Notes and Editorial Reviews
Elizabeth Leonskaja is well-known as a pianist and chamber musician, most especially in the music of Schubert, although she has also recorded a good deal of Chopin and Brahms. She was the chosen duet-partner of the late Sviatoslav Richter. The discs under review here comprise all twenty-one of the Chopin nocturnes. The set was originally recorded in the Teldec studios in Berlin for Decca in 1991-2 and released in 1997. They are re-released here on Warner’s Apex label with notes by the Chopin expert Jeremy Siepmann.
While Chopin adopted the “concept” of the nocturne from John Field, he expanded it to fit his own needs. Even more importantly his nocturnes as a whole represent a conspectus of Chopin’s entire career with the
Op.72 No. 1 dating from the composer’s seventeenth year - in spite of its high opus number - and the two pieces of Op.62 being succeeded in his output only by the Cello Sonata and the last waltzes and mazurkas. Given both the technical resourcefulness of the composer’s writing and the challenge of playing almost two dozen “slow” pieces, the nocturnes as a set have not appealed to as many pianists as the mazurkas or polonaises. Of the dozen or so sets currently available, there is a wide range in approach from the romanticism and technical virtuosity found in the Rubinstein (see review) and the multi-varied Barenboim collections to the more restrained productions of Pollini and Ascoli (see review), not to mention Hewitt (see review). Leonskaja cannot be said to fall into either of these camps, preferring to draw little attention to her technique while maintaining a steady rhythmic pulse and essaying subtle emotional variation. A few examples will suffice.
The two nocturnes of Op. 48 show Leonskaja’s graduated approach at its best with beautifully wrought contrasts of material. This is in great contrast to the more gripping approach of Rubinstein and Barenboim, where one is swept along too quickly to notice details on such a level. In the Op. 55, Leonskaja’s approach again compares well with the more spirited approach of much of the competition. However, in some of the earlier nocturnes (Opp. 27, 32, 37) I much preferred the slightly more classical approach of Angela Hewitt, whose particular style fits the works from this period in the composer’s career extremely well. Similarly Ascoli’s performance of the same works has a drive that Leonskaja is lacking. Again, Leonskaja’s approach is for those seeking subtle shadings and textual fidelity, not Cornel Wilde.
As noted above, this recording is almost twenty years old. The recording has not in itself dated too badly, certainly not enough to recommend against its purchase on this count. I do not have the original release available but it seems as if the “studio sound” and lack of verisimilitude date back to the original tapes and not to anything that has occurred since. However, as an original interpretation of the nocturnes by someone with a consistent view of the totality of the twenty-one pieces in this form, and at a budget price, this set can definitely be recommended.
-- William Kreindler, MusicWeb International
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