Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sonata No. 3. Nocturnes,
Maria João Pires (pn); Pavel Gomziakov (vc)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 001302202 (2 CDs: 126:23)
I’ve been such a fan of Maria João Pires’s Chopin nocturnes—and they seem so current—that I was surprised to remind myself that they are now over a decade old. I went to the newly recorded nocturnes on the first disc of this welcome collection and heard performances that differed in nuances but demonstrated equally Pires’s warmth of tone and gentle lyricism. She sounds, unlike many of the Chopin players I admire, particularly relaxed: the faster passages in op. 64/2, including the right hand trills, seem just to happen naturally in the music. In an interesting interview included in the notes here, Pires describes her playing as a stroll through late Chopin. She is being modest. These performances are beautifully expressive; there’s nothing casual about them. One might be surprised at the gentleness of the
, or the wistful playfulness of the second waltz of op. 64, but those qualities seem to emerge from the music itself. I can imagine some listeners who would prefer the opening of the Sonata No. 3 to be more icily dramatic than what we have here. Pollini comes to mind. Pires offers an equally valid interpretation that is not without its tension. The Cello Sonata with the vibrant young cellist Pavel Gomziakov is a special treat. Less bold than the Yo-Yo Ma with Emmanuel Ax, this performance has become an instant favorite, alongside the Paul Tortelier (with Ciccolini) and the Janos Starker (with Sebok). This collection is, as expected from this pianist, a delight.
FANFARE: Michael Ullman
"One of the pleasures of Deutsche Grammophon’s two-disc set is its precise focus. There’s nothing but late Chopin, from the last five years of his life, when he distilled and transcended his earlier effusions, opening up his art to the music of the future. We begin with the Sonata No 3 and end with his final piece, the F minor Mazurka. In between come other mazurkas, nocturnes and waltzes. And the Cello Sonata, played with Pavel Gomziakov — slightly unvarying in tone, but favoured by Pires for his playing’s austerity and nobility.
Pires’s own approach is devoid of the flashy ornament, the excited rampage. Listen how subtly she handles the Sonata, highlighting the interior dramas, flecking its turbulent motions with heart-catching tiny rubatos. This is playing of total clarity and refinement. The performance of the Op 61 Polonaise-Fantasie is another wonder: poetic, inward-looking, cast in a spirit of reverie."
-- Geoff Brown, Times Online (UK) [5/29/2009]
“I can’t think of a pianist with a more ideal command of Chopin’s style. Pires trips through the roulades with filigree dexterity, but her tone is so thoughtful, serious and weighty that they arrive with immense emotional profundity.”
-- The Times (London)
"Pires is a remarkable artist, her limpid tone fueled by emotional intensity and graced with a spectrum of colour and touch that brings a freshness and magic to everything she plays."
-- Daily Telegraph (London)
Any new release from Maria João Pires is cause for celebration as far as I’m concerned. For Deutsche Grammophon, Chopin specialist Pires has personally chosen a number of works from the years 1844-49. This selection is what she describes as a stroll through Chopin’s late period. She singles out the Sonata No.3 for special praise and considers it a very important work, “one that I have always regarded as a point of departure - a door opening on to a new awareness of things on Chopin's part”.
The four movement Sonata for piano No 3 in B minor, Op. 58 from the summer of 1844 was completed six years after the renowned B flat-minor Sonata No. 2. Dedicated to the Countess Emilie de Perthuis it was published in 1845. It certainly receives less attention than the Sonata No. 2 that is famous for its third movement Marche funèbre. Rubinstein biographer Harvey Sachs considers the Sonata No. 3, “…as one of the pinnacles of Chopin’s art and one of the greatest of all post-Beethovenian sonatas.” (from the booklet notes to vol. 46 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026-63046-2). Compared to the Sonata No.2 Pires feels the third Sonata, “may seem more tightly controlled, but it is in fact profoundly chaotic: there's an energy here that rises and falls incessantly as if Chopin were recalling past struggles and was using them to leap forwards to an entirely new logic.” Chopin biographer Arthur Hedley expresses the view that, “Its four movements contain some of the finest music ever written for the piano” (‘Chopin’ Arthur Hedley, Dent, 1974).
The B minor Sonata opens with an Allegro maestoso movement blessed by its richness of ideas. Pires plays with a level of aching tenderness that I have rarely encountered. I love the way Pires doesn’t get carried away with her tempi remaining in control of the movement’s conclusion. The tiny Scherzo marked Molto vivace with its contrasting central section is an exercise in virtuosity. In the nocturne-like Largo the intensity of the moods swiftly alter like shifting desert sands. An underlying veil of tenderness is never over-emphasised. Within the intense sadness there is an occasional glimpse of optimism. Notwithstanding this beautiful music must surely represent a failed love affair. With the rapidly delivered Finale marked Presto, non tanto I was at times struck by the strong Beethovenian spirit of the writing. The energetic Pires hurtles through this proud and intrepid Sonata-Rondo to provide an exhilarating conclusion.
There are several fine versions of the Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor in the catalogues that I have cut down to three highly recommendable versions. Firstly there is the powerful and dramatic performance from the great Chopin master Artur Rubinstein. For me this is a peerless performance and one of the finest of Rubinstein achievements in the recording studio. Recorded in 1961 at New York City and digitally re-mastered the Rubinstein account is on vol. 46 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026-63046-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor; Fantaisie, Op. 49; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Berceuse, Op. 57).
I remain a fond admirer of the beautiful played and dramatic version of the B minor Sonata by Maurizio Pollini. Recorded in the Munich Herkulessaal in 1984; the disc is on Deutsche Grammophon 415 346-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor).
As an alternative to the established names I have also chosen a splendid recent version of the B minor Sonata from one of the younger generation performers, the Argentinean pianist Ingrid Fliter. It is an interpretation that combines youthful enthusiasm with a sensitivity and thoughtfulness of considerable maturity. Fliter made her recording at the Potton Hall, Suffolk, England in 2007 on EMI Classics 5 14899 2 (c/w Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor; 3 Mazurkas, Op. 58; Barcarolle, Op.60; 3 Waltzes, Op.64 and Grande Valse Brillante, Op.18).
Pires has selected a number of late-period piano scores from several of the forms that Chopin became famous for developing. Chopin wrote twenty-one nocturnes. He took John Field’s concept of the nocturne and adapted it to a more sophisticated form that he popularised and perfected. Pires has chosen the opus 62 pair of nocturnes from 1846 remarking upon the dissonances they contain. The first nocturne, a dreamy and sentimental B major Andante is a glorious tone painting and the sweet tenderness of the second E major nocturne marked Lento is broken by gusts of emotional turmoil and anxiety.
Chopin took the mazurka, a Polish national dance, and turned it into a piano form. His fifty-one mazurkas are undoubtedly one of the finest achievements in the whole piano repertoire. It is a common assertion that Chopin poured out more of his nationalist ardour into the mazurka than into any other of his works. Pires has chosen first the set of 3 Mazurkas opus 59 from 1845. The first two Mazurkas a Moderato in A minor and the second an A flat major Allegretto are stately dance infused pieces. Last in the set is the F sharp minor Mazurka a Vivace inhabiting the mischievous atmosphere of a coltish chase.
The opus 63 set of 3 Mazurkas was completed in 1846. I found the B major Vivace even-tempered and there was a pensiveness to the F minor Lento; almost a sense of preoccupation. Often said to be Chopin’s greatest Mazurka the final work of the set, the Allegretto in C sharp minor is a tender piece of a highly amenable temperament.
From the opus 67 set of 4Mazurkas Pires has selected two pieces. The second Mazurka is a short and outwardly confident G minor Cantabile written in 1848/9 with its repressed sense of melancholy. Composed earlier in 1846 the fourth piece an Allegretto in A minor is communicated by the soloist with utmost grace and a judicious touch of seriousness. Pires has chosen just one from the opus 68 set of Mazurkas the last of the four an F minor Andantino from 1848/49. Clearly the score made a significant impression on Pires remarking, “I am always as amazed as I am moved by the chromaticism.” From close to the end of his life this F minor piece is one Chopin’s last scores to be written maybe even the final one. I can feel how Pires imbues a sadness to her interpretation also sensing a temperament of deep regret.
The polonaise originated from a national Polish dance taken at a moderately fast pace. Chopin popularised the form writing 16 polonaises. Pires has selected a single dance the Polonaise-fantaisie in A flat major, Op. 61 that Chopin completed in 1846. In Pires’s interpretation I was struck by a profusion of contrasting colours ranging from the passive to the passionate and the vulnerable to the virile.
The waltz is a popular form probably derived from the Austrian Ländler a folk dance usually in 3/4 time. In the waltz Chopin developed his own inimitable and memorable style going on to write seventeen such examples. Chopin was it seems cautious about the waltzes that he wanted in the public arena only authorising the publication of eight of them. Pires observes a certain Schubertian character to the 3 Waltzes from the opus. 64 group that were late works completed in 1847. In particular the temperament of Schubert conspicuously found in the most frequently played C sharp minor Waltz.
The first work of the opus 64 set is the ubiquitous Waltz marked Molto vivace in D flat major universally known as the ‘minute waltz’. With Peres’s nimble and compelling playing one can easily imagine the often stated representation of a dog chasing his tail. The second piece in C sharp minor marked Tempo giusto is noble and stately crammed with reserves of restless energy and the final of the set a Moderato in A flat major is a graceful Waltz tinged with a touch of seriousness.
For those wanting the very finest versions of Chopin’s Mazurkas; Waltzes; Nocturnes and the Polonaise-fantaisie I can commend with the greatest confidence the consistently refined and expressive performances from Arthur Rubinstein. Originally recorded for RCA Victor and now released by RCA Red Seal each of the four recordings have been digitally remastered superbly:
a) 14 Waltzes; 3 Impromptus; Fantaisie-Impromptu and Bolero from 1962/63/64 at Rome on vol. 47 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026 63047-2.
b) 6 Polonaises; Polonaise-fantaisie; Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise from 1964 at New York City on vol. 48 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026 63048-2. c) 19 Nocturnes from 1965/67 at Rome on vol. 49 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026 63049-2 RE. d) 51 Mazurkas from 1965/66 at New York City on vol. 50 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ on RCA Red Seal 09026 63050-2.
Rubinstein also recorded Chopin’s 4 Scherzos and 4 Ballades in 1959 at the Manhattan Center in New York City for RCA Victor released on two vinyl LPs on their ‘Living Stereo’ series. I believe these to be peerless performances that are contained on one of the finest classical music discs ever recorded and now reissued on RCA Red Seal (SACD) 82876-61396-2 RE1. According to the notes this hybrid SACD was re-mastered from the original 3-channel stereo master tapes. It certainly sounds quite magnificent. These Rubinstein performances are also contained on the disc RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 63045-2 (c/w Chopin Tarantelle, Op. 43).
Another major work on Pires’s Deutsche Grammophon release is the four movement Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65. Chopin dedicated the Sonata to his friend the renowned French cellist Auguste Franchomme. He laboured hard over the score which was composed in 1845-46 just three years before his death. The music must surely reflect the composer’s failing health and his estrangement from his lover George Sand.
Maria João Pires’s affection for the Cello Sonata is patent. When asked how she approached a work that had perplexed so many people she replied, “through the voice, the voice that seeks to express what is otherwise inexpressible - that of the cello, of course.” Pires and her partner Pavel Gomziakov are in outstanding condition for the Cello Sonata. It is an intense work cloaked in both beauty and introspection with a burning passion smouldering beneath the surface. I was impressed with the way that Gomziakov doesn’t allow his emotions to get the better of him. Persuasively the cellist provides a controlled restraint with what feels like just the right amount of passion. The tones of both instruments are a delight; especially the rich tone of the 1865 cello by Bernardel père (Paris).
The extended opening movement in strict sonata form marked Allegro moderato is as long as the other three movements put together. In this seriously dramatic movement a deep vein of nostalgia develops a powerful intensity and passion. Interspersed are affecting passages of brooding tenderness. Striking are Pires and Gomziakov amid the energetic demands of the restless and windswept Scherzo. In the broad central section of considerable lyricism a glorious cello melody appears as if from nowhere. The partners play the Largo a moving nocturne with heart-breaking poignancy. Designed in sonata form the high-spirited and sparkling quality of the Finale, Allegro provides a welcome respite from the serious character of the previous movements. In keeping with much of Chopin’s music a hint of sadness lurks just beneath the surface.
Of the alternative versions of the Cello Sonata I have grown to love the interpretation from cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han for its tremendous personality and energy. Recorded in 1996 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York the performance was available as a BBC Music Magazine cover disc from the January 1997 edition (c/w Grieg Cello Sonata and Schumann Adagio and Allegro). The disc can also be obtained from Finckel’s website. In 2004 I was fortunate to attend a subscription society recital where the husband and wife partnership of Finckel and Han gave an outstanding performance of the Chopin Cello Sonata; a score clearly very dear to them.
I retain a high regard for the masterly playing from Truls Mørk and Kathryn Stott in their account of the Cello Sonata recorded in 2006 at the Østre Fredrikstad Church, Norway. Titled ‘Nocturne’ Mørk and Stott’s release also includes several of Chopin’s scores in transcriptions for cello and piano on Virgin Classics 3 85784.
I also admire my disc of the dramatic 1980 Munich Herkulessaal account of the Cello Sonata from Mstislav Rostropovich and Martha Argerich on Deutsche Grammophon 419860-2 (Chopin Polonaise, Op. 3; Schumann Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 arr. F. Grützmacher).
Another fine recent version that deserves attention is from Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne recorded in 2007 at the Henry Wood Hall, London. Played with directness and an impressive clarity of expression the release has the added appeal of being coupled with the rarely performed Cello Sonata from Parisian composer Charles-Valentin Alkan on Hyperion CDA67624.
The warm and clear studio acoustic is excellent with the cello especially given a fine bloom. Set a touch close I felt the balance was well judged for these scores. The booklet notes take the form of an interview with Maria João Pires. Personally I would have preferred some detailed information on the actual works.
Already on my shortlist as a 2009 ‘Record of the Year’ this is enthralling Chopin playing. In partnership with Gomziakov the Cello Sonata is memorable and beautifully played.
-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Featured Sound Samples
Waltzes for Piano, op 64: No 2 in C sharp minor
Mazurkas for Piano, op 67: No 2 in G minor
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