Notes and Editorial Reviews
Nocturnes: Nos. 1–21
Stéphane de May (pn)
PAVANE ADW 7532/3 (2 CDs: 118:18)
The pianist Stéphane de May has been playing Chopin’s nocturnes since childhood. Not surprisingly, the performances on this set are remarkably lived-in, expressing themselves from the inside out rather than the other way around. They are not, however, full of torrential passions. De May’s emotionality is rather discreet. He says in an interview that he has taken into account the precision of the Erard and Pleyel
pianos that Chopin used, and so tries to keep their sound picture in mind when playing a modern instrument. De May’s tone is therefore clean and well balanced. These performances are triumphs of technique: not just the skill for hitting the notes accurately, but also the taste required for their proper inflection. De May can change the whole mood of a nocturne with one note or a single figuration. He has recorded the nocturnes in a small hall before just a few friends, trying to replicate the intimate atmosphere of the Parisian salons for which Chopin intended these works. I think de May succeeds triumphantly. His nocturnes are rich in meaning, yet sound like no other performer’s.
A survey of de May’s nocturnes may prove helpful. No. 1 is restful, with an underlying hint of menace. No. 2 could represent a tipsy ballerina. Kaleidoscopic colors infuse No. 3. No. 4 is alternately fragile and terrifying. For No. 5, we may imagine someone sitting by a window at night with a flickering candle. No. 6 is a study in pensiveness. A deathly pallor appears at the start of No. 7, which is filled with mood swings. No. 8 simply is heartbreaking. A portrayal of indecision comes in No. 9. No. 10 could accompany someone dancing alone in the shadows. Rodin’s Thinker comes to mind in No. 11. A lingering memory of pleasant company appears in No. 12. No. 13 contains night thoughts, with a streak of self-pity. No. 14 is jewel-like in its precision and delicacy. A miniature ballade would describe No. 15, which tells a story. A luxurious reverie exudes from No. 16. No. 17 is an effusion of noble emotion. Stoicism marks No. 18, with a feeling of resignation. No. 19 represents a couple in a romantic interlude, with ill-fated overtones. No. 20 presents a gnomic riddle, as in Old English poetry. Lastly, a slow mazurka may describe No. 21.
The sound engineering on de May’s set is very fine, a model of fullness and clarity. This recording joins my favorite digital versions of the nocturnes, which include those by Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Feltsman, and François Chaplin. I really can’t recommend one above the others; each succeeds in creating its own unique world and needs to be experienced for itself. I would be poorer without all four of these recordings. It says much for de May that I really feel he has created his own new way of viewing the nocturnes. The fusion of brilliance and emotion he forges is truly outstanding, and can rank with the achievements of the finest pianists. If you think you have had your fill of the nocturnes and don’t need another interpretation of them, de May’s is the version to change your mind.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Works on This Recording
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