The Nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin are among the most recorded works on disc, representing a kind of pianistic zenith – a bucket-list project that demands no less than a lifetime of artistic maturation. At 73 years of age, French pianist Alain Planès seems particularly well suited to the task, making this release one of the most anticipated of his career.
12 years after his award-winning Chopin chez Pleyel album, Planès returns to the same instrument to record the complete cycle of Nocturnes, and the results are no less impressive. Audio engineer Alban Moraud has evidently worked carefully with the (uncredited) piano technician to smooth out the rough edges of the now 185-year-old Pleyel, an atypically large example (2.4 m in length) from 1836 that is surprisingly rich and resonant.
Planès conjures a dark, crepuscular magic throughout, and mounts a compelling case that the ubiquitous (and anachronistic) Steinway D should not necessarily be considered the definitive instrument on which to record these works. The creamy, velvety tone of the Pleyel has never been captured better. Its straight-strung construction affords tremendous clarity in the turbulent middle sections of Op. 9 No 3, Op. 15 No 1, Op. 27 No 1, Op. 32 No 1 and Op. 62 No 2.
More significantly, we hear – perhaps more evidently than ever before – the intrinsic necessity of Chopin’s ornamentation: fioraturas provide melodic variation and motivic development, yes, but also registral variations in colour and timbre. Listen carefully to the chromatic variants that usually sound homogenous and prosaic on a modern piano, but here provide a mist that blankets the harmonic texture like a silver perfume. Trills come in to their own, too – not just as decorative devices, but also as a way of elongating the resonance. Planès renders them all with immaculate evenness and precision, and caresses Chopin’s melodies with an enviable cantabile.
On the whole, his tempi are a little on the slow side, an approach that works beautifully in some (Op. 15 No 2 in F Sharp, and Op. 37 No 2 in G), but is less successful in others (Op. 27 No 2 in D flat feels too tentative and restrained; the posthumous Lento con gran espressione is a little too Lento and not enough con gran espressione). Planès also falls short of eliciting goosebumps in the great C Minor Nocturne of Op. 48 – the momentum is just too restrained, too calculated, and ultimately too predictable to deliver the existential gravitas this piece demands (Janusz Olejniczak is unsurpassed in this regard).
So many of the Nocturnes end with a sense of bittersweet resignation, as if the composer was acknowledging all of the lost possibilities of his youth in a tender exhalation of ‘C’est la vie’. In all such moments, Planès has a tendency to lift his fingers off the keyboard a little too soon – the single-escapement mechanism of the Pleyel springs back with a soft echoing thud. If it’s a conscious choice from Planès to wrench us from the dream world he has just induced and bring us back to reality, it isn’t entirely successful. Chopin frequently didn’t specify when the dampers were to be raised at the end, and the fermatas feel slightly truncated here, as if the candles have been snuffed out too soon.
Endings aside, Planès for the most part maintains an aristocratic fidelity to the score, yet his playing really does invoke something of a bygone era: there is more dislocation (the right hand coming down slightly after the left, and vice-versa) on these recordings than most, but every now and again it becomes a little too predictable, occurring all too frequently on the downbeats. More captivating is his use of un-notated arpeggiation, judiciously employed as a variant when the same harmony or thematic material is repeated.
In the E Flat Nocturne of Op. 55, Planès rolls the very last chord, thereby distinguishing it from the identical one that preceded it, and also generating the otherwise impossible crescendo that is marked into the score. The effect is gorgeously Chopinesque, sounding at once spontaneous and utterly inexorable. It’s moments like these that distinguish this release from many of the others, and indeed the E flat Nocturne of Op. 55 is perhaps the highlight of the album. Too many pianists have rushed this introspective masterpiece, but in the hands of Planès it becomes a vocal duet worthy of Bellini and the finest soprani sfogati. The B Major Nocturne of Op. 9 is a close second, followed by Op. 62 No. 1, whose ravishing coda is – to use one of Chopin’s favourite phrases – non plus ultra.
Not all of the interpretations here will set a new benchmark, but some certainly deserve to, and almost all are a masterclass in pianistic maturity and restraint. Whilst there have been other recordings of the complete Nocturnes on period instruments, this feels definitive. If the interpretations here are less adventurous, bold and idiosyncratic than some (Bart van Oort’s recordings for Brilliant Classics springs instantly to mind), they are also more refined and more exquisite.
It’s a gorgeous release that takes us back in time to a quieter, more ephemeral era of pianism, inviting us to imagine what it might have sounded like to be in the drawing room after midnight, sitting around a Pleyel in its prime as Chopin’s fingertips traced the contours of some of the greatest melodies ever written for the piano.
Works: Complete Nocturnes
Performer: Alain Planès
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMM905332.33 (2CD)