CD: Chopin: Nocturnes

(DG, two CDs)

Maurizio Pollini's connection with Chopin goes back a long way - to the very beginning of his career, when he won the 1960 Chopin competition in Warsaw at 18. His earliest recordings (for EMI) were Chopin too: a mixed recital and an account of the First Piano Concerto that remains arguably the greatest recorded. His Chopin playing in those days stood out for its sovereign control, clarity and perfectly judged poetry, in a way that stripped away the accretions that generations of over-expressive interpretations had left on the music.

Pollini's performances have remained just as clear-eyed and technically immaculate to the present day, though his playing has acquired a tendency to be too severe, too highly wrought, so that, in a composer such as Schumann, the results can be unattractively strait-laced. And the Chopin recordings have continued; after Pollini signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970s, he has returned regularly to the composer, beginning with a startling version of the Studies, and almost equally accomplished ones of the Preludes, Ballades, Polonaises and Scherzos. Now he tackles the Nocturnes, playing all 19 (he omits two more posthumously published ones) as a single sequence of exquisitely fashioned miniatures.

Their intimacy demands a very different response from that required for the larger-scale public statement of a piece such as a scherzo or a polonaise. By and large, however, the results are totally beguiling. Pollini's sound world - lean, perfectly cultivated, and always in sharp focus - may lack some of the warmth and spontaneity that other Chopin interpreters would bring to these pieces. But the way every melodic line is spun as a single thread of sound seems totally truthful to the bel canto impulse that lies behind so much of Chopin's invention. Just occasionally the results are too stiff, as if Pollini is unwilling to allow the natural sense of expressive line to override the music's basic pulse completely, or to detach a melody from its accompaniment sufficiently for the tune to float free. But those are only occasional blemishes. Far more of the playing is superb, aristocratic and utterly serious in a way that remains perfectly scaled to the dimensions of each individual nocturne - none of which lasts more than six minutes, yet each of which manages to summon up an immense range of feeling within that tiny frame.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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