Posted in Project 3: Exploring Chromaticism

Research point 2.4, Part 2: Comparing 5 Performances of Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3 By Chopin

The second task of this research point is to compare five recorded performances of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 3 in B major and discuss how different or similar they are while following the score, as well as how they stand in relation to the notation itself through a more analytic process of listening. Personally, after the two-part research that I have carried out in Part 1a and Part 1b, I was also interested to look into the performance ideologies and their relationship with the recordings I have chosen. In terms of the reflection on this task and my experience with the analytic listening, it can be found in my listening log post here.

Firstly, I will start with the recording of the nocturne by Ivan Moravec in 1965, which has been reissued by Nonesuch label in 1991. Since this is an reissue, I was interested to know to which extent the sound has been edited and found that it is “a little less harsh than it used to be … but not so much better that the old releases need replacing.” I also learned that Moravec had a reputation for his attention to the condition of the pianos he would perform on. Though he claimed this to be somewhat exaggerated, he did explain that he would meet with the technician and listen “for any unevenness in sound” and “harsh or weak notes” and “aks for these to be changed gently” in order to “put the local piano in the best condition” before a performance, which in my opinion probablly adds to the brilliancy I found to characterise his recording of Op 9 No 3. Other than the clarity of the instrument, generally, I found Moravec’s rubato to produce the biggest contrast throughout the interpretation, especially comparing to the other recordings, in the fluctuation between the expressive accelerandos and ritenutos. In relation to the score, the scherzando instruction of the primary theme in the allegretto (A section) was very clear in the articulation, while the chromaticism of the coloratura in the right hand seems to float tenderly above the left-hand arpeggios with a great deal of separation and distinction in the expression between the two hands. The expressive individuality of the right-hand melody and the left-hand accompaniment is even further emphasized in the agitato (B section), with the crisp right hand being emphasized in the texture with either pronounced accents in the score, which are paired up with some surprising soft moments, while the stormy left hand seems to muddy the sphere below with the dramatic chromatic rises and falls. The recapitulation of allegretto section makes the contrasts produced by rubato even more extreme, until finally as the finishing notes of the coda seem to fade into nothingness of ppp, Moreveic ends his interpretation with a careful, barely audible touch.

The second recording I have selected for this task is by Francois Samson, originally released in 1966. The version I listened to is a remastered recording from EMI’s 2001Chopin: Piano works compilation boxset. I haven’t found much information regarding how much the process of remastering affected the original sound, but in any case, Samson’s interpretation surprised me the most out of all five. After a bit of research on his modernist performance ethos, which emphasizes one’s expressive individuality, I found that he was considered edgy and uncoventional in his days for his unique delivery of the repertoire. Samson also admired jazz and remarked, according to wikipedia, that “It must be that there is never the impression of being obliged to play the next note.” Although I couldn’t find any reference or confirmation for this quote, its quality is certainly audible in this interpretation, which kept manipulating my expectations about what has occured and my anticipation about the notes that were yet to be played. In this respect, while other four performers would use the repetiton of the themes with a certain dose familiarity and consistency, with only occasional, minor nuanced differences, Samson would treat even the repeted moments in the score as independent sites for novel exploration. As such, following the notation was a very curious experience, in which every note, as well as every dynamic and expressive instruction, seemed to be three dimensional rather than two, each with a potential to be heard anew and freshly accentuated in Samson’s continuously shifting texture, the articulation of which was led by the allure and unique engagmenet of his arresting, inconsistent rubato, constantly moving between lightness and darkness, calm and disturbance. In this way, I also noticed how there was almost an expressive ambiguity between the melody and accompaniment in Samson’s performance, opposite from Moravec’s vertical approach, which emphasized the opposite roles of the hands.

The next recording I chose is Rubinstein’s earliest recording of the nocturne in 1932, which has been transferred from the shellac copies by Stuart Rosenthal. The review by Distler specifies how Rosenthal “now filters less of the higher frequencies, revealing more of piano’s overtones. While equalization is a bit nasal in the midrange, the overall effect as akin to hearing impeccable 78 rpm shellac copies of these performances played back on excellent equipment.” I think it is important to consider this type of mediating effects of the transfer technologies on the 20th-century recordings, which this research point made me aware of – something I will pay more attention to in the future. While RCA’s edition sounds richer according to Distler, I did enjoy the subtle hissing that is heard on this transfer, which perhaps adds a certain nostalgic element to the sound. At any rate, I decided to listen to Rubinstein’s performance of Op. 9 No. 3, since his gracious and elegant way of playing not only captures the belle epoque, but also defined the interpretation of Chopin’s works for the rest of the century, if not even the way they are perfomed today. Reading about his performance ideology, I found that Rubinstein achieved a balance between his individuality and a belief that ‘no one should have cause to find fault in his playing’, being a medium point comparing to “those like Arrau … who offer us deeply searching (and no less valid) accounts of Chopin’s structure and style, but who avoid any real involvement with the quick sand perils of rubato” and others who “go in the opposite direction and end up emasculating Chopin’s music and falling into a trap of inescapable sentimentality.” Indeed, while listening to Rubinstein I could feel this negotiation, but it was more situated in the backgorund and I could focus on the score with ease, as his rubato was more focused and less wandering than the previous two recordings of his contemporaries, with the melody and the accompanying harmonic progressions having a clear sense of direction, although I found some sections, such as the left hand of agitato to be a bit static as well. The tempo, dynamic and expression markings were also more neutral, and there was great a consistency throughout, with the recapitulation of allegretto concluding the piece in a circular way, which contrasts Samson’s unpredictability, and although there is a slight gradation before fading into ppp, there is no dramatized culmination as in Moravec.

As for the fourth interpretation, I chose to distance myself from the 20th century performers and found an interesting recording by Maria Joao Pires, released in 1996. What suprised me the most is how there is no lightness of touch in her performance, which was reflected in all three 20th-century recordings above, despite their considerable differences. Instead, the notes emanate from the piano in a kind of dry and rough manner, with the overall sound being quite raw. This brought on a sense of drama and passion, that I haven’t noticed in any previous interpretations. Following the score, I found that Maria’s performance didn’t only desribe an abstract inner state, but added a particular narrative dimension. As such, the dynamic and expression markings seemed to have transformed into something much deeper than simple instructions on paper – they were opportunities for conflict and resolution. Next to that, the whole performance has a very serious quality, so much so that even the scherzando had a very ironic, sad and perhaps hurtful tone to me. In fact, with this, I started questioning whether or not some markings actually represented what they seem to be in notation. In view of the forgoing, the ending of Maria’s interpretation was very satisfying to me – arriving at a point of stillness and serenity after all the intense chromatic coloratura passages that kept sweeping me into different states of darkness. If anything, I completely agree with Morrison’s review, where he describes Pires’ interpretation as “no soft, moonlit option but an intensity and drama that scorn all complacent salon or drawing-room expectations”, and I definitely took a very important interpretive lesson in relation to notation and its potential in setting a framework for drama and narrative, and not only technical instructions.

The final recording I listened to is a video recording of Anna Fedorova playing the nocturne at XVI Chopin Piano competition in 2010. As this was a video recording, I first watched the interpretation without the score and enjoyed observing the visual cues of expression, which I obviously didn’t have for other recordings. This proved to be a very sublime experience – seeing how the music lived in the performer’s body and her interaction with the instrument, living in the space of the event. In terms on following the score, I found that the melody and many of its notes seemed to have their own breath in Fedorova’s rubato. With dance and movement having taken over my physical theatre practice at university, and having done a lot of training in the field, to me this element of Fedorova’s playing seems to be very dance-like – the notes project somewhere beyond, in the same way a dancer would extend the intention of each movement beyond its basic shape in the kinosphere in order to achieve its full potential. As such, her playing made me see the notes and other markings in terms of the shapes they are forming, not as static graphic objects, but moving subjects in the dynamicism of temporality. Along with this, all the contrast and drama seem to arise from the musical shapes and their movements. It is also interesting that from Fedorova’s interpretation, I also noticed the vertical shapes and distances more clearly, which was different in experience to Moravec’s verticality that emphasized contrast in texture, like the contrary motion of the notes in the final Adagio bar of the coda that seemed to be moving towards and away from each other. Personally, I would like to add this dance-like quality of extending shapes, both horizontal and vertical, into my own playing.

In conclusion, although the brief of the task mentioned that we should offer our own opinion on which performance works the best, I have to say that I consider each of the five important in what they uniquely achieve and I appreciate each of them in their own way. In this sense, each recording showed me a distinct approach to the score in terms of projecting different notational elements that I will carry into my own practice. Whether it is Moravec’s vertical approach that highlights the individuality between the melody and its accompaniment and his contrasting of the expressive accelerando and ritenuto, Samson’s three dimentional ventuure that shows how the notes, harmonic structures and markings can be continually explored anew, Rubinstein’s more neutral and consistant stance on notation that negotiates between objectivity and subjectivity in expression, Pires’ rendering that treats each marking as a potential dramatic and narrative instance, and finally, Fedorova’s dance-like undertaking that presents the notes as ever-extending horizontal and vertical shapes in movement. They all provide unique elements to consider when interpreting a score. To read my reflection on this task, visit my listening log here.

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