Chopin Nocturnes; Barcarolle; Fantaisie
Listening once more to Arrau’s Liszt is to recollect those many occasions in the concert hall when he seemed like Atlas holding aloft the universe‚ absorbed in a gargantuan feat that left his audience limp with exhaustion. Opulent‚ magisterial and of a range that few other pianists would contemplate‚ Arrau’s Liszt B minor Sonata remains a towering achievement. His admirers and detractors alike will know what I mean when I say that the build to the climax of the central Andante sostenuto seems so choked on its own emotion it can scarcely move and‚ love it or hate it‚ that stammering climb through the final Allegro moderato is pure Arrau; the playing of a man possessed and not given to half measures. The ‘Bénédiction’‚ a work of matchless Lisztian glory‚ is taken very slowly‚ yet the result – apart from a curiously choppy and didactic view of the central Andante or blessing – is ineffable rather than literal. No more subtly lit recording of ‘Waldesrauschen’ exists‚ and the final triumphant homecoming in ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ is overwhelming. In other words Arrau joins ‘those who‚ by the dint of glass and vapour‚/ Discover stars‚ and sail in the wind’s eye.’ (Byron).
However‚ it could be argued that Arrau’s rhetorical emphasis was more suited to Liszt than to Chopin‚ whom he often presented with an earnestness that could put years on even the lightest‚ most delicately fragrant of ideas. For some his rubato in the Nocturnes has an effect on the music like a lifeforce being thwarted and blocked‚ while others will claim that Chopin was hardly an easy or ‘comfortable’ composer and that Arrau’s tortuous sense of line and phrase counteracts a smoother‚ fleeter and more superficial way. Again‚ if there are times when Arrau reminds us that although Chileanborn he was essentially Germantrained by offering a heavily idiosyncratic view with little light relief‚ there are many moments of rare poetic commitment. The audacious gesture at the close of the B major Nocturne‚ Op 32‚ with its muffled timpani strokes‚ its sudden air of despondency and menace‚ appeals to Arrau’s predilection for Chopin’s morbidity‚ and in the two incomparably rich Op 62 Nocturnes (for James Huneker the first is the ‘tuberose’ Nocturne) his sumptuous tone and darkly welling sense of progression in the central agitato of No 2 are unforgettable.
The Barcarolle and Fantasie receive no less challenging performances‚ shaped with a strength of purpose hard to imagine from today’s relatively lightweight pianists. ‘When I play I am in ecstasy; that is what I live for‚’ said Arrau. But whether such ecstasy is shared by his listeners‚ at any rate in Chopin‚ is a matter for unending debate.