CHOPIN Nocturnes (Fazil Say)
Despite their unmistakable indebtedness to John Field, Chopin’s Nocturnes remain unique in the literature. As a group, they are without parallel in the works of Mendelssohn, Schumann or Liszt, and even today are considered indispensable for the development of touch in piano-playing. Among the multitude of recordings of these beloved pieces is a new Warner disc by the Turkish pianist Fazıl Say. For what is apparently his first commercial recording of Chopin, Say presents 15 of the canonic 21 Nocturnes in startlingly unconventional readings that raise more questions than they answer.
Most apparent is Say’s failure to grasp Chopin’s rhetoric, in both the composer’s own phrase shapes and those devices borrowed from bel canto opera. In the B major Nocturne (Op 32 No 1), for instance, Say ignores the pauses that punctuate phrase groups (0'19", 0'54", etc), thus removing their critical air of ambivalence. The dramatic impact of Chopin’s defiant recitative, the Nocturne’s final gesture, is neutered by replacing the prevalent forte dynamic with a decrescendo to a meek piano. The pace of the G minor Nocturne (Op 37 No 1) is unaccountably sped up for the middle chordal section (2'20"), transforming its chorale-like reverence into a march. Rhythmic spine and melodic details in the C minor Nocturne (Op 48 No 1) seem so uncertain and swamped with pedal that Chopin’s heroic eloquence assumes the bathos of a torch song.
Exquisite fioratura passages, characteristic of many of the Nocturnes, often seem more sped through than savoured. And on occasion rubato, rather than emerging organically from the musical affect, feels as though it were applied as an afterthought. The overall impression is of works more summarised than fully inhabited, curiously devoid of variety, dimension and poetry.