Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op.55 (1842-4) (12 minutes)
Chopin 3 Mazurkas, Op.59 (1845)
Liszt Piano Sonata (1854)
Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 9 November
A very satisfying blend of poetic 19th century piano music from Nicholas Angelich. By beginning with a well-chosen selection of Chopin he set the scene perfectly for the drama that is Liszt’s Piano Sonata, one of the great works for the instrument and a real test of any pianist’s clout.
First, though, the Chopin – and two contrasting works that bear the title Nocturne. This was a form of music that was more or less invented by the composer John Field and taken up by Chopin, who found it an expressive means with a relatively free form. The first of the two (from 1:46 on the broadcast) was distracted in mood and more than a little downcast. Thoughtfully played, it gradually became more animated before calm was restored with the theme at 5:58. The second nocturne (7:43) had a more open sound, with an almost constant ripple of watery accompaniment.
Angelich’s performances of the Mazurkas showed just how different Chopin’s interpretation of this dance could be.
The last of the three (22:10) was the most dramatic, shifting tellingly from major to minor key at 23:08, and ending there from 25:31.
You could say that Liszt’s Piano Sonata is a one-act play in four scenes – or you could equally say that it is a four-act play. Such is its formal design that both approaches work across the course of half an hour, and it really is one of those pieces the listener can be totally absorbed in.
For that you need the right performance of course, and this one from Nicholas Angelich fitted the bill in every way. The drama should begin even before the first soft, low notes are sounded, and here the period of silence beforehand built the anticipation nicely.
Then once we were under way at 27:30 Angelich set out the musical arguments, allowing the first movement to build its tension through to the start of the faster music at 28:20. After this the music really got going, though it was around the 36:27 where the tempo was really flying, leading up to a grand statement of the slow theme from Angelich at 38:05, a great demonstration of both power and grace at the piano.
This performance really came into its own in the slow movement however (from 41:00), setting a restful and uncommonly sublime mood, until a warning at 48:05 where the music from the start revealed itself again. Other points of note to look out for in the recording are at 48:43 where the fugue begins.
Angelich made a real and clear sense of this tricky passage, beginning with the theme and continuing at 48:55 with the ‘answer’ – as fugues are wont to do. Then the pyrotechnics ensued, a showy movement but one that Angelich kept under control, especially at 52:13 and a triumphant return of the big, slow theme. The coda, from 57:38, was exquisitely paced, and the end, when it came, was soft and petered out to the silence with which the Sonata began.
A performance as impressive for its quiet moments as its loud ones – and a Liszt sonata packed full of incident, drama and romance the whole way through.
Angelich has very helpfully recorded something of a ‘concept’ album that begins with the Liszt Sonata. This work was dedicated to Schumann, so we also get that composer’s set of eight fantasy pieces Kreisleriana, one of his very best piano works. Completing the album are two Etudes by Chopin, the subject of Schumann’s dedication.
by Ben Hogwood