Although I don’t consider this release to be quite up there with Maria Joao Pires’ very finest recordings, that is a high standard. This 1996 selection of Frederic Chopin’s beautiful Nocturnes is worthwhile and at times terrific, exhibiting Pires’ sensitive musicality and her wonderful rhythmic fluidity.
The pair of Op. 9 Nocturnes that open the disc particularly successfully fit Pires’ strengths. Consisting almost entirely of melody and accompaniment texture – the right hand presenting the melody supported by arpeggiations in the case of Op. 9/1 and chords in Op. 9/2 – Pires’ ability to sensitively introduce rhythmic inflections into the lead line heightens the Nocturnes’ expressivity and variety. Pires’ mastery of touch and color is also impressive. In the crescendo that concludes Op. 55/1, she shifts from one timbre to another to create an effect of two different voices alternating, something which I had never heard before. I also very much liked the playing of the Op. 32/2 Nocturne where Pires presents the outside section in an utterly musical way and then transitions into that awesome middle section which she presents with sweep and power. Pires’ Op. 32/2 may be the best recording of this Nocturne I’ve heard and justifies the release just by itself.
While there are many terrific Nocturnes here, not all of it in my opinion works so well. I was expecting the limpid Op. 15/2 Nocturne to be an awesome version given Pires’ talents, but I thought it was taken a tad too quickly and aggressively, with the pacing just not quite right. An alternative version of Op. 15/2 by Yuri Egorov captures the magic of this Nocturne, which epitomizes Chopin’s efforts in the genre. The two big Nocturnes gathered together in Op. 27, forming some of Chopin’s best music, would also seem to be perfectly suited for Pires. While she does a good job, her performance doesn’t capture the power and mystery of my favorite interpretation of Op. 27/1 (Arthur Rubinstein) or the heart-wrenching sadness of Op. 27/2 (Dinu Lipatti, of course). This is high level criticism; I am unfavorably comparing Pires to some of the great piano recordings ever set down on tape, so take it in context. Pires’ approach to Op. 27/2 is quite a bit different from Lipatti’s, in fact, emphasizing the sensuous atmosphere of the main section and the dynamic build-ups rather than emotional intensity and sadness. I imagine some listeners would prefer it. One of the other weaknesses is a substandard sound engineering job from DG, unfortunately typical of this label. Pires’ sound is muddied and the pedal thumped in my subwoofer.
Expectations always matter. Given my profound admiration for Pires’ pianism and how her natural gifts and inclinations match Chopin’s writing style in the Nocturnes, I had anticipated this would be one of the best Chopin recordings I had ever heard. Instead, it has some wonderful and sublime tracks mixed with other overaggressive, even hasty ones. Can’t win them all -- but Pires certainly wins some of them. The high points are what really matters, though, so I’m assigning this 5 stars without hesitations.