Thursday, 20 February 2014

Harriet Cohen: Chopin Nocturne, Op.15 No.1 in F major.

On 19th April 1943 Harriet Cohen recorded three works by Frederic Chopin for Columbia – the Nocturne in F major, Op.15, No.1 and Studies No.1 in F major and No.2 in A flat major of the Trois Nouvelles Études. They were released in February 1946 on the 78rpm disc DX1231.
In her book Music’s Handmaid (London, Faber & Faber 1936) Harriet Cohen has given a comprehensive study of this Nocturne. This is largely aimed at students and performers with its detailed technical analysis of the work. However, her opening general remarks bear repeating:-
‘I have chosen this Nocturne, because it is to my mind by far the most beautiful, the most sincere and characteristic of all Chopin’s Nocturnes.
Chopin was influenced by the Irish composer John Field who lived from 1782 to 1837. He studied Field’s works very closely and used them as models for his Nocturnes. Field wrote very simple harmonies and elaborated his melodies by embroidering them with fanciful runs and turns. It is very interesting to learn that on Chopin’s first public appearance as a performer he played a concerto by this composer.
In this Nocturne Chopin already seems to have got away from his immature style which followed closely that of Field, and perhaps provides one of the reasons why Chopin’s music has often been called drawing-room music. In this Nocturne he has already become much more personal and to me, at any rate, this work expresses the passionate, virile, masculine Chopin of the great works, such as the B flat minor Sonata, the Barcarolle etc.
The first person I ever hear play this piece was Paderewski, and the principal thing in this performance was the almost painful beauty of his singing tone in the right-hand melody-that tone which stabbed one to the heart’.

I agree with the reviewer (A.R.) in The Gramophone (February1946) that this ‘Nocturne’ is one of the most beautiful of the set that clearly displays two contrasting sides of the composer’s nature.  The F major ‘Nocturne’ was written in 1832 and was issued with No.2 in F sharp major and No.3 in G minor as part of Chopin’s Op.15.  They were dedicated to the German composer and pianist Ferdinand Hiller who was resident in Paris between 1832-1835.
This present Nocturne is written in straightforward ternary form. The opening and closing sections are signed ‘Andante Cantabile’ with the additional instructions to be played ‘semplice e tranquillo’ and ‘sempre legatissimo’ (as smoothly as you can). The middle section is ‘con fuoco’ –with fire. Maurice Hinson, in his Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, suggests that the opening cantilena has some daring harmonies, however, the middle section requires a powerful left hand.
The interpretive principle of this work is to point up the huge emotional contrast between the innocence of the opening music and the restless vigour of the middle section where the ‘waves of emotion’ are finally brought under control. 
Some writers have rather poetically seen this Nocturne as ‘describing’ a ‘calm and beautiful lake, ruffled by a sudden storm and becoming calm again.’  It is fair to suggest that this is not a ‘nocturnal’ work – there is sunlight in the opening and closing sections, and whilst the sky darkens in the ‘con fuoco’ it is never pitch black. 

‘Classics Today’ website suggest that Harriet ‘underplays the agitated middle section of the ‘nocturne’’ which to a certain extent I agree with. I compared Harriet’s interpretation of this work with that of Vladimir Ashkenazy and feel that he manages create this essential contrast with great power but without over-exaggeration.
The Gramophone reviewer of Harriet’s recording suggests that the ‘rubato’ (‘stolen time’ in which some of the notes are given longer or shorter time values without upsetting the rhythm) is a little wayward. He submits that she does not gain the same freedom with her left-hand which sounds a ‘bit laboured.’ I am not convinced she was having problems with her left hand: it seems perfectly strong and balanced to me.  Yet I agree with him that Harriet’s slower tempo resulted in a ‘more expressive quality in her playing.’  Many years ago, the critic Ehlert had suggested that the little ‘decoration’ that Chopin gives to the repetition of the slow theme should be played as if ‘brushed with the gentle wings of a butterfly.’  This is just the mood that Harriet achieves.
For a recording of its date (1943) it is impressive and fully captures Harriet’s beautiful singing tone. The bass register is effective and the listener to this historical recording does not feel that they have lost a great deal of the piano’s resonance and power.

Harriet Cohen’s Nocturne in F major can be heard on APR7304. However there is an unrestored recording of this work at the British Library ‘Sounds’ collection. 

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