Chopin may have perfected the piano nocturne, but he didn’t invent it. The originator was an Irishman named John Field whose picaresque life story contrasted sharply with his lyrical and dreamy creations.
The American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe (of the popular piano duo Anderson and Roe) has been fascinated by Field’s nocturnes since her student years at Juilliard. Now she’s compiled a generous 86 minutes of them on a new album. There was more than just recording the beautiful music. Roe conducted considerable research on Field, hunting for definitive sources, which survive in various editions (one revised by Liszt in 1859) and numbering sequences.
Field, who was born in Dublin in 1782 but spent most of his career in Russia, forged a new style. His slow-paced, lyrical nocturnes are ripe with emotive gestures and flights of fancy. Imbued with lilting melodies, the pieces often sound like wordless songs or operatic arias. Although as Roe points out in the booklet notes, their musical DNA relates to slow movements in Mozart or Beethoven, the sound is uniquely Field’s. His oversized personality — fueled by wit and alcohol — reportedly matched his enormous success.
In nocturnes such as Nos. 1, 5 and 6, Roe skillfully displays Field’s recipe of a singable, ornamented melody in the right hand accompanied by rippling arpeggios or widely spaced chords in the left. No. 4 might be the most beautiful, its bittersweet tune unfolding in Roe’s pearly runs with crepuscular harmonies. A few nocturnes break the mold. No. 13 mesmerizes with the melody in block chords in the left hand, while the right ladles on a repeated theme above. No. 16 plays like a scene from a Donizetti opera, its sweeping lyricism punctuated by dramatic asides, while No. 12 lopes along with a jaunty tune.
Field’s nocturnes have similar moods, but careful listening reveals that Roe makes each an individual portrait. Close attention also reveals the album’s great weakness — its recorded sound. Drenched in reverberation (in music already requiring much from the sustaining pedal), the piano swims in a hooded, muddied pool, with a boomy low end. The result is one of the most poorly recorded piano albums in recent memory.
Roe’s solo recording career is just beginning. Let’s hope for more fine playing but better-sounding albums.
In recent months, there has been a lot of buzz around Christina and Michelle Naughton, 27-year-old twin pianists from Madison, Wis. Such hype tends to make me skeptical. But now that I’ve heard the pair’s new Warner Classics release of music by Olivier Messiaen, J.S. Bach and John Adams, I’m ready to say, emphatically, that they really are that good. Indeed, I’m ready to put them on a level with some of the greatest piano duos of our time: Vronsky and Babin, Luboschutz and Nemenoff, or Argerich and Freire.
The Naughtons surmount the daunting challenges of Messiaen’s seven-movement “Visions de l’Amen,” a 45-minute piece, as though it were music they’ve known and loved their entire lives. In the “Amen of the Consummation,” for instance, they whip up a frenzy of chiming, clanging bells to equal the splendor of the coronation scene of Boris Godunov.
The understated Bach transcription by György Kurtág might seem like a hasty, last-minute insertion. In fact, it is an inspired programming choice. The music is the brief instrumental intro to Cantata 106, “God’s Time Is the Best of All Times.” In this most personal of all music, the Naughtons create a hushed atmosphere of calm, providing an intimate oasis between the two more extravagant works.
While the Messiaen lets us peer through stained glass into the mystical realms of Catholicism in Nazi-occupied Paris and Kurtág filters Bach’s unshakeable Lutheran faith through a 20th-century Hungarian lens, John Adams is the American here and now. The Naughtons take to the vernacular ebullience of “Hallelujah Junction” like ducks to water. The textures shimmer like pure gold in bright light, dancing in every conceivable rhythm. They have to be heard to be believed.