The Good: One or two decent bits of music, Duration
The Bad: Poor mix, Lack of emotional resonance, Narcoleptic Nocturnes
The Basics: Frederic Chopin's Waltzes & Nocturnes are played universally slow and sad by pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, evoking little emotional reaction and summoning sleep, even from the well-rested!
I hate writing reviews of classical c.d.s. I hate doing this not because I don't love classical music, but rather because I am a layperson, not a professional classical music expert or connoisseur. Which means, my reviews tend to do their best to describe the music and then declare whether or not I actually enjoyed the music. But as far as a universal standard of quality, I'm not it. One of my favorite Mussorgsky albums (reviewed here!) gets a lot of play around my house and in the car, but when my mother heard it a few weeks ago, she just crewed up her face and said "This is terrible!" I said, "I like Mussorgsky," to which she responded, "So do I, but this recording is doing nothing for me!"
With that in mind, Waltzes & Nocturnes is by no means the first Chopin work I have reviewed. Once upon a time, I timidly reviewed a collection of Nocturnes (reviewed here!) and I found I did not enjoy them. Because I have heard a great deal about how Chopin's Nocturnes are important and some of his best works, I've been eager to find some that I enjoy.
This album was not it. With seventeen tracks (ten waltzes, seven nocturnes) clocking in at almost sixty-eight minutes, pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy presents a bunch of songs that ultimately have a narcoleptic effect and feel to them. This is music to put oneself asleep to.
One of the reasons I - and I suspect many others - cringe away from Classical music reviews is because there are no lyrics. In the case of Waltzes & Nocturnes, the music is solely one man at one piano and without words to critique in combination with music, the big questions are; what does it sound like and what effect did it have on you? Both of these are highly subjective and not terribly useful. Striving for that "very helpful" is hard with so little to work with.
I write "so little to work with" because composer Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849) gives the listener so little to work with. Musically, there are things that may be mentioned ("Waltz E minor, op. posth." includes a number of going up and down the higher ranges of the scale and sounds is composed of fast movements, so it seems like it must be hard to play), but for the subjective experience of what it means, the composer is of no help whatsoever. The titles to the pieces describe them to the classical music aficionados, not to the common person. With titles like "[Nocturne] E flat major, op. 9 no. 2" and "[Waltz] A minor, op.34 no.2" the listener is left with no reference point and it's both annoying and snobbish. It's the auditory equivalent to a painting entitled "Oil Painting, White Canvas, 96% Yellow Ocre, 4% Cadmium Yellow." Yes, it tells us what it is, but it does not tell us what it IS. It's enough to make me wish I were a time traveler, working at a cafe and when Chopin walked in I offered him "83% H2O, 7% Citric Acid, 10% Vitamins C, D, E and B12." Should he look at me funny, I would be able to declare, "Now you know what it feels like, you pompous ass!"
I write this not because I lack the imagination to feel what these piano numbers might make me feel or because I am somehow deficient in the research skills to find out what all these chords and numbers mean, but because the titles do not say anything! Even if I knew all of the code, it would still be a list of the composition. When I was in college, there was a research paper I wrote on Anton Chekov's The Ant that I remember to this day. I spent time and effort researching the comparisons in Chekov's story to a fable and I churned out the required five pages with the (admittedly lame) thesis "Chekov's The Ant Is a Metaphorical Recreation of The Ant" (I think it was probably Aesop). I was heartbroken when I received the paper back with a C- and the t.a. who graded it, when I tried to contest that my analysis was flawless, simply said, "Chekov gives you that with the title. What does it MEAN?" Chopin's names are the same by analogy. Fine, he's created a Waltz that uses the chords in B minor with op.69 (and I'm assuming the no. 2 means it's the second one he's done in this specific combination) (track 6), what does that mean?
Which leaves the listener to define completely what it means to them. Part of the reason I belabor this point so much is that the music did not mean all that much to me. My favorite classical album thus far, Chopin's Greatest Hits (reviewed here!) inspired any number of images and thoughts to pop into my mind. After ten listens to this disc, only two tracks were distinctive enough to stand out.
Track ten, the "Waltz E minor, op. posth." is a fast-moving piece that - while it is never loud - soars up and down the scales, evoking a sense of ascent and descent that is free of labor, effortless, but still somehow important. The other track, "Nocturne C sharp minor, op. 27 no. 2" (track 13) has some of the same elements. There is a strong sense of movement and Vladimir Ashkenazy keeps the pace fast and the sound as rich as it can be considering he is one man at a piano and all of the music is in the upper registers.
Lacking in these pieces are range that I've heard in other works by Chopin. Indeed, these pieces are relegated to the higher keys of the piano and while the two tracks listed above have some speed to them, most do not. In fact, most are quiet, ponderous and inspiring less of the imagination than sleep. Usually when I think of waltzes, I think somewhat faster classical pieces, though several of Chopin's waltzes - at least as performed by Ashkenazy on the first half of this disc are remarkably slow.
I would not recommend this disc for a quiet dinner or romantic evening, it is hardly mood music as it does not engage the listener and inspire imaginations of anything. Instead, it recommends itself well to sleep. Insomniac? Try this!
For those who understand the codes, here is a track listing, though from an objective standpoint, most of these tracks sound alike: they are slow and high. Ashkenazy plays:
(Waltzes) E flat major 'Grande valse brillante,' op. 18
A minor, op.34 no.2
F major, op.34 no.3
A flat major, op42
A flat major, op.69 no.1 [These prior three tracks blend together for one nine minute bit of auditory goo]
B minor, op.69 no.2
G flat major, op.70 no.1
F minor, op.70 no.2
D flat major, op.70 no.3
E minor, op. posth.
(Nocturnes) E flat major, op.9 no.2
F sharp major, op.15 no.2
C sharp minor, op.27 no.1
D flat major, op. 27 no.2
B major, op.32 no.1
A flat major, op.32 no.2
G major, op.37 no.2
While I anticipated, from earlier experiences with Chopin nocturnes, the nocturnes to be slow and sleepy, I did not anticipate the waltzes being that way. Ashkenazy plays the entire album with a largely sleepy, slow and draining affect to the music. While he might well be playing fine, the music is a terrible mix, homogenous and sleepy (not depressing but evoking sleep from the listener). My only note here is that I've slept very well the previous nights, so there's no earthly reason I should fall asleep to this disc, save that that is the reaction it evokes.
The best track is "Waltz E minor, op. posth." I was not fond of the very tiresome (and tiring) "Nocturne D flat major, op.27 no.2."
For other Classical music reviews, please check out my takes on:
Pini Di Roma - Respighi, Eugene Ormandy
The Masterpieces Collection: Grieg Volume 4
Metamorphoseon - Ottorino Respighi
For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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