Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 55, No. 2
Original recording by Ignacy Friedman:
My recreated performance:
The recreating experience
The Polish pianist Ignacy Friedman was born in 1882. He was a notable pianist in the ranks of Leopold Godowsky, Moriz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann and Sergei Rachmaninov, and had an extensive concert career. He is particularly known for his recordings of Frédéric Chopin and I therefore chose to recreate his performance of the second Nocturne from Opus 55.
Within the first few bars, it quickly becomes apparent that the playing style of Friedman can be related to the performance styles of Ricardo Viñes and Sergei Rachmaninov. This is due to the extensive use of “dislocation.” As in the Rachmaninov recording, I chose not to mark this in my annotated score simply because it is constantly present, and the number of detailed figures it would require to thoroughly notate this would only clutter the score. What is more interesting in this aspect, is that where Viñes usually delays the melody so that it is played after the accompaniment in his “dislocated attacks,” Friedman will occasionally play the melody before. His polyphonic playing is truly remarkable and he manages to achieve what I describe as a “polyphonic rubato,” which means that the individual voices in the polyphony have individual timing. The unavoidable result of this is that the different voices will not fall at the same time on the beat. In fact, Friedman will occasionally alter (re-arrange) the rhythmic notation in the score to achieve an even greater sense of polyphony. In bars 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11 on the first page, I have marked an arpeggio on the intervals he “dislocates” in the right hand. This “dislocation” could also be considered as an accentuated appoggiatura note because he seemingly plays an extra note: an added A flat in bars 5 and 9 and an F in bar 10. In my experience from closely imitating these sections, is that this accentuated appoggiatura note is used to “capture” this middle voice in the sonority of the sustain pedal (which is used extensively throughout the piece). Friedman repeats this practice also later in the piece (marked in the annotated score). It is particularly evident from bar 59 towards the piece’s ending. What was very interesting with this in relation to Viñes is that Friedman is not only separating the main melody from the accompaniment, but he is also using “arpeggiation” to “dislocate” and thus separate the middle voices of the piece. It is interesting to note that this practice of “arpeggiated intervals” is indeed marked in the original score in bars 41 and 49. In bar 55, it is notated as a tied appoggiatura note. If we look beyond performance style and tradition, I found that “dislocating” the voices in this manner is actually a very useful tool for emphasizing the polyphony of the piece. Indeed, I found this to be a more effective solution rather than trying to differentiate the voices solely by using dynamics and articulation as I would do in a modern-day approach. The problematic issue of this approach from a more “modernist” point of view however, is that it’s impossible to apply “polyphonic rubato” without also changing the rhythmic values in the score. Thus, the score becomes “re-arranged” in a literal sense. Such an extreme deviation from the rhythmic notation in the original score is something I believe very few of today’s leading pianists would attempt. Rather than seeing Friedman’s approach in opposition to modern-day taste, one might instead claim that Friedman is indeed emphasizing the polyphony notated by Chopin, and is therefore being very respectful to the score, that being his intention or not. From the “recreator’s perspective,” I can only say that regardless of taste it is very satisfying to “unlock” this way of polyphonic playing in this piece. It greatly developed my playing as well as my imitations of “polyphonic rubato” in other pieces.
In addition to the polyphonic timing in Friedman’s performance, there is also a general direction of rubato which affects all the voices. I have tried to mark these in the annotated score with thick red arrows and in some cases with a tenuto where the timing “lingers.” This is very much in line with my proposed “rubber ball” metaphor as mentioned in the recreated performances of Viñes and Rachmaninov. It becomes particularly evident here in the virtuosic embellishment sections, such as in bars 25 and 35, where the timing comes to a brief stop on the highest note before accelerating like a gravitational pull. Once again, this alters the written score in the literal sense: because of Friedman’s interpretation, bar 25 can no longer be read strictly the way it was written by Chopin. To be fair, it is by no means unusual to see a heavy use of rubato in modern-day performances of this work or any Chopin work for that matter, but Friedman’s way of balancing this by rushing and slowing down, belongs to a more romantic performance tradition in line with that of Viñes and Rachmaninov.
Another practice of Friedman's that is related to Viñes and Rachmaninov is the heavy, but very nuanced use of the sustain pedal. In order to achieve the rich timbre of the main theme, I also in this case found that the solution was to create the legato through a rather rapid attack of the keys. When I generally used too much “finger legato” I found that this in combination with the “polyphonic rubato” easily cluttered the sonority from the pedal. Striking the keys rapidly with precision, almost accentuating them, helped me to “capture” the melodic lines in the pedal and to bring them out in a legato way, but also more polyphonically.
The most challenging task when recreating this Nocturne was to achieve polyphonic freedom in all the voices, especially with regards to “freeing” the right hand from the accompaniment. During all my years as a piano student, I remember several of my teachers pointing out how Chopin’s left hand was allegedly perfectly steady while the right hand could be free. Liszt is said to have talked about this in one of his lessons, pointing to the outside of his window:
Look at these trees! The wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.
Without venturing too far out onto the ice of justifying a “Chopinesque performance practice,” it is as a side-note interesting to observe this strong tradition of talking about this “polyphonic freedom” between Chopin’s right and left hand. However, very few modern-day performers seem to be willing to literally incorporate this element in their own playing. I believe that we hear traces of this tradition in Friedman’s playing, and I think that the reason for not fully embracing this practice in modern-day performance is partly because it is impossible to achieve this while also reading the notated rhythms in the score literally. In the perspective of this “polyphonic rubato” tradition, we should therefore, in my view, be willing to accept more rhythmical deviations from the score.