FAURE: The Complete Nocturnes – Charles Owen, piano – Avie AV 2133, 79:36 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Gabriel Faure came to the nocturne by the same route that took him to the barcarolle–the influence of Frederic Chopin by way of singer Pauline Viardot and pianist-composer Camille Saint-Saens. The thirteen Faure nocturnes traverse most of his compositional career, 1875-1921, and they complement his art-song output in their innate lyricism and increasing modal chromaticism as Faure’s creativity extended into the 20th Century. Pianist Charles Owen, Guildhall Professor of Piano, performs on a Steinway D (6-9 February 2008) at Henry Wood Hall, London and achieves a tempered resonance we already know from his equally successful survey of the Faure barcarolles for Avie.
The opening E-flat Minor Nocturne, Op. 33, No. 1 (1875) echoes Chopin’s E Minor Prelude in its nervous plaints and chorale middle section; but the mood becomes coy when Owen’s crossed hands and syncopated accompaniment suggest a water-borne ballade. If the sonority resembles that of Rachmaninov, the likeness may not be so coincidental. No. 2 in B Major (1881) reveals a dual personality: first a tender duet that adumbrates the Dolly music; then a galloping toccata in the Saint-Saens mode. Some of leaps, liquid flourishes, and roulades may have influenced the young Debussy. The A-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 3 (1883) seems to define the mercurial element in Faure’s erotic melos and transformation of a salon medium to a passionate declaration in a Liszt style, sensuously gossamer. The E-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 36 (1884) intensifies and refines the eros of No. 3 into an angular modality that thickens the textures in a style Busoni would emulate. Owen’s refinement in this nocturne makes it a worthy cut for radio broadcast.
The B-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 37 (1884) opens in the manner of the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasy, perhaps even more improvisatory in mood. Splashy arabesques insinuate themselves as the texture thickens chromatically. The middle section, quite virtuosic, achieves the breathless momentum of a Chopin or Liszt etude. The extended D-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 63 (1894), which remains one of the more perennial of the Faure oeuvre, enjoys a plastic distillation of melody and modal harmony quite unique, especially as a sign of the maturity in Faure’s style. The uneven phrase lengths add to a nervous joie in the progression, worthy to be called a ballade or fantasia. The Lisztian flurries of the central section prove scintillating and refreshed, at once. The C-sharp Minor Nocturne, Op. 74 (1898) has the fin-de-siecle mystery and inflamed angst we might ascribe to the drooping figures in the more condensed Brahms, say in Op. 116, No. 5. Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat Major (1902) enters the set only by dint of a publisher’s nervy ambition: Faure meant the piece for his Op. 84 8 Brief Pieces. The ethos of the piece resembles a self-contented cat’s curling or stretching luxuriantly over a soft bed of satin.
The Nocturne No. 9 in B Minor, Op. 97 (1908) takes on a new order of spare symmetrical lines that have something of Scriabin’s angular austerity and harmonic daring. Faure’s later style asserts itself, the metrics irregular but still overwhelmed by an insistent melody whose thick textures might owe debts to Mussorgsky as well as to the cosmopolite Scriabin. Something of Bach’s intensity of mood permeates Nocturne No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 99 (1908), its syncopes insistent in a precious dance-mode that remains darkly obsessive. Marked “Quasi adagio,” the piece often becomes martial in spirit, and always driven from some interior sense of malaise.
The 1913 F-sharp Minor, Op. 104, No. 1 Nocturne serves as an elegy for Noemi Lalo, wife of music critic Pierre Lalo. Carved in one austere affect, the music reaches into antique modal harmony, almost a plainchant in polyphonic declamatory figures. There seems a vague family resemblance to Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess. Nocturne No. 12 in E Minor, Op. 107 (1915) possesses a thickly mercurial texture reminiscent of a Rachmaninov etude-tableau, half nocturne, half barcarolle. The darkness of WW I looms over its swirling figures, and Owen negotiates its punishing bravura with demure accuracy. Dedicated to virtuoso Robert Lortat, the piece reflects that artist’s digital prowess. The death of Faure’s eternal mentor Camille Saint-Saens in 1921 forms part of the inspiration for the B Minor, Op. 119 Nocturne’s severe counterpoint, composed of two angular, elegiac motifs that achieve an intensity darkly luminous, anguished by the composer’s deafness and spiritual loneliness.