Field: Complete Nocturnes. Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano. Decca 478 9672. Total Time: 86.08.
By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL REVIEW — If the Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782-1837) is remembered at all, it is as the creator of the nocturne as a musical form. He wrote 18 such pieces, few of them longer than 4-5 minutes. They are simple salon pieces and they could be described as piano transcriptions of the vocal music of the day. But within a few years, Chopin had taken over the genre and transformed the nocturne into a much deeper kind of piece. Chopin’s nocturnes retain the vocal personality so characteristic of Field’s efforts, but he produced a series of remarkable short pieces that were both more ambitious and more personal. Nonetheless, it is worth bringing all 18 Field Nocturnes together on a single CD — note the exceptional playing time of more than 86 minutes — as the young American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe has done on this new Decca recording.
Field was born in Dublin and studied under Muzio Clementi. He soon became Clementi’s assistant and traveled widely with the Italian master. One of the countries they visited was Russia, and with Clementi’s help Field securing a teaching position in St. Petersburg. He married one of his students, the French pianist Adelaide Percheron, and they often performed together in Russia. She ultimately left him to try to make a solo career. Field died in Moscow on January 23, 1837, at the age of 52.
In addition to the 18 nocturnes, Field wrote little other music. We have a handful of pieces for piano solo and seven piano concertos — and that is all. It is easy to dismiss the nocturnes as minor pieces. Most of them have a melody in the right hand that is eventually embellished, while the left hand plays mostly arpeggios. Only three of the nocturnes are in minor keys — No. 2 in c minor, No. 9 in e minor, and No. 15 in d minor. Harmonically and rhythmically, they are very dull, and there is little variation in dynamics.
But there are exceptions. As Roe points out in her liner notes, the Nocturne No. 16 in C major — the longest of the eighteen pieces by far at 9 minutes and 26 seconds — is “meandering and moody” at times, and the Nocturne No. 12 in E major is “playful.” In fact, this piece practically prances out of the gate and in the middle section the prancing turns into muscular galloping. The last section is memorable for its striking use of a repeated note in the middle register of the piano. Roe plays this nocturne with great energy and charm.
The Nocturne No. 18 in F major is also exceptional for its feeling of resignation and sadness. Field is usually content to write music that is merely pleasing, but here he has captured something more. Roe captures it too in a sensitive performance. But we do need to remind ourselves that while Field may have created the nocturne, it was Chopin who brought it to its fullest artistic fruition. Chopin’s first published Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, begins in the same way as do many of the Field nocturnes, with arpeggios in the left hand, and goes on to elaborate ornamentation in the right hand. But then come the most subtle and affecting melodic and harmonic surprises. In his later Nocturnes, Chopin went even further, producing almost infinite variety in the smallest forms.
Field’s nocturnes have been recorded many times before, mostly notably by John O’Conor (Telarc 80290) on recordings that date back 25 years. But we should be grateful for a fine new recording that brings all 18 nocturnes together on one CD.
Roe made an auspicious debut just last year with an album of piano concertos by Britten and Barber (Decca 478 8189). This newest release will surely enhance her reputation. Roe was born in Chicago and studied at Juilliard. While there, she wrote a thesis on the representation of music in the work of Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and E. M. Forster. Obviously, Roe is a serious artist with a burgeoning solo career and an even more advanced career as Greg Anderson’s partner in the Anderson & Roe Piano Duo. It is all the more inexplicable in the booklet for the John Field nocturnes that she is shown in a photograph that would be more appropriate for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com,www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.