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Sweet Dreams: Clifton Matthews Plays Chopin's Nocturnes

by John W. Lambert

February 20, 2007, Winston-Salem, NC: Among the Old North State's greatest treasures are its artists, and among them, few stand out in such bold relief as pianist Clifton Matthews, whose work has enriched our citizens for over 40 years. He came to UNC, in Chapel Hill, in the mid-'60s but in short order joined composer Robert Ward (his former teacher at Juilliard) and others at our then-new School of the Arts. He's been based in the Triad ever since, and through the years he's kept his hand — hands, actually  — in the performance game while concurrently helping scads of brilliant young students move into music for performance and teaching of their own. On Tuesday evening, in the NCSA's Watson Chamber Music Hall, Matthews managed a "first" for himself and many of those present: a traversal of all the Chopin Nocturnes with opus numbers (there being two others that were cataloged by M.J.E. Brown).

The debt of Chopin (1810-49) to John Field (1782-1837), who is credited with creating the nocturne as we have come to know it, is widely appreciated, yet it's the Polish master's essays in this form that are played today, not the Irish-born pianist's. There's a good chance the debt is more than merely academic: the two men met in 1833, and it is virtually certain that Chopin played Field's pieces and most likely taught them, too. Field was somewhat ambivalent about the name he applied to these generally restrained, dreamy works, calling them "romances" in several instances. From our perspective, they remain somewhat amorphous, like jello before it's fully set, but for the most part Chopin's incarnations are slow, harmonically engaging, and restrained in terms of dynamics (although truth to tell, Chopin is thought to have played everything with restraint and a far narrower dynamic compass than is common today).

Matthews gave the 19 pieces in order of publication, which happens also to be the order of composition, with one exception. The first two sets (Opp. 9 and 15) consist of three nocturnes each. There are then six pairs (Opp. 27, 32, 37, 48, 55, and 62), followed by the early stand-alone Nocturne in e minor, Op. 72/1 (1827), whose work-mates are the Funeral March in C minor (also 1827, and not to be confused with the slow movement of the Second Sonata) and the Three Ecossaises (1826). The composition of these pieces occupied Chopin from time to time throughout his life, starting in 1827 and ending with the publication of Op. 62 in Leipzig, Paris and London in 1846. (For the record, the other two nocturnes are in C sharp minor, B.49, and in C minor, B.108.)

Some of the nocturnes are familiar, thanks to their popularity as encore pieces, generally following potboilers. They are however almost never given integral performances like this one. Matthews told us he'd never before played them all together. And while there have been many performances of the preludes, etudes and other Chopin works, this writer has (other than on records) never heard all the nocturnes in one sitting, either. It made for a fascinating evening. The familiar numbers served as welcome milestones in the musical sea. These were given with infinite skill and artistry by our seasoned performer, whose understanding of Chopin's psyche was constantly evident. These were in Matthews' hands living, breathing things, not just so many notes on musty paper.

For reasons not altogether clear, it was the relatively unfamiliar nocturnes that gave the greatest pleasure, perhaps because they were such delightful and charming discoveries. But taken all together, the set of nocturnes constituted a considerable journey with far greater variety in color and texture and tempi and dynamics than one might have guessed at the outset. Certainly, these nocturnes, as played on this occasion, were far, far from sure cures for insomnia! Matthews gave the familiar ones and the less well-known ones, too, new meaning that resulted in an evening that was, if anything, far greater than the mere sum of its parts. If we still carried artists on our shoulders through the streets of our cities, following great performances, this artist would have merited the hauling 'round the town of Winston or Salem or both!

   
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