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Thread: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

  1. #16
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Anton Kuerti and Paul Badura-Skoda Play Beethoven

    After arriving at the same point in both of these cycles, I figured a direct comparison between the two sets seemed like a good idea. Certainly up to this point I prefer PBS’ approach. Anton Kuerti is too willful, eccentric, or egocentric, depending on how you look at it. His penchant for slow and even occasionally lumbering speeds, idiosyncratic rubato and phrasing, and wholly unconventional playing just doesn’t work for me. He’s clearly a technically accomplished pianist, but with half the cycle down, he’s not right for me. Paul Badura-Skoda, while more direct in his playing, still offers enough individual insight and suits me much better. Sure, he’s a bit gruff here and there, and his Bösendorfer, as recorded, doesn’t always sound ideal, but it’s still stimulating if not world-beating. So with comparisons now the way to go, what better way to start such a round of comparisons than with the critical Op 31 sonatas?

    Kuerti got the first airing. After the wildly uneven, and mostly, um, less than exemplary interpretations thus far, let’s just say I didn’t have the highest expectations for the works. Imagine my astonishment when I listened to one of the best recordings of Op 31/1 I’ve ever heard. Not one iota of either irony or hyperbole is included in that statement. This is a superb recording. Kuerti opens the piece relatively quickly and with a very light touch while maintaining a nice sense of rhythm and avoiding excess mannerism. He keeps this basic sound pretty much throughout, though in this movement his unique touches pay dividends, such as the repeated figures around 4’. The playing is clear and well articulated, most notably in the bass. Peeking at the timing of the Adagio made me a bit uneasy – it’s 12’49” long. Since both Claude Frank and Eric Heidsieck extend the movement to similar lengths and remain successful, I figured this might work. It does! The movement begins with amazingly well played trills. They’re almost impossibly soft yet still imbued with wondrous tonal and micro-dynamic variability. How does Kuerti do it? The runs are meticulously timed and dispatched, too. The middle section of the movement is nearly breathtakingly great: Kuerti plays in such a way that the left hand chords become almost hypnotic (in the best way) and proto-minimalist while the snazzy figures played by the right hand are so precisely played and contain so much lavish attention to tone color as to almost invite disbelief. Yes, these very traits come across as excessively mannered elsewhere, but here they work splendidly. But that’s not all! The return of the trills is as breathtaking. Gorgeous beyond my standard expectations, they simply captivate, the long bass trill just after 11’ especially. The concluding Rondo is brilliant. All of Kuerti’s usual traits are indeed audible, but he deploys them flawlessly; he never overdoes it. Even the manhandled coda is well done. After this recording I was left wondering whether Kuerti just doesn’t feel at home in the earlier works, because he nails this one.

    After Kuerti’s recording, PBS’ was bound to be less compelling. But it ain’t half-bad. PBS plays in a more traditional manner, opening the piece quickly, with jaunty staccato and a meatier sound. Less attention is paid to tonal and dynamic contrasts, but PBS does allow himself some room for unique (if not as compelling) accents. The opening movement is undeniably sunnier and more rhythmically driven. The Adagio has crisper, quicker, rather straight trills and a happier overall feel to it than Kuerti’s, but it is fun to listen to. The middle section here is much faster, and takes on an almost urgent feel at times, and the return of the opening material sounds just a bit more urgent as a result. The Rondo is snappy, upbeat, and nice and weighty. No, this is not as good as Kuerti’s recording, nor does it match up to a number of others, but it’s more than adequate.

    With the brilliant 31/1 down, I was eager to hear Kuerti in the Tempest. Kuerti’s penchant for extreme contrasts would work very well here, I thought, and the opening movement more or less reinforced my hunch. The Largo section is extremely slow and quiet and stretched to its limit. This does help to create a sense of drama and anticipation, and when Kuerti does get going at around 46” in, the effect is worth the wait. He plays with notable speed and accuracy, and the ascending figure is heavy and tense and nervous, offering a nice contrast to the open. All throughout, Kuerti underscores the dramatic contrasts in the movement, and what before sounded mannered and eccentric now works. Then comes the Adagio and things fall apart. At 10’50”, this is more a distended Largo than an Adagio. Nothing works. There is absolutely no flow; figures and chords – hell, single notes – become isolated events; thematic material crumbles. This movement is colossally misjudged. To cap it off, Kuerti’s playing takes on some of its prior problems in the Allegretto. While still dramatic and possessed of strong contrasts, the playing becomes a bit tiresome at times. The powerful, pointed playing really does catch fire in a few places, but then Kuerti seems intent on smothering the musical fire with mannerism. After such a strong opening, I really wanted more than I got. That’s unfortunate.

    Paul Badura-Skoda, as would be expected, takes a more conventional approach, and he mostly succeeds. The opening Largo is taken at a brisker tempo than Kuerti’s, and PBS positively relishes the fiery, tumultuous playing that follows. Also as one would expect, the Bösendorfer’s additional heft and slightly cutting sound add to the allure. The return of the opening material takes on a more worried feel, and the movement alternates thusly to the end. I cannot overlook the fact that I wished for a bit more intensity in parts, nor can I deny that the playing sounds just a tad stiff in places, but it still sounds good. The Adagio is more appropriately paced than in Kuerti’s recording, and it assumes a more stirring feel as a result. PBS creates a nice effect by playing the repeated four note figure in either a reassuring or terse way, as the moment demands. The concluding Allegretto comes off as biting and intense, with plenty of drive. Overall, I find PBS’ recording more successful than Kuerti’s, though neither one ranks among the best out there.

    Moving on to the last of the critical bunch it becomes clear that Kuerti is intent on reverting to the style I so dislike. Perhaps he’s not really reverting, but his willfulness definitely hampers things. The first movement shows that slowness and stiffness that can creep in, though one can still divine a puckish element. Things pick up a bit in the second section, but Kuerti never really creates enough tension. The music sounds stodgy and stuffy. One nice effect occurs just after 5,’ when Kuerti plays the chords almost as a taunting laugh. The Scherzo, well, it’s too slow and strangely soft. The Menuetto, too, though sluggishness is joined by excessive seriousness. The Presto is the most successful movement. (Kuerti often seems to be most successful in final movements. Go figure.) The slow ‘n’ soft start quickly gives way to a more appropriately rambunctious good time. A few terse notes aside, he continues thusly to the end. But one movement does not a successful sonata make.

    PBS does much better. The work opens in a more relaxed way and soon displays good humor and vivacity in just the right proportions. Some passages are dashed off almost hastily – a neat device – and the Bösendorfer low register heft makes everything just a bit meatier, but only at appropriate times. The Scherzo comes off as almost aggressive and certainly driven, with superb outbursts to kick the piece back into action when things start to sag. Of course, things never sag; the piece just slows down and starts to meander a bit, just as intended. Old Ludwig van, he’s havin’ himself a good ol’ time. So’s Paul. There’s one problem – the playing doesn’t display ideal tonal flexibility. The Menuetto is taut and tense, and the middle section displays some real bite, and the return of the opening material doesn’t stray from what came before. Things could definitely sound more, um, pleasant, but it’s better than what’s to be found in the previous recording. The concluding Presto is brusque and gruff, but it’s also jovial and spirited and brimming over with forward momentum. A few chords sound harsh in places, and in the context of this recording, sound welcome. Not a great recording, perhaps, but good nonetheless.

    After listening to the big three, I cannot say that either cycle is a great one, at least to my ears, but of the two, Paul Badura-Skoda definitely has the edge.

    After some big works, one gets to revel in charming trifles. Keeping the same order as before meant Kuerti got his shot first. Trouble can be gleaned from the copious notes; says Mr Kuerti: “Apart from tradition and the fact that they were published as “sonatas,” probably the best reason for including them is the fact that 32 is the fifth power of 2 and thus a round and very distinguished number.” Um, okay. The first sonatas starts promisingly enough, with a tender, attractive tone, but it sounds positively static. Nothing happens. There’s no forward progress. The second movement is quicker and livelier, but doesn’t have any really distinguishing traits. The second sonata, well, it’s less successful. The opening movement is awful. Its open isn’t just slow, it’s lumbering and heavy. Things improve slightly after a minute or two, but then the second movement arrives with its hefty-staccato / too punchy sound and one can only wish for it to be over as quickly as possible. It’s clear from both his writing and playing that Kuerti doesn’t like all of Beethoven’s sonatas. While there’s obviously no need for him to like the works, it begs the question: Why record them all? As before, Paul Badura-Skoda plays the pieces more to my taste. The first sonata’s first movement is quick, fetching, and slightly terse on occasion. The second movement is quick and lively. The second sonata more or less sounds like the first sonata, and that delightful theme used in the septet is, well, it’s delightful. Better can be had, though. Granted, these two sonatas are youthful trifles, but some pianists – most notably Kovacevich and Heidsieck – show that they can be more than they are here.

    Trifles aside, it’s time for some big works. Kuerti manages to do well in the vaunted Waldstein, though not everything is rosy. The opening, as is so often the case, is quick and light, and once again Kuerti displays his remarkable ability to produce a panoply of colors and dynamic gradations at the low end of the spectrum. Then, which also happens quite frequently in this cycle, Kuerti uses the first loud outburst to create a dramatic contrast. Here it works. At least initially. As the movement progresses, Kuerti does a masterly job of playing the two parts at different, contrasting volumes. (Perhaps his take on Chopin’s Etudes would be interesting.) Even so, some of the playing assumes that faux-seriousness that occasionally hampers his playing. The Adagio suffers from that Kuerti specialty – sluggishness – and sounds a bit hazy at times. The concluding Rondo starts in a truly lovely and gentle manner, raising one’s hopes. But then mannerism creeps back in. After a remarkable long trill transition – with the trill itself transforming into an urgent horn call – and swelling power, Kuerti reverts to giving the listener too much detail. This movement needs sweep and drama. Even with the problems, though, this ends up being one of the more successful sonatas in the cycle thus far.

    Paul Badura-Skoda’s take produces one of the weakest sonatas in his cycle. At times, the opening movement sounds like a muddled, indistinct mass of notes. A relative lack of color, a bit of stiffness, and dissatisfying contrasts make for an also-ran opener. The Adagio comes across as clear, but it also sounds a bit too pointed and urgent. And as for the Rondo, despite an attractive sense of nostalgia at the beginning and a well executed transitional trill, PBS never generates enough intensity or drive. Bummer.

    Op 54 again finds Kuerti playing music he’s apparently not fond of. The first movement starts with a staggered, stuttering lyricism that sounds nice enough for a while, but quickly wears thin. That the louder passages sound too sharp and rough doesn’t help. The second movement is clanky and just plain ugly at times. At other times it’s rather attractive. But it never flows or engages the listener. Next. PBS plays in a more attractive overall manner, with strangely attractive staccato. Some of the louder passages exhibit that certain not completely unappealing roughness that crops up every once in a while. The second movement is brusque, with a sharper staccato, but the vigor keeps one happy. The strong coda keeps in line with a strongly played if not top drawer recording.

    Time for another biggie. Kuerti’s fond of the Appassionata, and at least at the outset that sounds evident enough. As is his wont, Kuerti opens with his peculiar and here peculiarly effective blend of light, soft, and enticingly variable playing. When the strong, impassioned music arrives, Kuerti delivers; his playing is intense and fiery – or at least an attractively contrived facsimile thereof. He then alternates these basic styles. His remarkably precise crescendos and decrescendos aid in his approach (really, they are something), as does his admirable dexterity. The second movement is as successful. Appropriately slow and filled with a subdued drama, Kuerti knows just how to ratchet up the tension in the latter half of the movement. The opening to the concluding movement is strong and biting, and then it retreats to a restrained yet tense sound immediately afterward. And then, well, then it’s downhill. The piece just sags in the middle, and all intensity is sapped from the piece. Yes, there needs to be an anticipatory feel to the music, but there also needs to be some tension. Sure, the coda is explosive, but the damage is done. A promising start gives way to a severely disappointing finish.

    More successful is Mr Badura-Skoda. He opens the work in swift, not-too-light and not-too-heavy fashion, with tension aplenty and a (pleasingly) unrelenting drive in the following section. He then alternates as appropriate. The middle section climax is really biting and intense and peppered with some hefty low-register playing. Overall, it’s tense. It’s frenetic. It’s impassioned. The Andante is taken at a somewhat brisk clip, and it never really sounds quiet. Rather, like St Annie and Mr Lipkin, PBS maintains nervous tension throughout, as if poised to explode. And then the finale arrives, and it bursts out of the gate. PBS knows to back off a bit and build up tension until releasing all in a cathartic cascade of notes. I rather fancy this style so I rather fancy this recording.

    Now to some more little gems. And some trepidation. Knowing how Kuerti crushes the Op 49 sonatas, I feared for the Op 78 and 79 sonatas, and with good reason. He takes 8’37” to open the Op 78. That’s way too slow. All of Kuerti’s lovely sounds can’t make up for that. (Isn’t the piece supposed to pick up steam after the opening passage? It doesn’t.) The second movement is much quicker, but here Kuerti reverts completely to his earlier style. Odd accents abound. A bizarre, detached feel descends on the playing. The Op 79 actually fares worse. The opening Presto is absolutely awful. Slow, plodding, lumbering, soporific: No adjective can possibly describe the injustice done to the music. The Andante is as bad. It’s drained of life and leaden. To throw a wrench into the works, Kuerti plays the concluding Vivace in a reasonably lively fashion. But its relative quality only serves to underscore just how awful the first two movements are.

    Decidedly more successful is PBS’ approach. The first movement to the Op 78 is warm, flowing, graceful, lyrical, and perfectly paced; the second movement is upbeat and energetic, if a bit rough in places. The Op 79 opens with too metallic a sound, but it is clear, bold, and meaty. It’s as though Haydn is being channeled to create a rustic, earthy dance that only the most hardened soul wouldn’t enjoy. The Andante is beautiful and lyrical, with a calming, serene sound near the end. The Vivace, though a bit thicker than normal, nevertheless sounds fine. Much better.

    So that leads me to the last work for this batch of sonatas, the Op 81a. Rather than start with Kuerti, I opted to open with PBS, but mostly because I was too lazy to get out of my easy chair to change discs. From the start it is apparent this version is different from most others I’ve heard. Most readings of this work assume a quasi-orchestral sound and style; they purposely sound not only big, but huge. Not so this one. It’s smaller in scale. It’s more personal. The composer and interpreter are bidding adieu to only one person, not a group of people. As a result of this approach, the opening chords are rather plainly delivered and lacking gravity. The playing is still big,, it’s just not grand; it’s a fond farewell, not an intense, moving one. The second movement is tense and nervous to open, with some slightly choppy playing, and it never really takes on a brooding, melancholy air. If anything, it sounds as though the protagonist is pissed. The final movement is swift-ish and not exactly rapturously ebullient. It evokes a sense of familiarity. It’s as though now that his buddy is back, the protagonist and his friend nudge shoulders, regale each other with tall tales of their respective exploits, burst into fits of (sometimes bawdy) laughter, and even reminisce about the old days, aware that the separation resulted in some kind of change that means they have grown slightly apart. No, of course these things aren’t in the music, but Badura-Skoda certainly makes one imagine they are. It’s a unique, alternative take, and one I’m certain I’ll return to.

    In some ways it is Kuerti who plays in a more traditional manner in this work. The Adagio opening sounds quietly plaintive, and the work assumes large dimensions in the ensuing Allegro. But any sense of a heartfelt goodbye is totally lost in the incessant focus on details. It’s as though Kuerti is saying to listener: “Listen, listen to that chord. Wait, hear this little arpeggio and how I can vary the volume so subtly with each note.” As an example of pianism, it’s impressive; as an example of committed musicianship, it’s not. The Andante offers more of the same, though at a slower speed. The concluding movement is predictably faster, but just as predictably it’s not moving. It’s something of a dud.

    So, a healthy batch of sonatas have been dutifully devoured. In the case of Paul Badura-Skoda, this duty has been most enjoyable. It has become quite clear to me that I cannot count either set among my favorites, and it’s also clear that the Kuerti cycle, despite peaking extremely high with the 31/1, is turning out to be a dud. On to the late sonatas . . .


    --


    As I worked my way through the last batch of sonatas, something occurred to me. I think that all pianists (and all other instrumentalists, and conductors, too) should be taught two simple truths: Slow does not necessarily equal Profound; Fast does not necessarily equal Exciting. They should then be retaught these simple truths, and, for good measure, taught them once more. That’s not to say that slow playing can’t be profound and fast playing can’t be exciting – there are ample recordings and performances that demonstrate they can be – but rather, slowness and swiftness are not the only things required to produce the at least occasionally desired outcomes of Profundity and Excitement. Of the two pianists currently under consideration, one apparently learned these truths well and one did not.

    I’ll start with the one who didn’t. Up to this point, Kuerti’s cycle has disappointed, and Kuerti brings to the late sonatas all of those traits that so hampered so many of the earlier works. The Op 90 is, again, too slow; indeed, it is plain ol’ plodding at times. The attempts at depth and emotion are hollow and artificial, and some superb, nimble playing between about 3’ and 3’30” only serves to highlight the weakness of the rest of the work. The second movement fares better, with Kuerti extracting a lovely tone from his instrument. But even this tone never completely frees the nascent lyricism from Kuerti’s stodgy playing. Throw in a few nasty treble notes just after 4’ in, and a sense that the piece may just drag on forever, and one is left with a decidedly sub-par recording of this work.

    Now to Paul Badura-Skoda. His relatively small-scale, personal Les Adieux offered an early glimpse of how the late sonatas would sound. That is, rather than play them in more customary X fashion (you supply the X), PBS offers a smaller-scale, direct, personal, and even intimate traversal of the works. He makes the pieces sound angrier than is often the case; he makes the pieces sound more, well, conversational; he makes the pieces sound more human in scale. The Op 90 certainly is all of those things. The opening movement is quick and pointed, aggressive and angry. Really angry. Angry at what? What ya got? The opening thus becomes just a bit discomforting, though in a most reassuring way: here is late LvB stripped of excess baggage and going straight to the heart of the matter. After the initial anger, one gets more to savor, including some nearly breathless fast playing at just after 2’, and a healthy dollop of sorrow, depression, and isolation in just about the perfect proportions. The second movement offers a nice contrast to the opener. It’s more lyrical. Hell, it’s a song. But PBS manages something I’ve not heard before: he manages to make the piece sound simultaneously discursive and focused. Huh? Yep, he does; he’ll seemingly ramble on for a while, then bring some idea into sharp relief. His guiding hand is firm and precise, yet he evokes a less firm and precise emotional world. As the singing unfolds, he’s not afraid to let the music wallow, to let the music vent and cry. It’s unique and uniquely captivating.

    Moving on to 101, I decided to go for PBS. A wise choice. The opening is wonderfully paced – it’s taut and quick – with some nicely tense yet lyrical playing able to conjure that transportive quality of late Beethoven without turning it into musical philosophy. The subsequent march is strong and vigorous as befits the music, yet PBS brings a mercurial, moody feel that also aids the piece. The Adagio, in contrast, is tender and ruminative in the best late-LvB tradition. The final movement comes off as quick and alert, with nary a trace of pretentious heaviness; only that transportive quality shines through. But again, it’s not musicophilosophical; it’s more one person contemplating the nature of things. Which things are up to the listener.

    Kuerti? Yep, slow. To be more descriptive: slow, broken, choppy, etc. His playing displays a detached, almost other-worldly feel, and while that can be a good thing, it ain’t here. It’s cold. To make matters worse, he overutilizes some poorly selected devices. Worst has got to be his use of ultra-long chord sustains. He holds ‘em so long that when the next one begins, it almost sounds as though he’s absent-minded, like saying “Oops! I gotta play some more notes!” The march is better, with a nicely pointed, strongly characterized sound, but when one factors in the brittle sound and utter lack of excitement (and surely this march should be at least a little exciting), one doesn’t exactly end up with a world-beater. The Adagio is simply too slow to be effective. Kuerti sounds as though he’s merely running through the work. The concluding movement offers a maddening mix of superb interpretive devices (like the superb trill at the opening and a really powerful climax) and muddled ones (the droning slowness and awful coda). An unhappy experience, I’d say.

    So I arrived at the mighty Hammerklavier. I decided to sit through Kuerti first. I must confess that the sheer length of the recording – 52 minutes – made me dread sitting through the recording. Fortunately, it’s better than I feared. Unfortunately, not by much. The opening movement actually boasts a nicely judged, comfortable overall tempo to support Kuerti’s obviously grand conception of the work. Yet within this grandly conceived approach, he manages to pay close attention to minute details. Even so, it’s not exactly captivating. Ditto the undistinguished second movement. The 25 minute Adagio most made me dread listening this recording. How can this movement be made that long and still succeed? I still don’t know, because Kuerti doesn’t really succeed. It’s not a disaster, though. The first three-and-a-half minutes or so actually make for compelling listening. Then things head south. It never sounds awful, but it never sounds compelling. It’s just there. After a few minutes, my mind began to wander. Initially, I only pondered minor, simple things like “What should I have for dinner?” Then, as things continued on, I started moving on to more complex ideas, like how much money I should invest in Japan-centric mutual funds now that Japan Post has been privatized. I even ended up running through some rough estimates of the effects of currency swings and the like. Even when I was done pondering that, the Adagio still hadn’t ended. It goes on and on. The final movement opens with a very well done Largo, with all of Kuerti’s mannerisms deployed in a most satisfying manner, and then the fugue itself is dispatched with remarkable clarity. But excess slowness and a lack of energy prevent it from really amounting to much. Indeed, the whole recording is, well, boring. That just will not do.

    Paul Badura-Skoda, well, he offers something entirely different. The opening movement is fast, strong, driven, thrusting, and possessed of an undeniable sense of urgency. It’s big and powerful, alright, but it’s not huge in conception. It’s more, um, human in scale. In that regard it rather reminds me of Gulda’s staggeringly great Amadeo recording. Throw in that attractive Bösendorfer heft, and one gets to hear a treat. Okay, it’s not perfect. Things could be a bit clearer and tidier, but I’ll take gruff, intense, and viscerally exciting over precise and boring any day. The Scherzo is, if anything, even more driven than the opening movement. Cool. To the Adagio: this here ain’t no serene, contemplative take. Nosirree! This here’s fierier and more personal. PBS assumes a sensible overall pace, and then he proceeds to imbue the Great Movement with feelings of turmoil, grief, anger, pain, and, above all, despair, all wound up into a tight little ball of profound music. As the movement progresses, the overall mood of the piece transforms to one of resignation and acceptance; after despairing over something – something deeply important – the protagonist realizes there is nothing more to do. It’s exceptionally compelling. The finale opens with a tempestuous and perhaps too quick Largo (though I love it) before launching into a fast, furious fugue. No, PBS’ playing is not the model of fastidiousness that some may want here, but the intense playing and growling lower register make the experience memorable. PBS slows way down in the middle, assuming an almost Bachian air for a time, but then he returns to a more aggressive style to end it. This is not a perfect recording of this great work, but PBS’ approach makes for one hell of an invigorating take, and ends up being one of the best versions I’ve heard.

    Time for the final trio. I opted to start with Kuerti again, and again I came away disappointed. The opening movement comes off poorly. Plinky and brittle, overstated and underscored, Kuerti resorts to his usual mannerisms and pretty much ruins the music. The slower passages (within a slow overall conception) sound relatively better, I guess, but there’s not much here to praise. The Prestissimo certainly sounds strong, but Kuerti brings a heavy hand to the proceedings, again ruining the music. The final movement fares best, but I can’t say it’s especially worthwhile. The opening is very slow, and the whole thing stays slow to the end. As is so often the case with Kuerti, his playing delivers faux feelings and insights; rather than display any ingenuous emotion, he seems to only create artificial emotion. It becomes tedious.

    Paul Badura-Skoda continues to offer his smaller-scale but compelling take on late Beethoven. He starts out fast and lithe, but, at the appropriate times, he offers some meaty, hard-hitting playing to drive home a point. But as with the preceding late works, the playing is largely shorn of that certain philosophical or transcendental feeling that many pianists bring to the late works. Certain moments do show those traits, but the overall feeling is more personal. That’s fine by me. The Prestissimo continues on with quick, strong, and strongly contrasted playing. The final movement is where PBS’ different approach really shows. Lean, punchy, and at times nervous, PBS brings a greater than usual sense of urgency to the music. Ethereal and transcendental this may not be, but focused and irresistibly involving it most certainly is. PBS wants to and does communicate the greatness of the music in the most forthright manner possible, to the point of being abrupt, but this more direct approach works. It ain’t the best, but it sure sounds nifty to me.

    Sticking with Badura-Skoda for the 110 finds more of the same. The opening is quick and urgent, with the protagonist seeming to leap forth to tell of some harrowing experience (especially in the middle section) that while unique to the protagonist still contains some universal truth. Indeed, that seems to be the best way to describe PBS’ approach in general. It is individual yet universal. It is quintessential Beethoven. Anyhoo, the movement moves on to end in a more lyrical, touching, and generally cheerful mood, though occasional tinges of sadness make themselves known. It is, in a word, bittersweet. Quintessentially so. The second movement is fast, hard, and aggressive with only barely detectable whiffs of sardonic humor to lighten things up on occasion. The concluding movement opens with aching, painful beauty that one doesn’t really want to hear but must; there are tales of suffering and longing to endure, to learn from. It is quite moving. But then what to make of the concise, clear, cold shower of a fugue? It sounds perhaps a bit disjointed in comparison to what came before, but I suppose that’s the point. The return of the opening material becomes bitter venting, with more of that individual anger so prevalent in PBS’ playing. The chord buildup to the fugue’s return is a bit disappointing – it lacks strength and any hint of grandeur – but the ending is rage-filled and massive, and the whole thing ends in a most terse manner. Unique and moving, this makes a fine alternative recording.

    Ironically, Kuerti comes off as the straight man here. The boring straight man. He opens the work in a slow, contrived manner, though one filled with nice tonal variation. Distended and detailed, it, well it bores. The Allegro molto comes off as too precious and focused on momentary effect. The Adagio opens up with a nicely distant and disconsolate feel, and the fugue is remarkably clear if a bit slow, with some heavy-duty bass playing. The massive chord build up to the final fugue is thunderous, but the ending passages are perhaps just a tad too sunny. All told, this is Kuerti’s best recording among the late sonatas, but even it isn’t exactly compelling.

    And now for the last one. Since PBS sounds more compelling in the late works, I decided to start with him. The opener is again strong, aggressive, angry, pointed, and most decidedly vigorous. It never sounds harsh, remains very clear, and that Bösendorfer weight really lends itself to creating a dark sound world. As things progress, a harried, almost frantic feeling emerges. The overall tenor stays nice and dark, and at times the ominous chords sound as though the protagonist is a slightly deranged jester engaged in some vicious heckling. It’s slightly unsettling and most effective. The second movement opens with an Arietta that shows all of those wonderful, standard late Beethoven traits: it’s transcendental and contemplative and exquisitely beautiful. The variations, in contrast, are taut and direct. The third variation, in particular, comes off as more muscular and vigorous and less “jazzy” than many recordings. As if to show that he can do much more, PBS slows way down for the following variation and offers a slow, subdued, and thoughtful approach. The final variation passes into the realm of the sublime, the endless trill sounding delicate and touching, and the last few minutes evoke not a meditative, heavenly tone, but rather a celebratory one; the piece ends in triumph, the protagonist offering unabashed thanks for being alive. It is unlike any other version I’ve heard, and I must say that it vaults tight to the top tier of interpretations of this work. Wonderful.

    Kuerti, well, he’s less compelling. Again, he’s slower. Hell, he’s too slow. His heavy touch drains the darkness from the piece and ends up sounding contrived. To Kuerti’s credit, he manages something special with the Arietta: it sounds static, unmoving, timeless, and unbelievably attractive. Unfortunately, the following variations offer quite a bit less. Again, detail abounds, but feeling is lacking. By the end of the sonata I was thoroughly unmoved. Bummer.

    So, two more cycles down, and it should be quite clear that I vastly prefer Paul Badura-Skoda to Anton Kuerti. Indeed, the 31/1 and a couple of other works aside, I was disappointed in Kuerti’s cycle. I could fit the highlights onto one disc. I can understand why some people might like his playing – it’s filled with numerous instances of fine pianism – but ultimately it lacks the musical qualities I’m looking for. It’s a bit empty emotionally. It’s all just a bit too contrived. Paul Badura-Skoda offers a more personal, smaller than normal scale approach to many of the works, and he sounds a bit rougher than some, but his obvious affection for the music, and his emotional honesty combine to make a fine cycle. I cannot rate it among the very best – many of the earlier sonatas are too variable – but his unique approach to the late sonatas and his superb renditions of some of the earlier works make this a more than welcome addition to my collection. I can’t say that I’m eager to hear Kuerti’s latest take on the sonatas he has rerecorded, and I have no interest in Paul Badura-Skoda’s fortepiano recordings (I strongly dislike fortepianos), so I’ll just go ahead an stick with these cycles as examples of these two artists’ work in this music. The easy choice here – PBS. Have at it.

  2. #17
    Apprentice, Piano
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    I just picked up the Daniel Barenboim set.....should be a good listen I hope

  3. #18
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Daniel Barenboim (EMI, 1960s)

    A (still relatively) new year means its time to start hearing new complete cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas. There are still a number of complete cycles I’m very interested in hearing, and among that group Daniel Barenboim’s EMI cycle got the nod first. Most comments and reviews I’ve read indicate that the EMI cycle is better than the DG cycle, though I’ve read one or two comments stating the opposite. I decided to go with the majority outlook for the time being. Barenboim’s artistry from the period is hardly new to me; I own and rather enjoy his Mozart Piano Concerto cycle on EMI, and his Bartok First and Third Concertos with Boulez are both good, so I know he had (and has) the ability to play the music. How would he sound?

    There’s no better way to find out than by starting with the Op 2 sonatas. Things start off in a most promising fashion. The first sonata opens with an Allegro played in clear, articulate fashion, with markedly clear left and right hand playing and nice dynamic variation. It’s a straightforward approach. No muss, no fuss, no frills. Things continue to sound good in the Adagio, which, though quite slow, benefits from Barenboim’s wonderfully characterful soft playing and tonal variety. It’s neither overthought nor overwrought, and moves along with a touch of grace, and maybe even tenderness. So far, so good. But then the Menuetto comes along and it’s too slow and thick. It still sounds good, at least at times, but it sounds a bit too heavy at times and a bit too obviously underscored at others. The concluding Prestissimo is more satisfying, though it, too, is slower than I prefer. Barenboim plays with a wide dynamic range, but his tone becomes a bit hard, brittle, and congested at times, though this problem may be at least partly attributable to the recording and remastering. Overall, the cycle begins in acceptable to good, but hardly great fashion.

    That’s how it progresses in the second sonata. The opening movement sounds clear and direct, but I’m not sure the Allegro vivace indication sounds quite vivacious enough. It’s a bit too deliberate. At least the middle section displays some strong, appealing playing. The Largo is taken very slowly, which is fine, and ends up sounding oddly march-like at times. Barenboim’s left hand playing is unimpeachably solid and distinct – a trait that shows up time and again – and offers an appealing foundation for the right hand play over. As the movement progresses, Barenboim really delivers some delectable soft playing, making the walloping fortissimo at around 5’15” a bit startling. It’s a nice effect, if perhaps a bit contrived. The Scherzo proceeds at a pleasant and comfortable pace, and sounds like a lighthearted aural oasis in an otherwise serious take on the piece. Once again, Barenboim offers nicely pointed and left hand playing as a musical foundation. The concluding Rondo grazioso, while maintaining what can best be called a comfortable overall tempo, sounds, well, gracious and charming, though Barenboim plays the louder passages with enough oomph to add variety.

    The opening trio concludes with another somewhat variable performance. The Allegro con brio that opens the work sounds light and energetic enough to make it fun, and then Barenboim follows this up with some vigorous, strong playing that always sounds under complete control. At about 5’25”, Barenboim plays the cascading notes with admirable clarity and restrained speed – he sees no need to rush for the sake of rushing – which makes for a nice effect. The Adagio, though, is too slow. It doesn’t flow, sounding rather blocky at times. Enough tonal and dynamic variation are on offer as partial recompense, but they don’t fully salvage the movement. The Scherzo finds Barenboim playing very fast at the start and conclusion, though a bit of stiffness seems to creep in. The middle section sounds more flowing, though. The concluding Allegro assai starts with some wonderful soaring, shimmering playing, with unique and appealing accents and phrasing to tickle one’s ears. The middle section sounds rather graceful, offering a brief rest before Barenboim brings back the opening material in notably stronger, more forceful fashion. All three of the Op 2 sonatas thus sound good in parts and less good in others parts; they’re variable and perhaps a bit too heavy and serious at times. Is this okay-to-good opening trio a harbinger of things to come? I wondered.

    The immediate answer ended up being: No! The Op 7 sonata is decidedly better. Here, I enjoy a slower, more pastoral approach, and Barenboim plays it that way for the most part. The Allegro molto e con brio opens at a reasonably brisk clip, with some especially appealing soft playing that’s filled with color and nuance and subtle rubato. Louder (and usually faster) playing assumes a slightly hard sound at times, but that doesn’t distract from an occasionally quiet and flowing, occasionally loud and powerful, and always satisfying opener. Hell, Barenboim even throws in some rhythmic zip to spice things up. The Largo, predictably, is decidedly slow, and, also predictably, sounds a bit blocky as a result; some segments seem to stand apart from the music preceding and succeeding them. A few contrived fortissimo passages also show up here and there, but overall the movement still sound pretty good. The Allegro, though, sounds so good as to elicit nothing but praise. The slightly relaxed overall tempo just aids matters, for Barenboim’s fluid and graceful delivery sound beautiful. He adds kick where needed, and the middle section finds him delivering some low-end rumble to the mix, though it does sound somewhat matter of fact (as opposed to purposely fearsome, for instance). The concluding Rondo also has a broad tempo, and sounds enjoyably lyrical, though it’s also a bit matter of fact. The middle section is nicely vigorous and biting, though the ending section, while returning to a largely lyrical sound, has some contrived sounding sharp playing thrown in. I’m splitting hairs here, of course; this is a fine recording of this work, though truth be told, I don’t think I can count it among my favorites.

    Given Barenboim’s penchant for broad tempi, I came to the first of the Op 10 sonatas expecting to be a bit bored. I very much enjoy this work to open with a bang, as it were, and Barenboim just doesn’t seem to be that kind of Beethoven player. Imagine my relief when I heard a reasonably swift, strong open. Sure, he’s no Claude Frank or Maurizio Pollini, but the opening works. After the opening salvo, Barenboim backs off and plays with a nicely variable touch, as is his wont. He then alternates the two styles deftly. His left hand playing, while notably prominent and pointed, ends up be almost too much of a good thing in that it sounds almost too serious, and it also lacks that Gulda-ian grooviness that I wish would accompany it. But this is Barenboim, not Gulda, so I gots to take what I can get. The Adagio is very slow – another pattern that seems to be emerging – with Barenboim once again taking his time to lavish attention on each note, extracting a nice tonal palette. He throws in some dynamic variation, too, and even though it definitely sounds contrived at times, it’s still attractive. I suppose one might complain that the Adagio ends up encroaching on Largo territory at times, but overall that matters little; the movement sounds fine. The concluding Prestissimo opens and stays a bit too slow for that indication, but Barenboim has some appealing tricks up his sleeve. He begins the first ascending passage with a light shimmer and gradually builds up to a powerful climax, to wonderful effect. Yes, it’s calculated, but the calculations are correct!

    The second Op 10 sonata ends up sounding somewhat like the first in overall tenor. The Allegro opener – it’s a bit slow. The tonal and dynamic variations – they’re expertly realized. The overall effect – it’s a bit contrived. An example – the usually clear and pointed left hand playing here becomes somewhat muddled via hazy legato, though a few points are very clearly and powerfully punctuated. The Allegretto second movement offers more of Barenboim’s finely spun slow playing. Fortunately, Barenboim does see fit to play the (repeatless) Presto closer in vibrant, quick, light and thoroughly rousing fashion.

    The last of the Op 10 sonatas offers pretty much the same mix of strengths and weaknesses (or lesser strengths, if you prefer) as before. The Presto opens fast ’n’ strong, though without truly satisfying rhythmic drive, and then Barenboim backs off a bit to offer his usual assortment of pianistic finery. The Largo, as one would expect, is slow, slow, slow, to the point where is doesn’t quite flow, especially near the beginning. Barenboim stretches the music to its limits, nearly breaking the musical line – though he doesn’t end up hampering it to the same extent as Kuerti, to name another slow poke – and his usual variable playing ends up sounding, yes, a bit contrived. The latter portion of the movement ends up sounding much better for some reason – and foreshadows the late works – but I can’t count the movement as a great success. The Menuetto is again a bit sluggish, though it’s also quite lyrical. Barenboim also once again shows that he can deliver some wonderful effects, as when he plays the right hand trills in a lightly textured, clear, and bright but not brittle fashion. Things end with a Rondo that sounds relatively loose and joyful and energetic. As with the opening trio, parts of the Op 10 sonatas sound wonderful and other parts less so.

    So the cycle is off to a decidedly variable start. Barenboim generally favors broad tempi, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kempff does too. But Barenboim ain’t Kempff. While Barenboim obviously plays well and brings any number of unique touches and effects to the works, many of them sound somewhat superficial and contrived. His playing lacks spontaneity. Completely. (Again, that’s not necessarily bad, but here it isn’t necessarily good.) Partly as a result, the playing seems almost sculpted or played to make a predetermined number of points in each work; each sonata has an etched quality. There’s little freedom to the playing, and the lack of rhythmic brio makes everything seems a bit too serious and reserved. Still, there are enough interesting ideas for me to want to hear what’s coming next. That’s a good sign. I only wish that EMI would have been nice enough to offer the cycle in a newer tranfer, using so-called ART remastering, rather than the mid- to late-80s transfers used for the set. The sound is a bit glassy, hard, and the treble a bit sharp, and minor break-up can be heard here and there. It’s listenable, though.


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    Starting back up with the mighty Pathetique finds Barenboim again displaying those traits he displayed in the first seven sonatas. Take the Grave opening: it’s dark and despondent, but it’s somewhat feeble and rather plain. As the movement changes over to the Allegro molto e con brio, Barenboim does indeed play faster, and he brings nice clarity to the music, but it’s rather dull. A few times the sound becomes unduly steely, to boot. The Adagio comes off best in this work, with the slowish tempo sounding just about right, and with Barenboim once again extracting a nicely variable tonal palette. The concluding Rondo, while acceptably swift and well projected, is nondescript and boring. This reading ends up being a generally well executed but ultimately boring one.

    The first of the two Op 14 sonatas – little works I admire more upon each hearing – starts off as many of the previous sonatas did: Barenboim adopts a leisurely tempo, and, at least initially, one has low expectations. Those lowered expectations quickly give way to admiration. While it’s true that the basic tempo is on the slow side, the opening Allegro flows smoothly and beautifully to the end. Barenboim takes the time to emphasize a point here or there, and his nicely clear left hand playing is everywhere evident, but what stands out most is that nothing really stands out. It all melds together well. The Allegretto again displays a relaxed, and as a result, lyrical sound, the unpleasant cutting sound of the piano notwithstanding. The slow playing here has something of a cumulative effect; the piece becomes bigger, weightier, meatier than it sometimes is. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on one’s preferences. The concluding Rondo continues at a leisurely pace, but it also ends up sounding somewhat nondescript. Overall, it’s very good. But not as good as the second. Basically, the concluding Scherzo aside, the whole work assumes the same leisurely ‘n’ lyrical overall approach, with some downright sweet playing in the opening movement and some jaunty ‘n’ punchy playing in the second. To the Scherzo, well, it’s a bit quicker and more cutting, and Barenboim once again plays the bassline with superb clarity and, in part of the movement, with a really spiffy undulating sound. Good stuff.

    Like the Op 10 sonatas, especially the first one, I came to the Op 22 with a bit of foreboding. I generally prefer this sonata to be played quick and clean, and Barenboim just isn’t about quick. As with the Op 10/1, any concerns I had were quickly dispelled. More so, in fact. The opening Allegro con brio is taken at a nice, brisk clip, with a pronounced, rolling bassline and plenty of energy and bounce. In the middle section, Barenboim plays quite forcefully but never sounds harsh at all. The Adagio sounds calm and lovely, and almost assumes the air of salon music. I mean that in a good way. Barenboim also sees fit to deploy his pianistic arsenal to bring out some nifty effects. He very meticulously plays the right hand portion evenly and precisely over a left hand of undulating volume, all while maintaining a rock-solid rhythm. Then he slows way down in the middle section to great effect. Can one sense suppressed passion? Perhaps. The Menuetto, while a smidgeon slow and stiff in parts, nonetheless sounds lyrical and graceful. The middle section is fast and fiery, and if it sounds a tad contrived, it still sounds nice. The concluding Rondo somehow manages to maintain the same overall mood while also assuming a light, almost carefree demeanor, with Barenboim reveling in the lovely melody while pushing nothing. Overall, this is the best recording of the set to this point, and one destined to receive numerous airings in these parts.

    With three winners in a row, I came to the Op 26 with heightened expectations. While said expectations weren’t dashed, they weren’t exactly fulfilled, either. The opening Andante theme is superb. It’s simply beautiful, the slow tempo just aiding in that. The first variation comes across as perhaps a tad too slow, though it’s still nice. The second variation, though, needs more pep than Barenboim delivers. That sure left hand makes its presence known, and the light and charming sound appeal to one’s ear, but despite the notable build up in speed and energy near the end of the variation, it just doesn’t deliver. And that is how the rest of the variations seem to go: A slowish variation that sounds lovely and satisfying followed by a slowish variation that sounds lovely and less satisfying. The Scherzo, by way of contrast, is fast, propulsive, and forceful, if perhaps just a bit dour. The great funeral march, though, is what makes or breaks this sonata, and Barenboim’s take is unusual. It’s slow and somber, which is certainly acceptable, but the march element is downplayed, and I can’t really say that it’s very heroic, which is most decidedly should be. It sort of comes across as solemn musical granite without any grandeur, if you will. A few stiff and forced passages don’t help, nor do they really hurt. It’s well played, but it just doesn’t do it for me. The Allegro finale is pretty spiffy though, being fast and strong in just about the amounts. So, an unusual take with real strengths and weaknesses.

    Moving on to the two sonatas quasi una fantasia finds Barenboim playing some key works. Well, one key work at any rate. I have grown to love the 27/1 so much that I rate it among my favorites of LvB’s sonatas. And there are some superb recordings of this work out there, none more than Andrea Lucchesini’s, whose compelling take has earned more than a few listens in the past several months. Barenboim’s take doesn’t measure up to Lucchesini’s, or to several other superb versions. The culprit is speed. While slow overall tempi can still result in a successful reading, there are times when speed really does help. Indeed, most of the other ingredients for a successful recording are present. Barenboim opens the piece with an exquisitely beautiful Andante, rendered all the more appealing by warm legato and an unpercussive sound. Things continue to sound fine with a powerful Allegro that never sounds hammered out, and the segue back to the opening theme is expertly handled. Where the trouble starts is with the Allegro molto e vivace. It’s way too slow; any hint of vivacious energy simply cannot be detected. The forte chords are ponderous and heavy. Blech! To his credit, Barenboim ends the passage with remarkable power. The Adagio harkens back to the Andante theme, though it’s perceptibly harder and more strident. The concluding Allegro vivace, after a sustained fading transition, is decent in terms if speed and dynamic contrasts, with that left hand again making itself very clearly heard. Unfortunately, Barenboim utilizes some not so subtle rubato in a few places and sort of italicizes some passages. So, while it’s not a disaster or especially bad (it’s much better than Rudolf Serkin’s attempt, for instance), this hardly compares with the best out there. Bummer.

    The Mondschein is less important for me, but I’m always up for hearing a nifty version. Again, Barenboim offers a mixed bag. The opening movement, while slow and somber, ends up sounding rather dull. The sustain pedal doesn’t seem to be used enough, and the playing has an even, uncontrasty sound to it. The middle movement is well played, but also has muted contrasts and sounds bland. (It also sounds as though it was recorded on a different day, in a different studio, with a different engineer, and with a different piano.) The final movement, though, is superb. Barenboim plays fast and strong, with clear, precise articulation, clean and clear and prominent bass, and unyielding forward momentum. Had only the rest of the recording been up to this level, this recording could have been something special.

    The great Pastorale was up next, and Barenboim’s playing up to this point seemed to have all the ingredients to make for a great recording. That almost happens. The opening Allegro is definitely slow – I’m thinking this is more an Andante – but it is undeniably warm and lyrical and well nigh irresistible. Okay, Barenboim sounds stiff in a few spots, but it’s no biggie. The following Andante – ironically sounding faster than the opening Allegro – sounds nice and clean, with some jaunty, juicy, and perhaps ever so slightly mischievous playing finding its way to one’s ears. After a bit, this style of playing gives way to something that sounds almost quietly desperate or urgent, so when the playing returns to the opening material, it’s just a shade darker. Who wouldn’t want development like that? Barenboim slows down considerably for the middle section of the movement, and if he sounds a bit pointillistic at times, it still sounds appealing. As the movement winds down, the playing takes on a slightly bleak, abstract feel. Interesting. The Scherzo opens with the initial four note figure played a bit thicker than I like, and really the whole thing is too slow. To offset this one must consider the substantial though subtle dynamic and tonal variation Barenboim brings to each reappearance of this figure and the subsequent music. As in some other works, it sounds a bit contrived at times, but it also works. The concluding Rondo also ends up sounding just a tad too slow, but like the opening movement it works rather well. Barenboim seems to think this movement needs some extra breathing room and he isn’t afraid to give it that. Even with a slowish tempo, Barenboim builds the central climax to an amply powerful state while never sounding hard, and he ends the piece with some nice, brisk playing. Maybe this doesn’t rise to the level of the very best – it certainly cannot match Kempff’s unmatchable recordings – but it is successful in its own way.

    So, another batch down, and once again the results are variable, though here things trend a bit better than the first seven sonatas. I wonder what the Op 31 sonatas will bring . . .


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    Up to this point, Barenboim’s EMI cycle has struck me as a well played, somewhat somber, serious, and very deliberate affair. Barenboim obviously has the talent to play Beethoven any way he wants, and he seems to want to create a sort of etched model of the music. At times, the music making sounds compelling. At other times it doesn’t. I can’t really say that anything up to this point strikes me as a world-beater or even world-matcher. I thus expected more of the same. Imagine my surprise upon hearing the Op 31 sonatas; Barenboim knocks ‘em out of the park!

    The first of the batch is a sheer delight from start to finish. The Allegro vivace opens much more quickly than I expected, and Barenboim’s control is superb. His playing is strong and pointed, but it also brings out the humor in the music. In short, it’s all strengths and no weaknesses. The Adagio opens with absolutely delightful trills – among the most satisfying I’ve heard – that sound at once soft and clear. All the while, Barenboim keeps on poking out the left hand part with rock-solid assurance in an almost oblivious sounding way. It’s really something. One can almost envision him smiling, or at least smirking, while playing. The playing assumes a more serious air in the middle section, which is fine. Perhaps the climax is a bit too serious, a bit contrived, but it hardly matters. As things slow down, Barenboim’s playing takes on an effortless, flowing sound that, when married to his tone control, is quite something to hear. The return of the quicker opening material is handled just as well as at the outset. Even though this movement is brought in at just shy of 12’, the whole thing cruises right on by. The concluding Rondo is superb. Barenboim gets the tempo just right, and his unusually clear playing of the left and right hand parts brings out all manner of delightful bon-bons for the ears. This recording pretty much has it all. Outstanding.

    The Tempest opens with a slow, drawn out Largo that clearly presages the coming stormy music. When the Allegro arrives, Barenboim fairly hammers it out, but in a decidedly good way! He plays the contrasts of the music to the hilt: Every time the Largo theme is recalled, it is tinged with a sense of desperation; every time the Allegro theme is recalled, it is with anger and power. Oh Yeah! The Adagio finds Barenboim combining all of his formidable strengths together to yield a perfectly judged movement displaying a sense of isolation, desperation, and some great urgency. The concluding Allegretto actually sounds a bit quicker than perhaps is perfect, though that makes it pretty much ideal. Barenboim pounds out the forte chords with piercing power. The slow, quiet passages seem merely to be short rests before the next outburst. Yes, this is a fine 31/2, and one that just increases the stature of this cycle to my ears.

    The last of the critical bunch is just as good as the other two. The Allegro opens with a slightly slow initial (and repeated) phrase, but then transforms into yet another example of perfect tempo being applied to create just the right effect. I guess one might say the approach is a tad too serious, but the plain old fun bits come out – and this work has gobs of those. Barenboim plays with notable power, too; as I was listening to the recording rather loud, the walls, furniture, and even the easy chair in my stereo room were all vibrating rather noticeably whenever Danny hammered out a loud-yet-never-even-remotely-hard-or-steely chord. The Scherzo is quick ‘n’ jaunty, and mostly delivered in a constricted range, almost as though Barenboim is hunched over the piano, his hands a-scamperin’ until an outburst is called for, in which case he hits them keys hard. It’s all very serious, but it’s also seriously fun. (Really, is a truly light-hearted approach even desirable here?) The Menuetto slows things down a bit, but it also sounds gloriously lyrical, with the exception of them startling wallops that Barenboim unleashes here and there. Yes, yes, it sounds a bit calculated, but so what? It’s some good stuff. The concluding Presto con fuoco more or less end the piece on a perfect – or close approximation thereof – note. It’s fast and lively and sunny and even groovy; it’s the total package. So, Mr Barenboim comes through in this most important batch of works. That’s a good thing and only serves to make me think more highly of the set and his LvB creds.

    Moving on to the Op 49 works sees, or rather hears a diminution in overall quality: The recordings are merely excellent. The first of the two opens with an Andante that initially sounds a bit solemn, though it opens up a bit later on. The Rondo conclusion, though, sounds swift, light-hearted, and reasonably fluid. Good stuff. The second sonata opens with an Allegro ma non troppo very much like the Rondo that concluded the prior work. The Tempo di menuetto, though it sounds a bit slow initially, is lyrical and downright charming. (Is there a more purely charming theme by Beethoven than this one?) Anyway, both fare well enough to warrant repeated listens.

    Time now for a biggie. The Waldstein, properly done, is superb. Done less well, it ends up sounding too long and a bit boring. Alas, Barenboim’s recording falls into the latter category. Things start off well enough, with swift, light, and pointed playing, but as the work swells, Barenboim never lets loose. The crescendos all have a stiff, almost labored feel. They also lack power, relatively speaking. As a result, the movement sort of runs straight through to the end without much staying in one’s memory. The Adagio fares better, sounding tonally rich and varied and possessed of a desolate, melancholy feel. It stands as the high point of this interpretation. The concluding Rondo opens with slow but gorgeous sounding playing, and the powerful yet controlled fortissimo playing certainly sounds grand, but the movement never takes off. It’s too slow, too deliberate, and that just will not do. I suppose it’s okay, but I need something more.

    Moving on to the Op 54 sonata finds a mixed recording. The In tempo di Menuetto opening starts off with a well-judged overall tempo, and Barenboim deploys all his standard pianistic tricks to good effect. Some of the louder playing sounds somewhat stiff at times, but the slower, softer playing sounds as lyrical as anyone’s. The very slow ending does sound too contrived to succeed, though. The concluding Allegretto ends up coming across as to too slow and too deliberate, and even Barenboim’s sumptuous tone, precise articulation, and fine dynamic control can’t completely off-set the negatives.

    Time now for another biggie. The Appassionata demands a certain type of approach that Barenboim hasn’t shown up to this point; it demands some serious bite. Barenboim sensibly opens the piece in tentative, restrained fashion. The subsequent climaxes thus sound comparatively “big,” but they also sound hesitant. His playing after the climaxes tends to sound thick. A few times, later in the movement, Barenboim does add some bite to some crescendos, and some of the slow playing does take on a decent fluid quality, but never does he generate the heat of, say, Annie or Sviatoslav. It almost sounds as though Barenboim is trying to present an idealized version of the work; it becomes an aural museum piece. Not surprisingly, the Andante just cruises along, sounding nice and well played, but lacks the emotion needed to engage the listener. The repeatless Allegro ma non troppo comes off best, perhaps, being reasonably fast and strong, but the absence of passion and the repeat dooms it to also-ran (at best) status. Much better can be had.

    The last two works in this batch are the fine little Op 78 and Op 79 sonatas, both works I appreciate more now that I’ve heard them played in so many different ways. To the first: The Adagio cantabile enjoys big, quasi-orchestral chords at the open, then turns swift yet rich and lyrical before the Allegro vivace, delivered at a nice clip, winds down the work with all of Barenboim’s usual traits. The 79 opens with a brittle sounding Presto alla tedesca that nonetheless is just energetic and fun enough to forgive the sound. The Andante is perhaps a smidgeon too light – this movement can be taken more seriously – but, again, the Barenboimisms keep things interesting. The concluding Vivace is sunny and warm, though a bit clunky here and there. Overall, though, both works come off rather well.

    While I can’t say that Barenboim’s cycle is one of my favorites up to this point, I think it is fair to say that he does have a lot to offer. I would have never expected such fine readings of the Op 31 sonatas, for instance. I look forward to the late works.


    ----


    I suppose I should have expected it. A superb Op 31 trio aside, the first twenty-five sonatas were characterized by deliberate, accurate, clear, and tonally beautiful playing. (The Op 31 sonatas display said traits, too, but they offer much more.) They were also devoid, in many cases, of real rhythmic brio and youthful energy. While Barenboim’s combination of strengths work variably well in the early and middle sonatas, they work much better in the late sonatas. Exaggerated excitement and breathless speed, while exceptionally compelling if done right, don’t come close to ensuring success in the late sonatas. Rather, the very traits that Barenboim possesses and deploys in abundance seem more appropriate. Ideally, a pianist combines all elements in a perfect mix to render perfect or near-perfect late sonatas. Such mixtures are rare, indeed. Barenboim doesn’t offer such a rare mixture of strengths; nonetheless, the stars appear to have aligned during the recording of the late-ish and late sonatas.

    The Les Adieux, in many ways, is a microcosm of what Danny offers in the last seven works. The opening movement, indeed the entire work, is taken at a broad tempo. Barenboim’s control, precision, tonal coloring, and clarity are all amazing. He then combines all his pianistic traits to create almost sculpted performances. The late works are all idealized, serious, and timeless, or at least one pianist’s take at timeless. In some ways, Barenboim’s pianism reminds one of Michelangeli’s take of Beethoven, though even Barenboim cannot claim to achieve the same level of super-refinement that Michelangeli does. (And one could never confuse the two pianists!) Anyway, to the specific work, the opening movement sounds decidedly large-scaled; it sounds quasi-orchestral; it sounds Grand. It also sounds idealized. Rather than bringing out the emotional elements of a fond farewell, Barenboim plays it straight, as it were. The second movement lacks any sense of sadness, bitterness, or contemplativeness (or whatever other variant one may prefer), but rather sounds sober and serious and sculpted, and formal. The final movement actually does manage to sound exultant at the open, and does possess admirable scale and drive, but the overall impression is of a sweeping, epic, sculpted work. It’s pretty nifty.

    The Op 90 sonata also possesses a sculpted sound. The opening movement is definitely on the slow side, but it is beautifully lyrical and plaintive, even if artificially so. (The runs in the middle, though, are fast and clear.) Some of Barenboim’s touches seem a bit contrived, and play up the drama, but it all works. The second movement is likewise slow, but unusually clear in texture, decidedly beautiful, and unexpectedly touching. And it possesses periods of absolutely lustrous pianism. How does Barenboim coax such a sound from such a percussive instrument? That makes two fine recordings in a row.

    Even more successful is the Op 101 sonata. Here’s a sonata that I very much enjoy, but seem to have difficulty finding that one or two readings that really nail it for me. (That’s also a “problem” with the 109.) Barenboim’s take is very much a version for me. The opening Allegretto opens with all of the standard Barenboimisms, but his playing also sounds natural, unforced. Perhaps Barenboim’s playing can best be described as direct; he doesn’t really create that searching / philosophical / ethereal, or whatever other description you may like for this or other late works, but his playing nonetheless sounds utterly compelling. The subsequent march is very energetic, very march-like, and, a slow but still very good middle section aside, is taken at just the right tempo. The Adagio is somber and slow and heavy, but everything works well. The Allegro section is quite simply remarkable: Barenboim’s playing is remarkably clear, the sonorities he extracts almost superhumanly wondrous, and he plays it fast at times, but he never pushes anything. Surely, though, it is the conclusion that works best. The fugal ending is masterful. Masterful. I can think of no pianist who plays the ending in a more spectacularly clear way, so that every voice, every note is there to be savored. Again, this recording is somewhat sculpted and idealized, but it is also, at times, stunning, and certainly rates with the very best out there.

    I guess is some ways, one can almost look at this cycle as one gargantuan build-up to the Hammerklavier, with the last three sonatas acting as an extended musical dénouement. When I glanced at the timings for this work, I was somewhat unhappy. It’s over 50 minutes long. The Adagio tops out at over 21 minutes. Generally, I prefer speedier readings. Friedrich Gulda’s Amadeo cycle is breathtakingly fast and daring and thrilling, and is one of my favorites. Other stalwarts here, whether Pollini’s, well, sovereign reading, or Serkin’s titanic reading, or Annie’s fiery reading, all come in at substantially shorter timings. Despite my preference for swifter readings, Barenboim makes a believer out of me. He shows that a slower reading can succeed. Fabulously. The opening Allegro is taken at a broad tempo, yet Barenboim always maintains suitable energy levels and forward drive. What helps his case is his massive, quasi-orchestral playing. This sounds huge and grand, and when combined with Barenboim’s superb tonal control and admirable clarity, with the left-hand playing again coming through clear, clear, clear, one is left sitting in wonder at his achievement. The Scherzo is likewise broad, but Barenboim injects more energy, more oomph – and everything sounds just about ideal. The great Adagio, even as long as it is, sounds fabulous. Barenboim again deploys his wonderful tonal palette, as well as his clear playing, and he creates a vast, somber, melancholy movement. The middle of the movement assumes a simultaneously poignant and unsettling feel, underlined by an insistent, incessant, but never overpowering left-hand. Some of the music sounds truly pathetic – in the most literal sense of the word. It is superb. The final movement opens with a serene Largo before moving into a Fugue that pretty much has it all. The tempo is neither too fast nor too slow; the tone is predictably attractive; the conception is grand; and, most important of all, there is a contrapuntal clarity of the highest possible order. Everything aligns just right; this is a superb recording. I can’t say it displaces any of my prior favorites, but it definitely joins them.

    Now to the dénouement. The 109, like the prior four works, sounds pretty darned good. The opening Vivace ma non troppo is perhaps not as vivacious as some may like – it sounds slow, heavy-ish, and rich – and Barenboim’s deliberate playing may be a tad dour here and there, but somehow he makes his idealized, statuesque approach work. Likewise, the too-slow Prestissimo still works; Barenboim’s strength and clarity carry the day. The concluding movement starts with a wonderfully nuanced and beautiful Andante theme and then proceeds to variations of distinction, with Barenboim using all his formidable skill to create a masterful, compelling sound world. Superb!

    Just about as good is the 110. The opening Moderato cantabile is again broad, with all those tasty Barenboimisms on display to create a radiant, lyrical, and moving movement. The Allegro molto movement, while again broad, is more surprising for it relative softness. Barenboim never unleashes a torrent of powerful notes; rather, he chooses to play the music in a more reassuring, joyous way. It’s a nice change of pace. The Adagio open to the last movement is desolate and dark, and daringly slow. Barenboim utilizes incredibly long pauses that seriously threaten to break the musical line. At times, he holds out playing the next note or chord until the very last picosecond. It works. The fugue, well, as one might expect, it’s a model of clarity and power. The repeated chords before the return of the fugue grow in volume and heft with each hammering of the keys, and the repeated two-note pattern afterward is remarkably distinct and attention-grabbing. The inverted fugue itself is rounded and soft-ish and lovely, and the coda is fast and strong, ending the work on an abrupt note. It’s some good stuff.

    So that leaves the C-minor sonata. It, too, is some good stuff. The opening movement gets off to a slightly restrained yet tense start. There’s a nice build-up to the heavy, deep, ominous music to follow, and Barenboim sensibly adds a bit of power and drive to the proceedings. The second movement opens with a calm, beautiful, and beautifully distant Arietta before moving into variations of some distinction. Barenboim knows when to play in a graceful, liquid way, and he knows when to boogie. When he needs to play the piece softly, ascending into the musico-spiritual ether, he does so with aplomb. At times, his playing sounds as though two different pianists on two different instruments are playing, it’s that distinct. And when it comes time to play that extra-long trill, he does so in an extra-superb way. (It’s clear, solid, meticulously shaped and varied, and surrounded by captivating musical goings-on all around it, if you must know.) All told, this is a fine ending to a much-better-than-expected last batch of sonatas.

    So how to sum up Mr Barenboim’s first of three complete forays into this literature? I certainly cannot say that this is my favorite cycle, and I have some difficulty proclaiming it a “great” cycle. My informal method of determining “greatness” requires that a pianist nail all three Op 31 sonatas, delivers at least three top notch readings from the first eight sonatas, and gets at least three of the last six sonatas right, and doesn’t deliver more than one or two outright dogs elsewhere. Barenboim definitely avoids bombing at any of the works, he nails the 31s, and his late sonatas are the highlight of his cycle. But his early sonatas are a bit too heavy and contrived for my liking. (Well, I don’t think they’re the best, let’s put it that way.) I’m not so concerned about how to rate Barenboim overall; I’m just glad that finally heard his EMI cycle, especially for its strengths. A number of the recordings will earn multiple spins, of that I have no doubt. But Ms Fischer and Messrs Gulda, Kempff, and Backhaus remain unrivalled.

  4. #19
    Commodore of Water Music Gareth's Avatar
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Ok I don't know when or how I am going to read that...I will just leave you to learn his Sonatas then!!!

  5. #20
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Dino Ciani

    The sound quality of this cycle is abysmal. I’ll just get that out of the way immediately. I mean really, it’s bad. At its best it’s barely tolerable. At its worst it’s close to unlistenable. It’s worse even then Walter Klien’s Brahms recordings. That’s bad. Of course, that’s all that can be expected. This entire cycle was recorded over a period of a few weeks in the fall of 1970 in Torino, Italy. Dynamic’s liner notes state that one Uhre (?) mono tape recorder was plopped in the center of the poor sounding hall for all of the recordings. That means that one gets to hear the audience quite a bit, too. The piano is distant and can ring, bite, glare, and grate all at the same time. There’s pitch distortion, wow, drop-outs, overloading, and pretty much anything else that can go wrong with a “modern” tape recording. Schnabel’s set sounds better. I had to get that out of the way early so I could then focus on the playing.

    Effortless. That’s the best way to describe Dino Ciani’s playing in the first batch of sonatas. The music all seems to emanate effortlessly from him, with little in the way of forced music making getting in the way. At times, he sounds, well, “natural.” I usually dislike that description since it is, in reality, meaningless. There’s nothing natural about playing the piano. (I suppose singing can sound natural, but that’s about it.) But, at times, Ciani does indeed sound natural. But not all the time. And effortlessness does not always sound extremely satisfying.

    Let’s begin. Ciani sounds like he’s in his element with the Op 2 sonatas. The first sonata opens with an Allegro delivered with what, for me, is the perfect overall tempo. It’s quick but not blazing fast. Ciani’s rubato sounds glorious, and even better is his effortless, whipcrack dynamic control. He can move from a nice enough piano to a thundering forte or even fortissimo with an ease bordering on swagger, and his left hand power is at times overwhelming. (Ultimately, these two skills prove to be something of a liability.) Perhaps most remarkable of all is how, in spite of the bad sound, Ciani never comes across as sounding hard. And his control of every aspect of playing is (near) total. He’ll alter the tone, dynamics, and speed of his playing from figure to figure, and within an arpeggio. It’s quite a display. All the while, the music just flows along. Ciani’s strengths are such that one forgives the few slips, most of them minor, though he rather fudges it at 3’55”. The Adagio, too, just flows along, and every time Ciani sees fit to throw in an interpretive touch, it sounds like it’s meant to be! Helping things out is his ability to make the piano sing; it’s bel canto from the ivories if ever I’ve heard it. The Menuetto is taken fast and possesses a pleasantly relentless forward drive. Note that. And the Prestissimo conclusion ends the piece in a hard driven, propulsive way. It’s definitely exciting, though one wishes he could muster the same type of grooviness of someone like, oh, say Gulda, to aid things. As it is, it’s more than fine.

    The second sonata continues in a similar way. The Allegro vivace open sounds, well, natural. The tempo is just right, and all other elements of the playing are spot on. Even when Ciani decides to slow things way down at around 50” in, it sounds good, especially since he does to draw out the contrast in the material. His runs are quick and gossamer light, at least when he chooses, and if one might cringe slightly at the miss just before 4’, the thrilling crescendo that follows erases any concerns. Ciani does make the rare decision to play the last repeat, though his disjointed open to it makes it seem as though he merely forgot to play the coda. No matter, the music is fine, though he makes no better case than Ikuyo Nakamichi for playing the repeat. The Largo appassionata is that rare example of both parts of the indication being given equal weight. It’s slow, but it is passionate. That whipcrack control makes itself known in sudden forte outbursts as well as a ferocious – pretty much literally – climax centered around 4’10”. The Scherzo opens with delightful, light repeated figures before switching to a singing tone that one can’t ignore. And it proceeds thusly until the Rondo conclusion, which again alternates between beautiful, controlled, singing playing, and thunderous and fast playing. That’s two winners down.

    The third sonata opens with a fast ‘n’ fluid Allegro con brio, with nice accents showing up everywhere, some powerful bass, and some startlingly sharp transitions. It’s a rollicking and rambunctious good time. The Adagio opens in surprisingly touching fashion, and continues on with some well controlled bass crescendos while moving inexorably yet smoothly forward. The Scherzo here starts slower than I would have anticipated, and it sounds a bit congested and almost stiff at times, with Ciani’s powerful punctuations adding to that perception. When the music unfolds into the quicker passages, Ciani seems more at home and the music flows better. The concluding Allegro assai takes off in a fantasia –like way, with Ciani gliding over the keys with a smooth legato for the left hand playing to support a flighty right hand. It’s, well, it’s radiant. So, Ciani opens with some extremely fine Op 2 sonatas, which is a good sign.

    Doubts start to arise in the Op 7 sonata. The opening movement starts off with elongated left hand phrasing underpinning a more “standard” right hand, which then gives way to a flowing, swiftish, singing playing. Ciani’s trills swell and take center stage, and the left hand playing is solid, but his playing begins to take on a slightly aggressive mien that really doesn’t suit the music. The Largo opens in slow ‘n’ beautiful fashion, but the forte playing is just too aggressive, though it never really sounds hard. After the aggressive playing, things revert to a leisurely pace and approach more befitting the music. In the middle section, Ciani pounds away with his left hand and follows it with the three-note treble figure in a nifty if somewhat superficial way. Yes, he can do it. What does it signify? Anyway, more lovely, singing playing ends the movement. The Allegro, again, opens in lovely fashion, though, again, some unpleasant aggressive, un-fun playing creeps in afterward. The concluding Rondo is pretty much uniformly superb, relaxed and sunny. However, the piece isn’t a total success. Ciani’s tendency to play aggressively, his tendency to force the music at times, begins to lose its appeal. Adding some bite to the openers is fine, but this piece needs something more.

    Moving to the Op 10 sonatas reveals the extent of the issue. The first sonata Allegro molto con brio launches into being, with some of the fastest, most aggressive (though here that’s good) playing I’ve heard. Ciani then effortlessly transitions to his smooth, singing style, and then alternates to the end. The improperly tracked Adagio (it starts with a few second left in the opening movement track) is played attacca for some reason, but it’s beautiful and lyrical to start. Then that too-aggressive playing returns and exaggerates the contrasts in the piece and sounds out of place. It’s here that I began to doubt the “legendary” or other overblown reputation assigned to this pianist by some of his supporters. (I expect hagiography from marketing folks, so the Dynamic copy is to be expected.) Time and again, Ciani resorts to the same basic set of interpretive devices. He plays soft and light and quick (or maybe slow), and then he pounds out the music; he moves from a pp to ff(f?) to exaggerate musical contrasts. Sure, his rubato, singing approach, and generally clear touch all sound wonderful, but his overall framework is somewhat simplified and limited. Anyway, he ends the piece with a very fast, very powerful Prestissimo, but one that, given its fixed parameters, ends up sounding more like an athletic exercise than a musical one.

    The 10/2 is much the same. The opening movement is fast and shimmering and singing on the one hand, but aggressive on the other. His sharp, strong forte and fortissimo playing is superficially exciting, but it lacks much beyond that. The Allegretto actually ends up sounding sub-par. Ciani pushes it very fast, perhaps in an attempt to sound urgent or substantive, but it just sounds too fast. The repeatless Presto is fast and reasonably good, but it, too, lacks anything to really recommend it.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the 10/3 sounds much the same. Ciani opens the opening Presto at a breakneck pace. He throws in his usual assortments of goodies, but it’s pretty much a straight shot through. The Largo is certainly slow, but it’s curiously flat and unusually garbled. Perhaps it’s meant to be “emotional,” but it sounds more like an eidolon of emotion rather than the real thing. Fortunately, the Menuetto returns to Ciani’s effortless, attractive playing with nary a complaint for me to make. The Rondo, though, is also taken at breakneck pace and suffers. It’s decent, but not great.

    So, I guess I’m left with recordings by a supposed wunderkind – he was only 29 when he recorded his cycle – who just doesn’t live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, Ciani’s playing is at times amazing, and at his best, he really does have a lot to offer. He just doesn’t offer more than anyone else. Indeed, in all of the first seven sonatas I can think of several (or more) versions I prefer in each work. Of course, it helps to keep in mind that this is a young man’s Beethoven, and I will keep that in mind going forward. Ciani, like Yukio Yokoyama, Alfredo Perl, and Friedrich Gulda (okay, maybe not Gulda), apparently hadn’t formed his ideas completely, or formed ones likely to change and evolve. Anyway, I still look forward to hearing what else he has in store, even if my expectations have dropped a bit.


    --


    After a less than stellar first batch of sonatas, I approached the next batch with lowered expectations, and a sense of what to expect. Ciani definitely displays significant talent – his effortless, at times lyrical playing really can catch one’s ear – but he also displays some serious shortcomings. His interpretive range is limited, and he often resorts to playing in a manner that some may find “exciting” but that lacks any depth whatever. So, with this outlook, it was time to investigate some more music-makin’:

    The Pathetique should fare reasonably well I reasoned; if any Elveebee sonata benefits from swift playing, it is surely (or at least usually, to be covered forthwith) this one. Sure enough, Ciani plays it fast. The Grave opens slowly, with short, sharp chords and rubato and dynamic variations aplenty to impart a sense of drama. Then the Allegro molto e con brio bursts into being, with Ciani gliding across the keys with vehement outbursts at all the right times. But that’s it. He plays fast and strong. There’s no emotional depth. There’s really nothing beyond those two traits. The Adagio, well, it actually sounds reasonably attractive, but it, too, is shallow ‘n’ callow. And dull. The concluding Rondo ends up being Ciani’s attempt at a showpiece conclusion; he pushes the music too hard and too fast, and he ends the piece in downright sloppy fashion. His technique certainly isn’t up to what he wants to do, and what he wants to do is rather boring, anyway. Perhaps Ciani’s take was doomed to sound sub-par after listening to Radu Lupu’s take just before it. Lupu’s version, which is about the longest and slowest I know, is orders of magnitude better than Ciani’s, and Lupu displays greater pianistic skill in every regard. Speed may help this sonata, but there’s much more to it. Next.

    The first of the Op 14 sonatas sounds a bit better. A little bit. The Allegro opens in a nicely restrained yet singing way, though in a few parts it also sounds strangely stiff. As the brief movement progresses, Ciani starts to meander; his playing sounds effortless but meaningless. What’s it for? The Allegretto is, for some reason, pushed harder than the opening movement, and ends up sounding just a bit too serious for my liking. The ending Rondo is quick and light, with delicious runs and a generally upbeat sound, and sounds good, but taken as a whole, this performance just doesn’t do it for me at all.

    Thankfully, the second sonata does do it for me. The Allegro opener displays Ciani’s effortless, lyrical playing to its best effect, and the runs are played with a glorious, shimmering legato. The middle section sounds stronger and faster, but here Ciani doesn’t overdo it at all. The Andante benefits from similar restraint: Ciani plays the movement as a quick, sunny march, and he never just bangs away. Whew! The concluding Scherzo is like the opening movement in most regards, except that Ciani sounds a bit harder in louder passages. The latter part of the movement sounds a bit like a snarky joke. That seems a fine way to end a Scherzo.

    The Op 22 sonata sees a dip in quality. The opening Allegro con brio is certainly quick, but it is also oddly clunky at times, and Ciani’s playing doesn’t flow very well. His playing also sounds a bit congested (in stark contrast to Barenboim), and his rubato and other devices seem out of whack. He again tries to generate shallow “excitement,” but that just seems to mask his unfamiliarity with the music. Perhaps he didn’t know the score well enough, who knows. The Adagio ends up sounding like a slow version of the opener. The Menuetto actually works reasonably well, but only in contrast to the two opening movements; it’s certainly nothing special. The Rondo never clicks, and it’s sloppy in parts. To put it briefly, Ciani sounds lost at times and he never sounds compelling. Scratch this one.

    The Op 26 sonata suffers two maladies: Most important is Ciani’s lack of anything substantive to say about the piece. But almost as important is the truly hideous sound of the first 3’25” of the opening Andante. The piano sounds like a glass harmonica, and some high-pitched whine is audible for the entire duration. It’s probably the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever heard in a recording, not counting anything performed by Bette Midler. Through the muck one can almost discern music played at a decent pace, but that’s it. As to the variations, they alternate between slow and stodgy and fast and effortless, though it seems Ciani suffers a memory lapse a couple times. The Scherzo is entirely successful, being fast, flowing, effortless, and fun. Yes, fun. The funeral march is at once successful and unsuccessful. It’s successful in that it’s pointed, strong, and quick. It’s unsuccessful in that it’s neither solemn nor funereal, and it’s most certainly not heroic. Curious. The final movement is fast but shallow. Again. Scratch this one, too.

    The 27/1 makes it three dogs in a row, but this is just a Poodle rather than the preceding Bull Mastiff and Staffordshire Terrier, respectively. Things get off to a decent start, though. The Andante has that effortless, singing quality that Ciani can bring, and it assumes a somber, almost weeping sound between 1’10” and 1’50” that I really dig. The Allegro is more robust, as it should be, with glorious cascading passages. The return of the initial theme sounds pretty much like it did the first time around. The Allegro molto vivace opens with a definitely attractive hazy, dreamy legato before bursting into stormy playing. However, this just sounds like a forced, shallow attempt to generate maximum contrast. Fortunately the Adagio section sounds good, but the then the concluding Allegro vivace is fast and empty and pushed so hard that it loses clarity. It’s kinda sloppy, too. Immediately afterward, I listened to Andrea Lucchesini’s masterful account, and what a contrast in accomplishment! The younger Italian gets it all right. The Ciani Prize winner best the Prize’s namesake, that’s for sure.

    I was beginning to get bummed. So many dogs, so few gems. As if to kick me while I’m down, the box-set offers two recordings of the Mondschein sonata, the first (on disc) from October 25th, that was part of the program, and the second from October 19th, that was performed as an encore. Since this isn’t my favorite work, I didn’t really want to listen to two, but I dutifully did what had to be done. I’m glad I did! Both performances are superb. The opening Adagio is played in a nicely somber and sorrowful way, and Ciani brings to bear all his gifts in perfect proportion. Everything works. The Allegretto opens in a wonderfully lyrical and light, yet totally effective manner, and then it slows perceptibly as the piece progresses. Ciani even refrains from hamming up the dynamic contrasts. The concluding Presto agitato is fast and powerful and vehement. Ciani also creates a nice, dramatic feel to end the work. There’s relatively little to choose from between the two versions, though I’d say the first is tighter and tenser, the second looser. I prefer the former ever so slightly. At last, a reprieve from mediocrity!

    The Pastorale extends the reprieve. Ciani opens the Allegro very slowly but then gradually builds up the tempo as well as the strength of his playing – including some Extra-Strength Ciani Forte Chords® – but all the while he maintains his effortless, singing style. It’s pretty cool. His adoption of quick speeds successfully lends a sense of urgency to the playing, and if a few moments of showboating inevitably pop up, they are easy enough to forgive. The Andante flows along most gorgeously, with some unique left-hand accenting just helping things along. Some more disjointed playing mars the last minute or so, but everything else is so good as to make it matter not a whit. The Scherzo is generally lively and clear, but a few passages find Ciani stretching his memory just a bit. The concluding Rondo opens gracefully – there’s something lacking in other sonatas – with the lilting theme just flowin’ on by. The crescendos are super-strength, of course, but that’s fine. While this recording of this sublime work is by no means the best or anywhere near the best out there, it’s darned tootin’ all the same.

    So, I’m about halfway through, and, in all honesty, I must say I’m less impressed with Mr Ciani than before. Basically, take my prior criticisms and amplify them and that about covers it. But Ciani can deliver the goods on rare occasions. Hopefully the Op 31 will provide three of those occasions.


    --


    Given the combination of poor sound and variable and largely disappointing playing, I needed a break from Ciani’s cycle. About a week seemed to do the trick, so I resumed listening to the cycle, though in smaller chunks than before. I started with the crucial Op 31 sonatas with lowered expectations yet retained hope that Ciani would redeem himself. Alas, that was not to be. The problems start with the first of the sonatas. The Allegro vivace is all about speed and, I guess, high-grade virtuosity. Ciani occasionally injects some charm into his playing, but overall it’s overdone, and contains more of Ciani’s stark, wide contrasts and a few slips. The Adagio opens with light and mostly crisp but occasionally blurred trills, though the bass trills near the end are superb. Overall, the movement is taken reasonably briskly, has a decent, near-danceable rhythm, yet sounds flat and boring. The Rondo sounds best being quick and cheery, with nice drive, but it, too, is a bit flat.

    The Tempest seems made for Ciani’s style, and it ends up being the most successful of the Op 31 sonatas. The Largo opens very slowly but quickly turns over to high-speed playing. Indeed, with the exception of the brief returns of the slow opening music, this entire movement is about speed and power, with Ciani doing his best to play up the contrasts in the movement. That’s generally a good thing. Here it sounds good, but it’s too forced and shallow. The Adagio, by contrast, benefits from Ciani’s strength’s – effortlessness and a singing quality – and sounds less forced. It never really sounds involving, though. He adds nice touches here and there, but it amounts to little. The closing Allegretto adds some well-judged oomph, but even so it remains uninvolving.

    Alas, the critical trio ends on a very disappointing note. The opening Allegro opens in surprisingly sluggish fashion, and Ciani adopts an uncharacteristic soft-grained approach that simply doesn’t work. The movement never takes flight and sounds incredibly boring. The Scherzo, on the other hand, is all about fast and/or furious playing. He plays to the gallery and the piece suffers. The Menuetto is likewise too fast, and Ciani’s usually effortless lyricism sounds strained. The Presto starts off comparatively sluggishly but quickly transitions to more high-speed, “virtuosic” playing. Ciani tries to dash off the music in a (stunted) Gieseking-like manner, but Ciani has nowhere near the panache of the great master and can’t pull it off. The movement just comes off sounding shallow, empty, and utterly meaningless. It’s crap. I can think of few recordings of any work that have such an unpleasant overall feel. So Ciani botches the Op 31 trio.

    The first of the Op 49 works offers a much needed reprieve. Ciani plays this one masterfully. The opening Andante is taken at a relaxed tempo and is played graciously and tenderly. I swear it sings! The Rondo is quicker – but not too quick – and has what in a good recording would be clear part playing, and it’s basic pulse is lively and fun. The second of the two sonatinas unfortunately suffers from the too-fast playing that permeates the set. Still, Ciani’s playing is lyrical and reasonably appealing.

    The Waldstein opens in a somewhat surprising manner: Ciani does not gallop right from the start. Instead he opens with a well-judged overall tempo and a rich, lyrical sound, insofar as one can hear it. This unexpected treat doesn’t last long because Ciani soon accelerates the pace, playing everything just as fast as he can. The rest of the movement alternates predictably between too-fast and pretty good and includes artificial “spontaneity.” The Adagio is slow and serious but not much else; it’s shallow and callow. Again. The finale opens with a slow, ringing, sad sound that’s quite beautiful. The long trill then leads to more explosive, dazzling (I guess) playing punctuated by thundering power. Throughout the movement, the slower, gentler playing is generally very good, but the faster and more powerful playing stomps all over the music. It’s boring and disappointing.

    At this point I started to fear the worst. Dog after dog seemed to point to a disastrous conclusion to the cycle. But then Ciani does something amazing: He actually produces some compelling music as opposed to a virtuosic display. The Op 54 sonata is one of the most successful recordings in the cycle. Hell, it’s superb by any standard. (Other than sonic, that is.) It opens beautifully, with that effortless, lyrical quality that Ciani seems to have in him at all times. Too, the powerful playing, while indeed very strong, is never overwrought. He knows when to stop. He knows when enough is enough. The Allegretto starts off quick and flowing, and it ratchets up tension as the piece progresses without losing its lyrical appeal. Perhaps the coda is played too quickly, but that’s a minor quibble with a superb recording.

    Of all LvB’s sonatas, the Appassionata seems best suited to Ciani’s fast ‘n’ furious mode, and so it is. The Allegro assai opens with a brooding, anticipatory darkness then erupts into fast, intense, compelling playing. A few slips mean very little given the energy of the playing. Ciani then knows to back off when playing the slower passages, creating a very attractive and very tense yet lyrical sound. The stormy playing at around 5’ is indeed stormy and driven, if perhaps a bit congested. The Andante finds Ciani playing in what would no doubt be a gorgeous manner in a good recording, infusing what seems to be real emotion. Then comes the concluding Allegro ma non troppo, which Ciani plays positively ferociously. He then backs off but that only creates a sense of subdued anger, as though the protagonist is pacing back and forth, seething in rage, poised to explode. When the inevitable explosion comes, Ciani plays it aggressively, yet in a controlled way. Again, a few slips are of little concern; Ciani gets the musical message (or at least a musical message) right. Outstanding.

    The Op 78 and 79 sonatas extends Ciani’s streak to four in a row. The first of the sonatas opens with a radiant Adagio and then moves to a light, lyrical Allegro and then alternates between the two approaches. The concluding Allegro vivace is definitely vivacious and spry. The second sonata opens with a fun Presto alla tedesca unfettered by excessive interpretation or show. The Andante shows off Ciani’s lyrical side to good effect, and the concluding Vivace opens with smooth, lovely, warm legato playing before transitioning to a punchy, effective staccato style used to accent the piece. Very good.

    The Les Adieux makes it five. Sort of. The piece opens tenderly, with Ciani’s effortlessness again on display, and as the piece swells and surges, Ciani plays louder without overdoing it. It all comes across as slightly smaller-scaled than normal, perhaps, but it is a fond farewell. The second movement sounds nicely disconsolate and desperate and anguished, and the finale comes off as an extended song of joy, at least for the most part. It is here that Ciani’s tendency to push things unnecessarily reappears and mars what would have otherwise been a superb reading. As it is, it’s pretty good.

    Op 90 ends up in a similar situation. Ciani opens the piece with restrained power and then offers up more of his effortless, lyrical playing. Unfortunately, his forte playing is overdone at times, though fortunately it’s neither as bad nor as constant as in some other works. Save for a somewhat intense middle section, the second movement is a radiant stream of music and Ciani really does quite well here. I can’t say that his playing stands out when compared to many others, but it’s still nice.

    A good beginning to the late sonatas instilled a sense of hope – maybe Ciani would fully redeem himself. Nope. The 101 opens in promising fashion, with more of that attractive lyricism, and at times Ciani’s playing displays a near-philoshophical / ethereal / dreamy sound that the best players usually bring, but for the most part it’s just shallow surface playing. There’s nothing behind most of the notes. Still, it’s a nice surface. The second movement march is certainly vigorous, with quite fine instantaneous forte outbursts, but it doesn’t take long for the playing to take on an unpleasant unyielding feel. The Adagio ends up sounding like a nice recapitulation of the open in overall effect, and the transition to the final movement is heavenly – a flash of musical brilliance, to be sure – but what follows suffers from the same things that plagued so many previous works. It’s pushed too hard and too fast, and Ciani seems to haphazardly dash off some of the music in a most unappealing way.

    That’s still better than the Hammerklavier. Ciani opens in grand style, that’s undeniable, but his playing then becomes breathlessly fast. The piece turns into an athletic rather than a musical one. There’s some super-duper power, and some Wow-Em’ speed, but it’s all show and no substance. The Scherzo is likewise played in He-Man fashion, but for all the flash, it’s extremely boring. The Adagio comes off comparatively well. Ciani’s approach is on the small side (hey Paul Badura-Skoda makes it work, so that’s not a criticism), and he manages to make the music sound intense and angry, but even with that it sags at times. The final movement starts with a slow and unremarkable Largo and then becomes another speed-demon affair. While the recording is no doubt partly to blame, the fugue sounds muddied and muffled. Ciani seems more concerned with dazzling the crowd. Some may like. Not me.

    On to the final three. The 109 again displays a mix of Ciani’s strengths and weakness. The Vivace ma non troppo finds Ciani gliding along in a somewhat cloudy manner (it might be the recording) that sounds quite nice. The Adagio section sounds superficially nice but lacks substance. The Prestissimo is, perhaps somewhat strangely, not pushed maximally, but unfortunately, Ciani substitutes ponderous left-hand playing for excess speed. The Andante theme that opens the finale actually sounds wonderful, with Ciani’s singing quality returning. Then the first variation comes, and it, too, is wonderful. The opening of the second variation is even better; even in poor sound it is beautiful. The third variation is quick and gone in a flash and actually quite good. The fourth variation sounds much like the first two but is a bit tenser. The final variations are stronger – the final one positively thundering. The return of the Andante theme is serene poised and quite fine. So, Ciani displays some brilliant playing and some not-so-brilliant playing. That Prestissimo prevents the work from being an unqualified success.

    As with the 109, so with the 110. The opening movement is a glorious thing. Ciani revels in the musical simplicity and delivers a radiant, singing, fleet and gloriously light open. The entire movement is more lyrical than normal – and that’s most decidedly a good thing. He smoothly and carefully plays the music, flowing from idea to idea, and he even evokes a standard late-LvB sound. Again, the second movement is pushed too hard for no reason. Yes, the movement contrasts with the opener, and yes it should be fast and strong, but there comes a point where it doesn’t work. Ciani surpasses that point. The Adagio open to the final movement is slow and somber and dark in tone. The first fugue is dark and rich and, in some ways, rather un-fugue like (it’s straighter, if you will), and as with the 106, Ciani doesn’t really play it with the greatest clarity. The return of the opening material brings back the same sound world, but then the chord build-up to the inverted fugue is curiously limp. Here’s one place where “excess” power can sound great, and Ciani doesn’t play with power. The inverted fugue itself is much like its precursor, and the whole thing ends in thundering fashion. A brilliant opening movement aside, this one is weaker than its predecessor.

    That leaves the 111. Unfortunately, it’s the weakest of the three. The opening movement starts off promising, though. It’s terse, impatient, and biting. The build-up to the dark, quasi-fugal music sounds somewhat tepid, but when the ominous music arrives, Ciani initially sounds good. All too quickly he falls back to playing too fast, to the point of sounding almost frantic. Power certainly is on display – Ciani’s ability to play near-thrilling fortissimos is not in question. But it all amounts to very little. Despite the surface excitement, there’s little to hang on to. It bores more than enlightens. The second movement opens with a subdued, cool, and singing Arietta which sounds quite fine, but then the variations succumb to the same problems as before. Speed doesn’t always guarantee excitement or insight, as this amply demonstrates. The later portions of the movement sound comparatively better, a surprisingly unsteady long trill notwithstanding. But a few moments of searching music doesn’t compensate for the rest of the sonata.

    I cannot rate Ciani’s cycle a success. The playing is far too variable for that. At his worst, Ciani is shallow and consumed with doing little more than playing really fast and really loud. He’s at his worst a lot. But at his best, he is amazing. His effortless playing and his unforced lyricism sound more than compelling. Unfortunately, Ciani is at his best relatively rarely. Relatively few sonatas are successes overall, and Ciani’s best playing often appears only in single movements or brief flashes. This cycle ends up being something of What Could Have Been set. Had Ciani lived longer and matured musically he no doubt could have and would have played at least some of these works in a far more compelling way. How much better he may have become will never be known, of course, and so one is left with this cycle as Ciani’s take on the Bonn master. Throw in the terrible sound, and this set becomes one for only hard-core Beethoven sonata fans or Ciani fans. I’m certainly glad I picked it up for less than $18, because that’s about what it’s worth. Alas, a disappointment.

  6. #21
    Commodore de Cavaille-Coll
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Hi todd,

    Is this a CD review or a live performance review? Thanx for sharing these your thoughts.

    Giovanni

  7. #22
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Is this a CD review or a live performance review?


    All are CD reviews.

  8. #23
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Andrea Lucchesini – Addendum

    I was very impressed with Andrea Lucchesini’s complete LvB cycle when I first heard it last year. Repeated hearings of both the complete cycle and specific sonatas has only made me think more highly of Mr Lucchesini’s talent. Indeed, when I get a hankerin’ to hear my beloved Op 27/1, his is now the one I consider first. But the ’99-’01 live cycle was not Lucchesini’s first recording(s) of Beethoven. Rather, it was his third, as far as I can tell. In the mid-80s he recorded the Moonlight and Hammerklavier for EMI and in the mid-90s he recorded the Cello Sonatas for Stradivarius. Since I’m not keenly interested in another recording of the Cello Sonatas at the present time, I figured I’d like to try his EMI stuff. It’s long-deleted, though. But wouldn’t you know it, the good folks at BRO got it in, and his Chopin Preludes and Impromptus, too, so you know I had to buy ‘em.

    Lucchesini has improved with age. His EMI recordings (which also includes a Liszt recital) were made (relatively) shortly after he won the Ciani prize in 1983, and all date from his early-20s. My experience with piano recordings and performances suggests that pianists need a bit more seasoning before they really start delivering the goods. Lucchesini is no exception. That’s not to say he’s bad.

    The Moonlight comes across as a more youthful endeavor. The opening Adagio sostenuto is more biting and colder than his later recording, yet even thorough that and the slightly glassy and steely sounding recording and piano, Lucchesini plays with an at times warm and appealing tone. Even with the extra bite, his playing doesn’t sound as moody or dark as it does in the Stradivarius recording. The Allegretto is sunnier and less driven than his later effort, and the Presto agitato lacks the enviable forward drive of the later recording. While Lucchesini is no banger to begin with, his playing is softer in parts here, which makes the tension droop a bit. And the piano and recording sound steely at times. So, this is a decent recording with some fine things in it, but it’s not as good as Lucchesini’s second go-round.

    The same holds true for the 106. My opinion of Lucchesini’s live recording has improved with repeated hearings, though I still don’t count it among my favorites. Overall, it’s warm, big, though never dull sound makes for an easy, enjoyable and always compelling listen. This recording, though, doesn’t. The opening Allegro starts off strong enough, but the young Lucchesini follows that up with playing that sounds too soft. His playing never sounds as flowing, either, and it lacks the musical impact of the later recording. The Scherzo is well played, but lacks the accelerated playing of the later version and sounds kind of flat at times. The Adagio sounds slightly more somber and serious here, and it’s not as lyrical, and the tension doesn’t hold up as well. The final movement opens with a somewhat cold, distant Largo and moves into a straight-forward, somewhat light fugue that just isn’t as involving as in the later recording. As with the preceding work, Lucchesini sounds better after another decade and a half of seasoning.

    I’m still glad to have heard this recording if only to better appreciate how his playing matured and improved with time. Now I’ll have to sample his Chopin, and perhaps I’ll get lucky and hear his Liszt.

  9. #24
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Alfred Brendel (Philips, 1970s)

    I’m not a big fan of Alfred Brendel. Try as I might – and I have tried – I’ve just not been able to get into too many of his recordings. The last two of his three recordings of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto aside, and perhaps some of his Mozart paired with Mackerras as well, I’ve always found at least as much to dislike as like about many of his recordings. When it comes to Beethoven sonatas, I’ve found the earlier the better. Up until now, I’ve never undertaken a complete Elveebee cycle by the usually grumpy looking Mr Brendel. I’ve heard a decent amount of his digital cycle, a bit of his first cycle on Vox, and only a couple things from his middle cycle on Philips, and then only on the radio and quite a while back. My overall impression is that early in his recording career Brendel was more impetuous and fiery if hardly a paragon of heated romanticism. As he has aged, he has seen fit to infuse more and more of his ideas into his playing. That can be great. It can also suck. Even though Mr Brendel hardly ranks among my favorites, I felt I should give him a try in all thirty-two works. Whether or not one likes him, he is a major pianist of the age, and, more to the point, he’s a major Beethoven interpreter. Plus, his recent Gramophone interview contained some unflattering remarks about Rachmaninov’s music – something of a positive to me. So then the question came down to which cycle to try in its entirety. That ended up being easy; curiosity became my arbiter. Since I’ve heard so little of his second cycle, that was the one for me. Here goes:

    The opening few seconds sound stodgy. Bad news, I thought. A stodgy 2/1 will not do! But only a few seconds later things improve markedly. Brendel does pretty much everything right: the overall tempo is nice, his dynamic transitions are smooth, his rubato non-tic-y. It is all quite serious, though. That’s not say it’s heavy or anything. The Adagio again has a nice tempo and Brendel plays with an appealing though admittedly not especially broad tonal palette. The on-going seriousness here manifests itself as detached emotion, if you will; there’s something there, but Mr Brendel doesn’t want to indulge it too much. The Menuetto gets the straight treatment though the part playing is quite distinctive with some rather appealing right hand figures. The concluding Prestissimo sounds a bit thick, but its forward momentum is unstoppable. I guess some phrasing in the middle section is stiffer than ideal, but overall this is better than I was expected.

    The same goes for the second sonata. The Allegro vivace opener sounds quite chipper and fun, and perhaps a bit mischievous. (Is it vivacious or mischievous? You be the judge.) Even the more “dramatic” passages sound puckish. The only quibble I have – and it’s only a quibble – is that some of the playing is too hazy, with Brendel using the sustain pedal too much for my liking. (It could be the acoustic / recording, too.) The Largo appassionato ends up sounding more like an energized Adagio, Brendel takes it at such a breezy clip. It never sounds rushed, and Brendel makes the piano sing. (Well, almost.) This isn’t something I normally associate with Brendel. I can’t really say that the movement sounds passionate, but I’m more than happy with what it does sound like. The concluding Scherzo and Rondo, while perhaps not ideally flowing, sounds decidedly quirk-free (or at least quirk-lite) and well paced and is a, well, serious joy.

    With the third sonata Brendel makes it three for three. The Allegro con brio opener is as straight forward as that indication requires, and sounds flowing, clear, reasonably attractive, with nothing forced of out of place, and with some superb runs near the end. The Adagio is likewise uncluttered and direct. It’s also rather serious – one could almost think of it as an aural frieze – and possessed of a nice, deep, tight lower register. The Scherzo sounds rather sternly driven, punchy, and remarkably free from interpretive artifice. The concluding Allegro assai is light, crisp, with charming staccato (yes, charming staccato) and rather seriously driven, as seems to be Mr Brendel’s wont. I guess some (or many) may prefer a lighter, more youthful and even sunnier approach to these works, but I rather enjoy them as is, and I enjoy them for what they’re not – excessively quirky, as a number of Brendel’s later recordings sound. The set’s off to a good start.

    The Op 7 sonata is mixed. The Allegro molto e con brio opens in a vigorous manner and can best be described as straight and detached with some creative sustains adding individuality. The Largo is slow (and definitely sounds like a Largo), steady, and distant. It can also sound a bit hard at times – the repeated three note figures being a good example – and some may no doubt want a bit more warmth. The Allegro is suitably lighter, with a nice rolling bass, but also sounds a bit stiff at times. The Rondo more or less continues along similar lines, with some slightly overdone passages that sound too stiff and deliberate. The playing also assumes a gruff mien at times. Overall, the sonata is well played, but it also sounds a bit rough and hard – musically, at any rate; Brendel never really produces an ugly sound. Perhaps Brendel tries to make more of the work than is there, and at times some of the ideas don’t work as well as others.

    The first of the Op 10 is back to good and straight forward. The Allegro molto e con brio open is definitely fast – faster than I was expecting – but it’s not especially strong or explosive. I still rather dig it. The subsequent theme is surprisingly rounded and attractive, and sounds that way every time it reappears. The Adagio molto is played with surprising warmth and even delicacy even if it lacks what I would call true emotion. Brendel does introduce some of his quirks, here confined to uniquely executed pauses and sustains, but fortunately they work. The concluding Prestissimo in clean and clear (though not of Barenboim clarity) yet deliberate – but deliberate in a good way. Indeed, this work and the preceding works all sound deliberate. They all sound thoroughly thought-through. Brendel’s Beethoven is in the intellectual, classical style, if you will: Brendel has thoroughly analyzed each score and plays every work with an eye to both textural clarity and architectural integrity. That means that it can sound detached and perhaps even antiseptic at times. It certainly doesn’t sound romantic or romanticized. For people who want that style of Beethoven, this set will not do.

    It should then come as no surprise that the 10/2 sonata ends up sounding a bit clinical and detached if still rather appealing. The Allegro is quick and driven hard, and lacks charm, but I still rather like it. The Allegretto, while having a “bigger” sound, sounds austere if not bleak. And the Presto (with repeat!) is energetic yet not buoyant. Hey, what can I say, I like Pollini’s take, so I like Brendel’s too.

    The final sonata in the set follows a similar path. The opening Presto is spry, with a nice rounded tone in the quieter passages and not a little zing in the louder passages. It’s fun and it’s serious at the same time. The Largo ends up sounding a bit distant, cold, bleak, and stinging. It’s controlled and takes the long, architectural view, and when one combines that with its sting, it seems to foreshadow the Adagio of the 106. Perhaps it’s too much heft for this early work, but I like it. The Menuetto offers a reprieve from the (good) bleakness: it’s fun and relaxed. The Rondo ends the work in vigorous fashion, and the coda is downright joyous, or at least joyous for Brendel; it’s as though he’s happy to be done with what he considers an important task. Again, some may be turned off by the somewhat aloof, measured style, but I rather enjoy it. My only complaint is the rather noticeable pre-echo that the Philips engineers allowed to seep in.

    I approached the Pathetique prejudiced. Brendel’s style up to this point doesn’t really work well in this piece. And so it proved to be. The opening Grave is slow, with extra-long sustains used to make the music sound more dramatic. The following music is too stiff and overemphatic, as if to underscore every obvious element in the score. When the movement transitions to the Allegro di molto e con brio it assumes a quick and nimble yet somewhat soft, rounded sound, and Brendel’s quirkiness shows up. The Adagio cantabile is way too hazy, due in large part to the muffled recording, and while superficially decent doesn’t really do much. The middle section is quick but curiously soft. Same with the Rondo. The whole work is too small, too insubstantial, and too unpleasantly recorded to be effective.

    To the two Op 14 ditties. Here are works that can certainly wilt under intense playing, but they can also suffer if played too analytically. Alas, the first of the two does suffer a bit from Brendel’s style. The opening Allegro opens in a pleasantly relaxed way, with a floating left hand offering nice support, and some deliciously spiky forte chords thrown in to mix things up. A somewhat formal feeling permeates the playing though, making the music sound almost too serious. The Allegretto tends to lean, occasionally fierce playing, including some rather abrupt notes and foreshortened phrasing near the end. The concluding Rondo fares best, with a light, flowing sound that is broken only by the aggressive playing in the middle section. The recording isn’t a bust, but I can’t say that it quite matches up to my favorites.

    Much better is the second sonata. I’m beginning to think that I just prefer the second work more, and it seems that more pianists fare better here than in the first one. Anyway, Brendel again opens with an Allegro that sounds pleasantly relaxed and benefits from a basically perfect overall tempo. Brendel’s playing also sounds just right for the work: a nice attack is followed by a rounded, appealing decay, and the tone, while not as ingratiating as Lucchesini’s or as richly varied as Barenboim’s, still tickles the ear. The Andante is quite chipper – too much so for a movement so indicated? Dunno. – and assumes a fun march-like quality while still remaining fluid to the end. The concluding Scherzo is a bit stiff at times, but overall it sounds fun and slightly warm, at least in the context of Brendel’s playing. So, good, very good, but not a world-beater.

    One consequence of listening to so much Beethoven over the last ten or so months has been an increased appreciation of the 11th sonata. I’ve always enjoyed the Op 22 sonata, but it always seemed to me to be immediately followed by more interesting works, and so I listened to it less frequently than I should have. Now, though, I look forward to this work to see how a pianist handles “late” early LvB and to listen for clues to how they might approach subsequent works. Brendel handles it quite well, though I have some minor reservations about it. Well, not so much reservations as observations. The Allegro con brio certainly opens nicely enough. Brendel plays it fast, clear, and open, and it has an irresistible forward drive to it. In some ways it could be considered straight and undistinguished, but the overall energy level and strength of Brendel’s playing really work. And the pianist’s vocalizing shows that he really digs the music, so it’s not surprising that it sounds so good. Perhaps Brendel was having so much fun playing and recording the piece that he forgot to slow down for the Adagio, because it sounds more like an Allegretto or Allegro at times. Of course, Brendel’s playing is purposive. The movement is uniquely tense and incessantly driven. This will not be to everyone’s taste, and it’s certainly not what I generally prefer, but here it works. The Menuetto is likewise tense and unyielding. The opening of the Rondo seems to offer something different as it opens in a more relaxed fashion, but soon Brendel is right back at it, not letting up. In demeanor, it reminds me of some of St Annie’s playing or even some of Seymour Lipkin’s playing, and I like it! This is not an easy listening Op 22; this is a hard-driven, thought-provoking version.

    Perhaps even harder to pull off to my satisfaction is the Op 26 sonata. There are many valid approaches, though I tend to prefer one centered around a big, solemn, funereal funeral march. Sounds reasonable enough, but not everyone sees it that way. Brendel is one of those people. The Andante theme that opens the work comes across in a most pleasing, lyrical way, and the variations that follow benefit from Brendel’s occasional quirkiness. The faster variations especially benefit. Here’s one time when underscoring a novel phrase or poking the listener in the ear with a uniquely accented chord pays dividends. The slower variations can be a bit too heavy on occasion, but overall the effect is nice. The Scherzo is forceful and biting to the point of being dour, but it works reasonably well. The funeral march – so important for me – here sounds neither especially funereal nor especially march-like. Yet what Brendel brings to it works well. His playing is small-scaled but quick. The middle section is terse and sharp and unyielding. It’s un-nice Beethoven. It’s pissed off Beethoven. That works, too. The concluding Allegro sounds stiffer than I prefer, but it also sounds grander than the march. On balance, this is a so-so reading I guess, but it’s one with some unique insights.

    On to the increasingly important 27/1. Each time I relisten to this sonata I like it more, so it has become almost as important as the critical Op 31 sonatas in assessing a pianist’s achievement. Brendel fares better than I would have originally expected, but as is often the case, his approach doesn’t yield world-beating goodness. The Andante opens the work rather briskly, but it’s also smooth and relaxed and rounded. The tension increases as the Allegro nears, which when it arrives is played in a purposely hazy manner with plenty o’ sustain and pulled back bass chords. Brendel never thumps away. The return of the lovely Andante is a bit straight and almost stern. It’s a sort of by-the-book Fantasy, if you will. The Allegro molto e vivace displays more purposely hazy playing, more restrained bass, yet maintains a nice rhythmic pulse. No, he can’t match Gulda here, but that’s quite all right. The Adagio sounds like a darkened, altered return of the opening material and has some upper register zing. The Allegro vivace opens in a prancing yet slightly restrained manner and offers a nice contrast to the dreamier (if that’s the right word in the context of this recording) music before a nice recapitulation and a zippy conclusion. All told, this is quite good, if not a top contender.

    The Mondschein, not too surprisingly, sounds similar in that it presents in somewhat stern view of a somewhat fantastic work. The opening movement is very direct, with clean staccato playing married to a depressed sustain pedal. The overall effect is a bit cold, but that’s okay. The Allegretto is strong and striking, with some near-brittle (in the best possible way) sounding playing, and the concluding Presto is quick and straight. I can’t say that this rates among my favorites of this work, but it is good and much less fussy than I thought it would be.

    Time for another biggie. How I admire the Pastorale. It’s among the most immediately appealing of all the 32 and in a good recording never fails to improve my mood. Once again I approached the work at hand with some reservations. Right out of the gate Brendel assuaged my reservations. His playing flows and sounds nicely lyrical with only a few instances of stiff left hand playing, but hardly enough to detract from enjoying the music. The runs are fast and nearly shimmering, and in the middle section Brendel plays with a nicely urgent sound. Not all is uninterrupted sunniness. Brendel plays the Andante comparatively swiftly with superb part playing – one can hear and savor the bass and the melodies in equal measure – and again adds some significant bite to the faster middle section. He also manages to infuse the playing in the fast section with subversive wit. The Scherzo finds Brendel playing in a calculated yet successful manner. He alternates quick figures and slight but noticeable pauses to good effect. The brief pauses almost make it sound as if the pianist is joking around. Go figure. Throw in a pointed and decidedly fun middle section, and, well, one has a fine movement. The Rondo ends the piece similarly to the opening movement, and here he uses the halting pauses again, though the effect isn’t as successful. It just sounds a bit mannered. Indeed, throughout the movement (and the sonata, for that matter), one can detect Brendel’s quirkiness, but it’s not so pronounced as to detract from the music. So, a qualified success.

    And so it is time for that critical trio, that batch that if poorly done precludes a cycle from scaling the heights. Brendel opens the first sonata well enough, playing with speed and, appropriately enough, some vivacity, and even an approximation of fun, though only of the unsmiling variety. He also throws in some notable power on occasion and does a good job right through. The Adagio grazioso, though, isn’t as satisfying. It opens with a stiff left hand underlying flat, antiseptic trills. Brendel also plays in a quirky manner. Some love it, some hate it, some are more indifferent, but it’s there. His rubato, his playing style, his little tics, all come to the fore, for instance when he uses quick, clear staccato to play the runs in a manner that interrupts the musical flow. The middle section suffers from more stiffness, yet there’s a solidity to the repeated left hand chords that sounds almost like proto-rock music. Some reasonably beefy but unclear bass trills aside, the end is lighter in tone. The Rondo again sounds stiff in places, with some choppy playing appearing here and there, yet nothing sounds forced or unpleasant. Indeed, that’s the overriding impression of the whole work. Brendel has thought it out thoroughly and plays with a dearth of spontaneity and genuine fun, if you will, but it still sounds decent. But that’s more or less it.

    The Tempest comes across in a similar way, with a relative lack of quirkiness the primary (and beneficial) difference. Brendel opens with a suitably slow Largo, though it sounds a bit flat, and then moves onto an Allegro that is suitably quicker though not especially fast, and he never really builds up any strength, either. As a result, the contrasts inherent in the music are largely absent. It sounds straight, mostly emotionless, and decidedly calculated. The almost clinical result is still interesting, but hardly enriching. The Adagio is pretty much the same, only slower. The concluding Allegretto, while not really offering much in the way of emotional playing or garish virtuosic display, benefits from inexorable forward momentum and decent lower register heft while suffering a bit from some stiff phrasing. Again, it’s decent, but hardly top-flight.

    Fortunately things pick up with the last of the trio. While played straight, the opening Allegro finds Brendel’s tone assuming that nicely rounded sound so prevalent early on, and Brendel sounds more at home with the upbeat, witty tenor of the piece. He never lets loose, but nor does he indulge himself too much. The Scherzo opens with Brendel scampering along in proper fashion, in a musically deadpan manner, which makes the passages where he slows down – in a most serious fashion – just to pound the keyboard and the play in a rushed manner all the more enjoyable. The Menuetto is well paced, comparatively lyrical, yet also a bit dark. Brendel ends the work with a Presto con fuoco played in a reasonably quick, decidedly pointed, rhythmically satisfying, yet sometimes flat manner. Given the relative successes he conjured up before, I had hoped for more in these works. Brendel does okay, I suppose, but I also find that his quirkiness and coolness don’t help out. I’ve heard worse in all of the sonatas, including most recently Ciani’s disappointing takes (especially the awful 31/3), so I guess I can say both better and worse are out there.

    Moving on the delightful little Op 49 trifles finds Brendel more or less carrying on as before, at least initially. The first of the two is direct and while warmish in color, it’s cool in delivery. There’s nice energy, but little fun. The second is more successful, and Brendel vocalizing seems to indicate that he likes it quite a bit more, too. It opens much like the first sonata except that it’s more lyrical. The second movement actually includes a bit of charm, too. So, a nice interlude, if you will.

    Given Brendel’s overall style, I didn’t come to the Waldstein with the highest expectations. This piece definitely benefits from a looser, more emotive style, though alternative takes can succeed fabulously. Alas, Brendel’s approach does not succeed fabulously. He opens with a quick and surprisingly light Allegro con brio. I expected more bite or oomph or muscle, that’s for sure. Brendel also plays within a narrow dynamic range, never veering much from the basic levels set early on. At least the part playing is interesting, with a clear right hand supported by a smoother legato from the left. The Introduzione, while being played within similarly narrow bounds as the opener, is more successful. Brendel’s coolness and sparing use of various interpretive devices yields a somewhat flat yet strangely appealing uninterpreted interpretation. The concluding Rondo opens with an attractive right hand melody superimposed over a subdued left hand, but as things heat up, Brendel stays too cool and some of his phrasing becomes a bit stiff. So this ends up being another okay recording but nothing special.

    The Op 54 is more successful. The opening movement starts off somewhat softly and sounds reasonably lyrical. So far, so good. But then Brendel transitions to playing in a punchy, angular manner while not adding much sting or bite. It sounds pretty good. It’s pretty straight forward, unflashy, and unweird. The second movement is suitably slower and is characterized by a flowing right hand playing over a somewhat stiff left hand accompaniment. While that shouldn’t work, it sort of does here. The overall conception ends up sounding big, and when Brendel does loosen up to play the ending in quick, vibrant fashion, it is most welcome and caps off a good recording.

    Unfortunately, I can find little positive to write about the Appassionata. It’s not that Brendel botches it technically; rather, his playing just doesn’t seem right, and it certainly does not sound in any way passionate. The Allegro assai opens in a too subdued fashion, and even the terse staccato playing just sounds bland. Even though the piano is very closely miked, the sound lacks bite and intensity, even in the faster portions. The whole thing sounds bizarrely limp. The Andante suffers the same fate. The few positive things I can write apply to the closing movement. Indeed, it has many ingredients that if properly blended with other elements can result in a satisfying musical experience, specifically well-judged overall tempo and clear or clear-ish articulation. Those other necessary elements are not there. The playing lacks passion and intensity. This is definitely a weak spot in the cycle.

    After a disappointing Op 57, the subsequent works were bound to sound better, and they do. The Op 78 Adagio cantabile opens with a well-judged tempo and a round, soft tone. The second movement sounds appropriately chipper and nicely smooth. The Op 79 Presto alla tedesca is bright, forward moving, sunny and downright fun. I suppose the second movement may be a bit too cool, but it’s still decent, and the final movement is direct and lyrical with just a smidgeon of tension and bite thrown in. Neither recording is a world–beater, but both make for a good listen.

    The Les Adieux makes for more than that. As with Op 53 and Op 57, I approached this sonata with reservations, but here Brendel succeeds. The opening movement opens in a poised and lyrical yet morose fashion, and as the music swells, Brendel keeps it all under control. While it sounds “big,” it doesn’t assume the quasi-orchestral dimension that many bring to it. Rather, it’s played on a more personal level, more akin to how Paul Badura-Skoda plays it. But it’s also constrained; Brendel never lets loose. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. The middle movement ends up a lonely, personal lament, with nothing metaphysical attached to it. The final movement opens with in happy if not ebullient fashion and stays somewhat small. Again, it’s a personal conception, not a grand one. To tickle one’s ears, Mr Brendel offers some hypnotically steady left hand playing and keeps the whole thing moving along with nice rhythmic snap. Here’s a recording that works better than I anticipated and actually compares favorably to other versions.

    Now, the Op 90 is something else entirely. I’ve long admired Brendel’s Vox recording of this piece, but I think this one may be even better. Everything about it not only works but works incredibly well. Brendel opens the piece in a rich, grand manner, yet he also infuses the playing with an almost mysterious sound – how and why, I don’t know, I just know I like it. It also sounds simultaneously urgent, lyrical, bitter, and unsettling; it manages to sound both comfortable and uneasy at the same time. The listener is in experienced hands, that’s for sure. Anyway, the middle section is fast and stinging, and the way Brendel draws out the ending is unique and captivating. The second movement, in marked contrast to the first, is a non-stop stream of beautiful music. A bit of more intense playing in the middle section notwithstanding, Brendel sounds his most beautiful and compelling here. A superb reading.

    One experiences a diminution in quality with Op 101. But not too much. The opening Allegretto ma non troppo sounds lovely, thoughtful, and, somehow, both grounded and dreamy. It never sounds otherworldly or anything like that, yet it still sounds good. The march opens with curiously clouded chords, which reappear later, but overall sounds nicely march-like and is strong where it should be. The Adagio sounds serene and contemplative and personal in nature, and ends with a crisply played trill that segues to an incisive, lucid final movement. Some of the playing sounds slightly stiff and staggered, but the pointed playing is the point. The movement is sharp and clear, and Brendel unleashes some significant power for once. At times the playing sounds a tad brittle, but overall everything works relatively well.

    Yet another decrease in quality can be heard with the Hammerklavier. The first thing I noticed is how small scaled the playing seems. Most pianists do their best to make the opening movement sound quasi-orchestral. Brendel does not. Don’t get me wrong, Brendel does some things right – he plays with a nice overall tempo and creates musical momentum – and a small approach can work, as, again, Paul Badura-Skoda demonstrates, but Brendel just never creates an especially compelling sound in the two opening movements. The great Adagio fares better. Brendel’s playing is flat – that is, he introduces little in the way of overt “interpretation” – and he creates a suitably desolate sound world. But it doesn’t really capture one’s fancy. The final movement starts with a cool, distant Largo and then transitions to a measured yet somewhat quick, reasonably clear fugue. Some beefy bass adds sonic allure to the mix, but the whole thing sounds uninspired and uninspiring.

    The same cannot be written about the Op 109. Indeed, this is the pinnacle of the cycle. The Vivace ma non troppo is fast, clear, bright and wholly unfettered by unnecessary gestures. It sounds a bit lean, perhaps, but that only adds to the allure. The Adagio section is much calmer and more contemplative and possessed of all that late LvB goodness. Brendel plays the Prestissimo in electric fashion, angrily hammering out the music in a most satisfying way. And the center of the work, the glorious Andante and variations, works, too. The Andante theme itself is meticulously delivered and has that transportive quality common in the best versions of the work. Then the variations come, and success follows success. The slow variations are quintessentially late LvB in every way. The quicker ones are deliberate and quirky, but here Brendel’s quirkiness actually works. Most important and impressive of all is how the whole thing jells. Brendel takes the long view of the piece and his delivery makes it difficult to really dissect it in great detail; after all, one wants to greedily hear all that music. A remarkable recording.

    After such an extraordinary recording it came as no surprise that the following recordings are not quite as good. The 110 opens with a Moderato cantabile molto espressivo that is generally well done, benefiting from forward momentum, moderately clear playing (some amorphous lower register playing in a few passages notwithstanding), and an attractive tone. Brendel’s playing never sings, though. The Allegro molto is really good, with Brendel’s playing taking on a hard-hitting, vigorous and unsmiling mien. But as with the preceding work, it’s the last movement that matters most. The Adagio ma non troppo opens with a bleak, ascetic sound. The sense of gloom permeates the entire opening portion of the movement and really works well. The initial fugue starts gently, builds up in tension and volume rapidly, and unfolds with admirable directness and decent clarity. The second stab at the opening material sounds much the same as before, which is fine, but the ending chords are surprisingly feeble. The inverted fugue, not surprisingly, sounds much like the original fugue overall. Brendel chooses to end the piece in bold, strong fashion, though others end the piece more titanically. Overall, the 110 is a success, and complaints are minor.

    Ditto the 111. Again, Brendel plays the whole thing in a refreshingly direct, largely quirk-free way. The darker music of the latter half of the opening movement sounds more mischievous than malicious or ominous, but the unyielding forward drive and striking way Brendel plays the quasi-contrapuntal music is really invigorating. And Brendel once again demonstrates an ability to surprise by playing the Arietta in sublime fashion. Subdued and beautiful and static, he really nails it. The subsequent variations sound very good for the most part, and the long trill is steady and clear and offers a fine musical baseline. But. But Brendel never really achieves the same transcendental qualities that the best do. Overall, though, this is a fine recording and better than I expected. I’d say it’s a toss-up between this and the Vox recording. That’s good news to me.

    Time to sum up. Somewhat contrary to my expectations, I rather enjoyed this cycle. Brendel is certainly uneven, but at his best – Op 22, 90, 109 – he is extraordinary. At his worst, he’s far more tolerable than I thought he would be. He doesn’t sound as quirky and mannered as he does in his more recent Beethoven recordings. On the downside, he doesn’t sound as impetuous and invigorating as in his Vox recordings, or at least the ones I am familiar with. One thing I noted as I listened to the cycle was how comfortable it sounded. By that I mean that Brendel’s take is a serious, “intellectual” take on the works, and he doesn’t try to dazzle with unnecessary pianistic pyrotechnics, and he respects and even loves the music and is thus focused on presenting his ideas on the music rather than something less important, so I could just sit and listen and enjoy. In some ways the cycle reminds me of Claude Frank’s, though it’s not as accomplished technically or musically. There’s no doubt that many people do or would like this cycle more than I do, and it’s equally certain many do not or would not. Brendel’s take is “classical” in overall approach, and is definitely shorn of pretty much any hints of romanticism. At times his playing borders on the coldly analytical, and many simply can’t stand that. Even when I don’t especially care for Brendel’s playing, I must admit that he always has original ideas about the music, so if you want a stimulating cycle, this one could definitely fit the bill. I certainly cannot rate this cycle among my favorites, but it easily trumps a number of lesser sets. It has also made me want to buy the remaining volumes of his Vox cycle to hear how he fares. I may even give his digital cycle a try at some point. Miracle of miracles, I can sit through a big batch of Brendel and enjoy myself and least some of the time. Whoda thunk it?

    To sound: ‘Tis variable, but on the good side. Some of the recordings, particularly from 1975, have more hiss and a less attractive sound that some of the other recordings. The 1977 recordings all sound superb.

  10. #25
    Captain of Water Music
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    Georges Pludermacher

    I’ve had good luck with French pianists in Beethoven. I just like the way they sound. I can’t say that I would make any French pianist I’ve heard a first choice for the complete set, though in specific sonatas they do shine, like Op 22. Robert Casadesus is one of my favorite pianists generally, and though I find him at something less than his very best in Beethoven, he does provide some fine readings of the sonatas I’ve heard from him, the Appassionata especially. Yves Nat is superb in a number of sonatas, but I’m not wild about his late sonatas, and much the same can be written about Jean-Bernard Pommier. Eric Heidsieck has thus far provided me with the most consistently enjoyable complete or substantial set of sonatas by a Frenchman, with his interventionist approach paying dividends in unexpected ways. (I certainly hope that the fabled Alfred Cortot cycle is more than a mere fantasy and one day makes it to disc, though I doubt it – both its existence and the probability of it being released if it does.) So why not try another take? As luck would have it, I hunted down Georges Pludermacher’s cycle for a very reasonable 70 Euro and decided to give it a shot. Pludermacher is yet another pianist I’ve only read about until now, just like the other two pianists whose cycles I’m now traversing. Most of the references I’ve seen about him have been flattering with regard to his technical ability, his musical ability, and his creativity, and he’s worked with some august musicians during his career. He always wants to approach works differently, or so goes the copy. That’s a good thing, and certainly Elveebee’s sonatas can sound just fine under such circumstances. (As is the case with Heidsieck.) So Mr Pludermacher is an adventurer; he likes to do things differently.

    What’s different about this cycle? The piano, for starters. Pludermacher doesn’t use a regular piano. No. He uses a Steinway modified to include a new pedal. A “Harmonic” pedal. A pedal that allows the pianist to alter the sustain and volume and, well, according to the notes, a whole lot of things in a whole lot of ways. It’s possible (and clearly audible) to sustain only a few notes in a phrase. It all has to do with how deft a pianist is at using his feet. (I can only ponder what Walter Gieseking may have been able to do with this piano.) Also slightly different, at least for some listeners, is the fact that this cycle was recorded live during a series of concerts given in Reims in the summer of 1998.

    Enough preamble; time for the music. Right from the first few notes it’s clear that Pludermacher will take the listener on an individual journey. The opening Allegro of Op 2/1 starts off sounding deliberate if not quite stiff. Barely a moment passes before Pludermacher injects speed and his own unique rubato into the mix. Arpeggios will be dashed off dazzlingly quick, then he’ll slow down, savor a phrase just a bit, and then change back. Dynamics and tonal shadings are constantly in flux. To this he marries notable weight and admirable clarity – but not of the sometimes merciless X-ray kind present in the Sheppard set. (It must be stated that Pludermacher is closely-miked, too.) The effect of the new pedal can also be heard, with novel sustains and sounds. The Adagio continues along the interventionist path. The overall sound is somewhat superficial – in the best Giesekingian way – and ends up being an extended lesson in glorious, somewhat light, but impossibly variegated sound production. Pludermacher infuses the playing with his idiosyncratic touches everywhere and all the time. Just when one settles in for a shimmering, light approach, he throws the listener a curve. The Menuetto starts off in a deliberate fashion, but it still sounds peculiarly dance-like. Sort of like a minuet, in fact. Then he throws in some seriously powerful playing. It remains remarkably clear, to boot. The Prestissimo is played fast, with huge dynamic swings, and utterly unique phrasing and accenting in every bar. The playing has an irresistible motoric force, but it doesn’t really have the type of rhythmic groove that I would have expected. But it is exciting and unique.

    Things stay that way with the second sonata. The Allegro vivace is fast, clear, cleanly articulated, with superb dynamic variations and pronounced but never obtrusive rubato. Pludermacher nonchalantly dashes off the ascending scales with ease, and then proceeds to hammer out some of the playing with aggressive intensity. Unlike Kovacevich, who is also aggressive in the early works, Pludermacher never sounds hard or (even somewhat) vulgar. The Largo comes off as sometimes march-like, sometimes thundering, but always clear and usually lean, though some tonal richness appears as appropriate. The movement is very serious but not exactly passionate. Gallic detachment is married to power in a most appealing way. The Scherzo opens with quick, light figures and then transitions to a simultaneously fiery and detached middle section, only to return to the opening material in a most satisfying way. The Rondo is again fast – Pludermacher loves to play fast – with all his tricks on display and an unyielding forward drive. As if to demonstrate that he can do even more, Pludermacher plays in a pulverizing fashion – more so than Sheppard – yet even then one is pleased by the sonic assault. In some ways the playing is very superficially exciting. Pludermacher certainly does not offer a great deal of emotionally enriching playing, but what is there is both technically assured and viscerally exciting.

    The final sonata of the opening trio finds Pludermacher pulling out all the tools at his disposal. The Allegro con brio opener actually opens somewhat conventionally in terms of tempo and overall mood. Pludermacher quickly transitions to very fast, lean, and powerful playing, with pedaling, rubato, and dynamic shifts all obviously present. The more pressed nature of his playing means that the astounding flexibility of the first sonata is dampened somewhat (he apparently uses the new pedal less), but it’s still flexible. The Adagio opens with a somewhat detached feel, but all that nice tonal and dynamic variability remains. For some reason, the left hand notes and chords, even when played forte, sound somewhat undernourished. Must be that pedal again. The overriding effect of the first few minutes of playing is of pseudo-tragic music; Pludermacher approximates emotion. Then the broad chords after 5’ are much stronger, and that new pedal adds some unique color. As if to make up for lost time, Pludermacher dispatches the Scherzo with almost breathlessly fast and intense playing. The concluding Allegro assai opens with light, clear, yet colorful ascending scales, and then Pludermacher’s big, beefy left hand playing joins in. He almost races through the music at times, generating superficial excitement. There’s definitely a lot to enjoy in the opening sonatas.

    For the fourth sonata, Pludermacher again opts to open the piece quickly. Allegro molto e con brio the opener most certainly is, but even then the pianist sees fit to pick up the speed and ratchet up the tension after a brief period of merely brisk playing. The playing is remarkably fluid and even has a nice rhythmic snap to it, but it’s all superficial. It doesn’t really delve beneath the surface, as it were. That’s fine, but there it is. The Largo is comparatively slow, with immaculately timed pauses. Rarely have I heard them used so expertly; Pludermacher maintains a high degree of musical tension; there is never even a hint that the musical line may be breached. When it comes time to play with power, Pludermacher does so without any hint of strain or without overdoing anything. The Allegro starts off in a somewhat slow and deliberate manner, at least for Pludermacher. All the notes have pronounced, clear attacks, and that nifty new pedal is used artfully to sustain only select notes in an appealing (if perhaps a bit contrived) manner. Pludermacher also does something he hasn’t done up to this point: he makes the music sing a few times, but only in bursts. The middle section has a nice rolling bass that is nicely unclear, most likely on purpose. To close the piece, Pludermacher again makes the piano sing, but this time in an almost delicate way. But he also has more serious things to do as when he belts out the middle section in blazing fast fashion. What’s perhaps most surprising is how Pludermacher manages to pull of this off within relatively conventional overall timings. None of the sonatas are freakishly long or short. What Pludermacher does within the time parameters parameters is what’s most impressive. That’s the case here.

    Moving on to the next trio reveals more surprises. Pludermacher opens the first sonata Allegro molto e con brio not fast but rather slow, or slow-ish, and in a rather measured way. The first return of the opening theme definitely sounds faster and stronger, and at times it seems like things are poised to get heated up, but then the pianist pulls back and plays lyrically. Then the whole process gets repeated. The specific effects and sounds don’t really sound that great, but the transitions between the styles are graceful and fluid. The Adagio molto, as with some prior slow movements, sounds detached but lovely, with musical tension retained throughout, and with Pludermacher finding the time to play some passages in a discreetly virtuosic manner. To close, Pludermacher opts to start off in a measured way only to end up playing in a robust, nearly dazzling fashion with plenty of oomph. It’s good fun. The second sonata opens with a plucky, clear, and quick Allegro complete with Pludermacher’s distinctive rubato and accenting. Again, it’s surface playing, but it’s good surface playing. The Allegretto is attractively dark, but, yep, it’s superficial. And again, the closing movement starts off relatively slowly only to pick up steam, but just when things get going, they’re over. No repeat is on offer here. Darn. The final sonata is the most successful. Momentum and rhythm characterize the Presto, with all the tricks deployed thus far showing up again, and in just the right mix. The Largo occupies a different sound world entirely. From the outset it sounds bleak, and some of the repeated chords almost anticipate Le Gibet more than the 106. Most of the quick take on this movement is superficial, though deft use of the lower registers and a marked shift in style between 6’30” and 7’ results in a tragic outpouring of rage and anguish, albeit through clenched teeth, if you will. In contrast, the Menuetto and Rondo both sound quite chipper, with Pludermacher relishing the little gestures in the music and using his bag of tricks most tastefully.

    How would Pludermacher do in the Pathetique? His somewhat cool, detached style seemed to portend a less than heated version, though his technical acumen seemed to insure a well executed one. And that’s what Pludermacher delivers. The Grave opens with a strong but not overwhelming chords, then moves on to some quicker playing, and then the thundering playing comes before the Allegro. The Allegro itself is a model of quick, clear, detached playing, with some nearly dazzling fast playing and some decent heft. The Andante cantabile opens with a beautifully lyrical sound, but it’s hardly the paragon of romantic playing. The Rondo ends the work in a similar fashion to the opening movement – generally quick and clear and definitely detached. All told, it’s a good reading, and certainly a well played one, but it’s not a world beater.

    The two Op 14 sonatas both sound good. The first sonata Allegro and Allegretto both sound too solemn. The playing itself is light and clear, with some left hand chords floated nicely in the opening movement, and some lovely playing in the second. But it sounds almost depressing at times. The Rondo sounds more vigorous and upbeat. The second sonata sounds more appealing, with the opening Allegro benefiting from dazzling runs, a generally swift overall tempo, and all those little tonal variations that Pludermacher so effortlessly delivers. The Andante and Scherzo both sound curiously vigorous yet nonchalant and decidedly charming.

    Finishing up the first batch with the Op 22 finds another French pianist doing well. Pommier, Heidsieck, and Nat all do very well here, and Pludermacher’s success seems to indicate that the French may have learned the secrets of the piece better than most. The Allegro con brio follows the now familiar pattern of a measured open quickly transitioning to quick, pointed, and (now) groovy playing with some serious low-end heft. Throughout, Pludermacher will accelerate, decelerate, play loud, play soft, and otherwise do whatever seems to tickle his fancy, and he does it in such a way as to sound fluid, graceful, strong, and compelling all in equal measure. The Adagio, on the other hand, is all about slowness. This is one time when Pludermacher does adopt an extreme tempo – he extends the movement to over 10’. At times musical tension is sacrificed, and the emotional payoff isn’t really there; the emotion is contrived. Well, it sounds that way until Pludermacher pounds out some chords in the middle section. An outcry of pain in a sonata where it’s not really needed, perhaps? Anyway, it still works. The Menuetto is more chipper, as one would hope, but it also sounds reasonably rich and nicely articulated. The Rondo continues on in a similarly comfortable manner until the fiercer middle section, when Pludermacher turns on the speed before easing up. This is indeed a good reading, but the out of place Adagio prevents me from rating this version among those by the other French pianists. I still like it.

    So, a big helping of Mr Pludermacher’s Beethoven has been devoured. Me like. With reservations. That Pludermacher is technically proficient is clearly beyond doubt. That he can play with taste and energy equally so. But his playing is sometimes too concerned with surface gloss and momentary effect for me to say it’s up there with the very best. (Had he focused more on momentary feeling, it might be another story.) Truth to tell, I find the quadrapedal piano something of a novelty, and a pretty flimsy reason to record the sonatas in itself. Perhaps such a device would have more value in Debussy, but here it just adds some interesting effects. I’d like to here Pludermacher play Beethoven on a standard piano, that’s for sure. Don’t get me wrong, I really like what I’ve heard so far. Pludermacher definitely brings some unique ideas to the music, and makes for a fine potential alternative version, and that’s how I’m going to approach the rest of the set.




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    I rather enjoyed the first eleven sonatas in Pludermacher’s cycle. He brings unique insights and adventurous playing to most of the works. His playing is also a bit superficial at times. The former set of traits could serve the next batch very well, the latter trait not so much. Unfortunately, the latter trait predominates. The problems start immediately with the Op 26 sonata. The Andante is flat, not especially lyrical or attractive, nor is it serious or introspective. It’s just there. And while Pludermacher previously brought admirable clarity to the part playing, here his hands aren’t synced up. It’s not that he plays in an old fashioned, purposely desynchronized manner, it’s that nothing jells. The first variation exposes more problems. It’s stiff and disjointed. Is that due to “interpretation” or a memory lapse? I think it’s the former because all of the subsequent variations are likewise stiff and disjointed. There’s no flow to the opening movement. Same goes for the Scherzo. The funeral march fares best; it’s a slow, somber march that at times benefits from huge, thundering climaxes and creative use of the new pedal. The work ends on a less than positive note. Pludermacher’s clear part playing returns, thankfully, but he never shakes that disjointed feel from the first two movements. A disappointment.

    Things improve slightly with the first of the sonatas quasi una fantasia. The opening Andante combines slow-ish repeated chords with fast everything else, including some sweet accelerations from slow to fast playing. The Allegro is faster yet, but because the opening Andante was relatively quick, the contrast between the sections is muted. The Allegro blends seamlessly into another fast Andante. The Allegro molto e vivace is a bit clearer than the preceding sections, but again, the contrast is muted. The whole thing sounds homogenized up to this point. Fortunately, the Adagio is quite nice. Pludermacher slows down a bit and plays quite lyrically, even tenderly at times, though some metallic tinge can be detected. As might be expected, the Allegro vivace is fast and powerful, and has better dynamic contrasts than the opening portion of the work, and also sounds nicely groovy at times. The return of the main slow theme offers a nice, brief rest before a strong ending. So, an okay recording, but not a top-notch one.

    For the Mondschein it appears that Pludermacher makes it a point to “reexamine” everything, including the use of the sustain pedal, because the movement isn’t as hazy as it should be. Plus it’s quick surface playing only. It’s Melancholy Lite, if you will. The Allegretto is direct and has nice lower register playing – and relatively more sustain – but it mostly acts like a direct bridge to the ending Presto agitato. Pludermacher takes this movement fast, scurrying around the keyboard in an agitated state. (Imagine that!) It’s vigorous, muscular, and decidedly virtuosic. For those who favor the type of approach outlined above, this recording will thrill. Me, well, let’s move on.

    It’s back to reexamined playing for the Pastorale. That means a very long (>12’), very slow, ponderous opening Allegro. It sounds more like an Adagio. There’s little to no musical tension, and it takes on a blocked or episodic feeling. As one might expect, it doesn’t flow. There are some good things, though. The middle section, here starting around 7’ in, is tumultuous, with a powerful left hand and a searing right. Things improve with the Andante, which actually flows and even sounds a tad leisurely. Pludermacher reintroduces subtle use of all his interpretive tricks described in the first review, and he shakes things up on occasion, favoring punched out bass notes to do that. The Scherzo is jauntier and more fun, but the Trio has the same unsynchronized playing that hampered the Op 26 sonata. To end, Pludermacher plays a nice Rondo. It starts a little on the slow side, with some nicely pronounced bass (no one can accuse this set of being upper register dominated), and decent musical flow. Pludermacher is at his best in the louder and faster music. The climaxes are big ‘n’ beefy, and the coda is the epitome of modern virtuosity. A mixed bag, then, but one tending toward the disappointing side of things.

    Tending toward the more pleasing side of things is the first of the critical Op 31 sonatas. Pludermacher opens with a fast and puckish Allegro vivace. Once again Pludermacher displays his not inconsiderable power, though here he knows when to back off, too. It’s gripping if perhaps not very probing. The Adagio grazioso sounds quite inviting, with quickly dispatched, accelerating trills played over a limpid left hand. The middle section starts with some strong chords and then is characterized by lyrical right hand figures floated over an insistent left hand. The trills on the aft side are more fluttering and yet remain distinct. Must be the fourth pedal. What’s most remarkable about the movement is how Pludermacher makes the long movement – here around 11’40” – float by so effortlessly. It’s over before one wants it to be. The work closes with a quick, energetic Rondo most notable for its dazzling fingerwork. Pludermacher can play anything he wants.

    It’s nice to report that the Tempest remains on the pleasing side. The Largo alternates rapidly dispatched notes and nicely done pauses that make it more intense than dark. The Allegro is quick, with Pludermacher darting across the keyboard, deploying his remarkably dexterous fists ‘o music to create some powerful playing. Perhaps it’s too powerful on average, because that nice, contrasty sound I crave goes missing much of the time. It’s surface playing again. But still, when he fades to silence at 4’30”-ish and then erupts, it’s electric. The Adagio sounds nicely moody and nimble, if perhaps a bit shallow. (He’s like Gieseking in that regard, but Gieseking brings something extra that no one else does.) To close, Pludermacher offers up an Allegretto that’s well played, with predictably solid lower register playing and urgent repeated treble figures. Good stuff. Not great stuff.

    The trio ends less impressively. The Allegro opens on the slow and soft side, though Pludermacher picks up the pace – but not the volume – at around 1’18” in. Despite my misgivings about the delivery, I just couldn’t resist, not entirely. A few patches of hefty lower register playing aside, this movement ends up being more about subtle nuance than overt showmanship. That’s okay by me. The Scherzo is appropriately faster, with a prominent (but not heavy) bassline. Pludermacher keeps things quieter than normal, especially for him. Oh, sure, the small, humorous outbursts are nice, but one’s left quoting Clara Peller: “Where’s the beef?” The Menuetto continues along similar lines. The work closes with a vigorous, fun ‘n’ groovy Presto con fuoco that still remains on the light side. So, less good stuff, but good stuff nonetheless.

    The Op 49 sonatas briefly sum up what has come before: they’re a mixed bag. The first sonata opens with a fast Andante that sounds faux-dramatic because of the speed, unsubtle rubato, and bunched chords. The Rondo is rubato heavy, somewhat choppy, and suffers from exaggerated dynamics. The second sonata is more successful, with a brisk, strong, yet lyrical Allegro ma non troppo and a brisk, tuneful Tempo di Menuetto.

    The second batch of sonatas is different from the first. Pludermacher was very compelling in some of the early works, but here he doesn’t really offer a great deal. The Op 31 sonatas have some nice things to recommend them, the first one in particular, but overall I was left dissatisfied with the entire batch. In that regard, he’s the anti-Sheppard, who only improved in the second batch. I hope the remaining works fare better.




    --


    Thus far Georges Pludermacher’s cycle has been mixed. The early sonatas were generally very good and characterized by technically polished, colorful, but somewhat aloof playing. The same things characterized the second batch of sonatas. Unfortunately, more is needed to make the middle and (especially the) late sonatas sound their best. So it should come as no surprise to learn that this batch of six sonatas ends up faring about as well as the second batch did. That is, they are very well played – there’s no denying that – but ultimately not the most satisfying recordings out there.

    The Waldstein ends up being something of a microcosm of the entire batch. The Allegro con brio is brisk and firm, clear and colorful, and boasts a steady left hand supporting a nimble right hand. Pludermacher deploys his technique and the piano’s expanded abilities to create a “large” sound and plays with superb articulation. But it is detached and cool. It’s a somewhat (or maybe predominantly) unengaging, virtuosic take on the piece. The same thing holds true for the Introduzione, though here the big, beefy bass adds some undeniable sonic allure. The Rondo alternates between somewhat restrained, lovely, colorful playing, and swelling, staggeringly powerful climaxes with thundering bass, and coruscating right hand figurations. It becomes a virtuosic showpiece, though to Pludermacher’s credit, it succeeds for what it is.

    Pretty much the same thing can be written for the Op 54 sonata. The minuet portion of the In tempo di menuetto becomes increasingly ornamented with each reappearance, culminating in some really sweet trills in the third pass, and the more powerful second section is fast, occasionally strident, and beefy. The concluding Allegretto ends up sounding more Allegro (at least), with nimble fingerwork, punchy bass, and high energy the predominant traits. It’s decent, and superbly executed, but after Silverman, well, it just doesn’t satisfy the way it should.

    Same goes for the Appassionata. Silverman’s blockbuster recording makes both Sheppard and Pludermacher seem somewhat uninteresting – Pludermacher more so than Sheppard. I expected Pludermacher to really let loose here and just overwhelm me with power and speed. Instead, I got a recording where Pludermacher alternates slow-ish (for Pludermacher), somewhat subdued passages with immensely powerful yet somewhat contained passages. Sure, there are some dazzling trills and flourishes to tickle one’s ears, but it sounds episodic and contrived, and not very passionate. Things improve with the Andante con moto, which sounds lyrical and offers more than surface playing. The work ends with an Allegro, ma non troppo that is indeed all about speed. And power. The brief slower, softer sections sound a bit forced, but if one wants a cooking finale, this recording certainly offers that.

    For some reason, though, Pludermacher makes the Op 78 work well. The cantabile designation in the Adagio cantabile is definitely adhered to: Pludermacher makes this part sing, if with a quick cadence. The Allegro ma non troppo is played very fast, with breathtaking articulation (the man has speedy fingers!), and an attractive tone. Searching or moving it may not be, but it is muscular and fun. Pludermacher makes the concluding Allegro vivace sound like a continuation of the preceding section and brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion.

    The Op 79 sonata doesn’t fare quite as well. The opening Presto alla tedesca is unrelenting in its speed and intensity – almost as much as in Pollini’s recording. That means that the more dazzling aspects of the score sound fine, but the repeated ‘cuckoo’ figure and off-key ending are nearly crushed at times. In contrast, the Andante is quite serious, more measured, and quite attractive. It comes out of nowhere, really; it seems like it’s from a different performance. (It’s not.) As one might expect, the Vivace ending is fast, big, and vigorous and generally enjoyable.

    That leaves the Les Adieux. It more or less ends up in the same category as the other two named sonatas in this batch: well executed but detached. The Adagio sounds attractive, is taken at a nice pace, and has expertly used silences. The Allegro section is fast, clear, and vigorous. What’s missing? Well, it doesn’t really seem as though anyone is bidding farewell to anyone else. It’s just sort of there. The second movement is beautiful, sounds almost moving at times, but doesn’t evoke any feelings of sorrow, regret, loneliness, or anything. Not really. The Vivacissimente is grand and fast and superficially exciting, but where’s the ebullience at the return of the admired friend? It’s not there.

    This batch is pretty much a continuation of the prior batch. If you want a well played but cool cycle, this may be the one for you. Just don’t expect a lot beyond that.


    cont'd . . .
    Last edited by Todd; May-11-2006 at 19:10.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  11. #26
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    ...cont'd


    I came to the late sonatas with reduced expectations. Of the three pianists whose cycles I’ve been listening to, Pludermacher might possibly be the most technically accomplished, but his cycle has also been the least satisfying overall. Undeniable surface polish is no substitute for a more secure grasp of the underlying musical message. That’s not to say Pludermacher’s cycle has been bad; it’s just not up to the standard of the other two cycles, or a number of others. And I anticipated that the late sonatas would be the least satisfying of the cycle overall. In some ways they are.

    That’s evident in Op 90. Pludermacher opens the first movement with somewhat muted contrasts and a rather resigned air. Things start to pick up after 45”, and then Pludermacher adroitly deploys his formidable technical ability: runs dazzle; lower register weight impresses; all sounds clear. In between the more dazzling passages Pludermacher creates a static soundworld, and the overall result sounds somewhat unfocused. He’s playing with little evident purpose or aim. That same feeling remains in the lyrical, and strangely youthful (as in it sounds more like early LvB) second movement. It’s well played, but it doesn’t engage as it should.

    The Op 101 opens in a markedly more successful manner: the Allegretto, ma non troppo is superbly judged, with a timeless, transportive sound created right from the start. Characteristically powerful climaxes serve only to punctuate ideas and never become obtrusive. The whole thing jells! The Vivace alla marcia works, too. It’s bold, bright, strong, and rhythmically snappy. The middle section is more vigorous than the outer sections and sound almost chipper. Then things head south. The Adagio is slow and detached – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but here it just doesn’t work. Pludermacher doesn’t sound engaged; he sounds almost as though he’s sight-reading. Again, it’s well played, but something major is missing. The same thing largely holds true for the concluding movement (or section, depending on the recording at hand). It’s fast, it’s strong, it’s clear, but that’s it. Pludermacher just seems to be racing through the music. So a promising start gives way to a flat ending.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Hammerklavier displays many of the same traits. But it is also a bit more successful. Pludermacher takes the opening Allegro at a brisk overall tempo, and every brief slower part becomes a somewhat pale rest before the next energetic section arrives. Make no mistake, Pludermacher plays the piece well. His fine articulation, clear, bright part playing, and general forward drive make for a superficially exciting movement, but not much else. The Scherzo is slightly slower but otherwise much the same. The Adagio is a bit unusual. It’s desolate, sure, but in a cool and detached way. The playing lacks great emotional depth. Yet it still sounds oddly effective. In its coolness it achieves a sort of hardened, emotionless feel. It’s hardly my ideal interpretation, but it is better than I expected. The piece ends pretty much as one might expect. The Largo is slow and detached, the fugue fast, clear, powerful, and (mostly) effortlessly dispatched. On a superficial level, this is a decent recording, but it isn’t one for the ages.

    The Op 109 is probably the highlight of the last six sonatas. Pludermacher opens the Vivace, ma non troppo by playing in a notably deliberate manner for a few moments before switching to predictably fast, colorful, clear, and dynamically and tonally variable playing. Rather than superficiality, Pludermacher succeeds in creating a fluid, slightly dreamy, yet peculiarly concise movement that even evokes, if only a little, a transportive quality. Unsurprisingly, the Prestissimo is exceedingly fast and strong, but it never sounds rushed or forced, but nor does it sound especially involving. The Andante sounds attractive, but clipped. It never really flows like it should, and so that late-LvB ethereal sound goes missing. At first it seems the whole movement might sound that way, but Pludermacher slyly and stealthily blends the erstwhile missing element in. The work sounds its most moving and engrossing in the gorgeous first variation. After that, he plays a couple fast variations – the third one breathlessly so – and then switches back to a more conventional late Beethoven soundworld. By the time the work is over, one has enjoyed a somewhat earthbound but still (somewhat) compelling reading.

    Things revert to pre-109 style with the 110. The Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo is fast, variegated in every regard, and superficial. The Allegro starts off somewhat stiffly then converts to fast ‘n’ clear ‘n’ strong. Then the Adagio arrives and one hears that detached, cool playing that elsewhere may be forgiven, but here just sounds dull. The fugue displays all of Pludermacher’s traits typically displayed in fast, complex passages. The second pass at the Adagio is pretty much like the first, with the repeated chord transition played in a mechanically effective but dispassionate quieter-to-louder progression. The second fugal section is well played, and the whole thing comes to a virtuosic end. Yet another well played but too superficial reading.

    Time to wrap this one up. That crowning glory known as the Op 111 is not glorious enough. Oh sure, Pludermacher plays the opening movement in strikingly powerful fashion, with substantial bass weight, but the whole thing sounds too bright and happily energetic. The Arietta is nicely played but sounds more dutiful than beautiful. The variations progress as one might expect, especially the dazzlingly fast third, and while a few nice touches are there to be heard, chief among them the sweet trills, the whole thing just doesn’t sound as compelling as this work should.

    Overall, I’m still glad I got to hear this cycle. Pludermacher’s playing is certainly technically accomplished, and the novel new piano he uses offers some interesting aural delights. But there’s not enough below the surface. This doesn’t matter much in the early sonatas, and that’s where Pludermacher shines. The opening three sonatas are well worth hearing multiple times, for instance. Move further into the cycle and serious doubts arise; something goes missing. Depth. This cycle is one of the “shallower” ones I’ve heard, where presentation becomes the primary end in itself. Such an approach can be more successful than here, but it’s never ideal. I would only suggest this cycle for people who really want to hear a whole lot of Beethoven, good or not so good. As to Pludermacher’s artistry, I find it more compelling in other composers’ works, like Debussy’s. He’s a fine pianist, he’s just not a great Beethovenian.


    Last edited by Todd; May-11-2006 at 19:17.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  12. #27
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    Craig Sheppard

    Over the past several months I’ve read some positive reviews and comments about Craig Sheppard’s Beethoven cycle, so I figured I should probably try it out at some point. When the opportunity arose to acquire the set in a most affordable fashion (thanks Harris), well, there was no reason to not give it a listen. Sheppard is a name I’d only seen once or twice before reading about the Beethoven cycle, and then only when scouring ancient reviews in Gramophone. Mr Sheppard has been around for quite a while, it turns out. He placed second to Murray Perahia in the 1972 Leeds competition, and has made a variety of recordings of a reasonably wide-ranging repertoire on a number of labels. One of his early Liszt recordings was cited for fine virtuosity, so between that and the competition result, it would seem he should be able to deftly handle the technical aspects of the music. The fact that he studied at the Curtis Institute and Juilliard and worked or studied with Claude Frank and Rudolf Serkin also bodes well for his ability. So I came to his cycle expecting something at least well executed. Sheppard’s cycle was recorded live during a series of concerts in 2003 and 2004 in Seattle in the Meany Theater, so it’s up to date and modern, with whatever one wants to associate with that. As an aside, Sheppard’s website has an unusual error: it states that his is the only live cycle on the market today, leaving out Yukio Yokoyama’s, Andrea Lucchesini’s, and Georges Pludermacher’s to name three. It’s not really material; it’s just an odd and inaccurate selling point. Anyway, time for the music . . .

    Way too close. The sound is way too close. The sound is dry and claustrophobically close – almost to the point of being oppressively in your face. It’s like one’s head is stuck under the lid of the piano. That was the very first impression I got, and it never abated. Tonally the sound is fine, though dynamics suffer a bit as will be mentioned later on. Beyond the too-close sound there is much to admire.

    The first sonata opens with an Allegro marginally slower than I usually prefer, though the pace quickly picks up. It sounds a bit deliberate, but Sheppard will just dash off an arpeggio or otherwise impress with small touches of virtuosity. He never resorts to excesses of any kind. The part playing is also very distinct – aided by the close recording – with unique left hand accents frequently evident. The movement sounds a bit intense, a bit nerve-wracking at times. It’s not especially youthful or upbeat. The Adagio opens more smoothly, but then it’s back to a more intense, fraught approach. Sheppard deploys a number of little tricks here, like when he’ll cut short a chord for dramatic effect. Again, there is a nervous energy that permeates the playing. The Menuetto comes across as well-played, quick, with more of the tension evident in the first two movements, but still basically straight. The concluding Prestissimo starts with a finely judged overall tempo, bite, and growl. Here that’s most certainly a good thing. The section immediately after the opening material slows down and assumes a somewhat waltz-like beat audible in the left hand. The tension that has thus far been part of the recording remains, and Sheppard throws in some nice, purposely choppy playing that only increases the tension some more, especially in the repeat. Perhaps this isn’t my favorite take on the opening sonata, but everything works very well indeed.

    Sheppard opens the second sonata in much the same way as the first. That is, the opening Allegro vivace opens just a bit on the slow side but quickly picks up, with Sheppard utilizing pauses and his rubato in a most successful manner. And again the bass line is quite distinct and steady. At times Sheppard veers toward an over-thought approach, but he always stops just shy of playing in an over-calculated fashion. The one drawback with the recording is the length; Sheppard takes the repeat, and he can’t make it work. It’s just too long. The Largo appassionato opens rather briskly, with an almost march-like left hand underpinning the music. Sheppard’s tone remains nicely rounded and appealing, despite the close sound, and the playing remains clear and never sounds hard. At times, Sheppard speeds up quite a bit and plays with great power in an impressive virtuosic display. Unfortunately, the too-close sound prevents his crescendos from assuming the heft and scale they deserve. The Scherzo is fast and sharp to open, with Sheppard maintaining a nice, pointed but not too sharp staccato much of the time thereafter. The middle section is fast and driven with more clear and choppy (in a good way!) playing. The ending Rondo benefits from all of Sheppard’s strengths, but sounds just a bit stiff at times. So, like the first sonata, this is very good if not quite one of my favorites.

    The final sonata of the opening trio shows up the problem in the recorded sound again. Some of the playing in the Allegro con brio opener sounds almost blocky. That is, each chord is distinct and as a result the music doesn’t jell as well as it should – it’s an aural X-ray that reveals everything. After the opening bars, things do improve, and Sheppard once again displays impressive drive and power. The Adagio is taut and light at the open, with Sheppard moving the piece along with surprising tension. Low notes strike like thunder here (I was listening way too loud, I admit) yet they never sound even remotely hard or harsh. Beyond that, Sheppard’s ability to vary every aspect of his playing all at once really captivates. The man can tickle the ivories, that’s for sure. The Scherzo is quick, pointed, and jaunty, with a slightly malevolent air creating a sense of vigorous fun. The middle section is the thing here, though. Sheppard plays the bass part with massive, ponderous, and crushing power with an acid right hand burning one’s ears. It is pulverizing, but Sheppard never pulverizes the music. Sweet. The concluding Allegro assai is quick but not soaring (perhaps it’s the sound again), has some jolting (micro-) halts, and ends with a muscular display of pianism. This is the best of the opening trio, and one I know I’ll return to.

    Moving on to the fourth sonata finds Sheppard opening with a very fast Allegro molto e con brio characterized by a scampering, almost twitchy right hand. The crescendos here sound fuller than in the earlier sonatas, and they are somewhat rich, as well. The playing just after 4’20” sounds feathery light – it’s really captivating – with the music that follows sounding more testy. One gripe is that the bass chords around 5’30” sound too spread out for my taste, but ‘tis only a quibble. The Largo is fast – at least when notes are being played. Sheppard uses the pauses expertly, and the quickness of the notes makes the pauses sound comparatively long even though they’re not. It’s a nice trick. The fiercer middle section is exactly that: Fierce. The Allegro, in contrast, sounds chipper and (for Sheppard) leisurely. The middle section has a nice rolling bass and Sheppard makes his Hamburg Steinway growl near the end. Sheppard ends the work with a Rondo that sounds at once lyrical and pointed. As things progress, the punchy left hand and taut right hand sound groovy, but in a slightly blocky way. The coda, though, flows along and ends the work in beautiful fashion. Four for four.

    After four vigorous, muscular readings, I expected more of the same in the second trio of works. Instead, the first of the Op 10 sonatas offers something slightly different. The opening Allegro molto e con brio opens at a comfortable pace. It’s not slow, it’s just not shot-from-a-cannon fast like Claude Frank offers. The entire first movement sounds somewhat leisurely – by Sheppard’s standards – and if it assumes a quasi-orchestral scale, it still lacks some oomph. It does offer more of Sheppard’s unique pointed-yet-tonally variegated playing, though. The Adagio molto, while very strong when needed, sounds surprisingly warm and relaxed. Dynamics are somewhat muted overall, and it’s somewhat quick. Things end with a warmish, clear, rollicking, and fun Prestissimo. Not bad. For the second sonata of the group, Sheppard opts to play it light. Mostly. The Allegro is fun yet tightly controlled, with tasteful rubato and nice clarity. The Allegretto is tight, and somewhat quick, and the Presto (with repeat) opens at a sensible pace only to build up in both speed and power, though the coda doesn’t have enough snap. The second trio ends with the best performance of the bunch. Sheppard opens the work with a fast, pointed, and literal Presto. He doesn’t play with great breadth or depth yet plays seriously, to the point of sounding stern. Generally, that would be bad news, but not here. Sheppard forces the listener to believe! The Largo comes across as dark and bleak, which is good, but it never assumes a proto-106 Adagio feeling. Instead, it is unrelenting in its bleakness. That’s fine. The Menuetto benefits from big, rich bass playing and fleet right hand playing. To end things, Sheppard plays the Rondo fast, with some chords jack-hammered out, and ends the whole thing strongly.

    Time for the perennially popular Pathetique. Not surprisingly, Sheppard opens with a pounded out chord to start off the Grave. The following music is hard-hitting, fast, urgent, intense, and angry, if not quite as loud as the opening announcement. The Allegro, also predictably, is played very fast, but it is also surprisingly unclear, at least by the standards set forth thus far. Some of the playing is diffuse, the runs somewhat soft and muddied, yet nervous, angry tension remains. It sounds like Sheppard may just get up and pimp-slap someone. Just before the coda, Sheppard plays more reflectively, more sorrowfully, and then he unloads on the listener. The Adagio sounds like a lament. It’s immediate and touching to start and switches over to a more idealized sound thereafter. Sheppard concludes the work with a direct, forward-moving, serious Rondo. Overall, this is an excellent version, yet it doesn’t quite match up with the very best. That’s hardly a condemnation.

    Given Sheppard’s overall approach up to this point, I approached the Op 14 sonatas with a bit of trepidation. His muscular, pointed style, while compelling, could potentially make these pieces whither. That doesn’t happen. The first sonata opens with a quick, usually light, but sometimes meaty Allegro, moves to a somewhat lyrical but sometimes slightly too serious Allegretto and ends with a fast and serious but still fun Rondo. A world-beater it may not be, but it makes for fun listening. Better is the second sonata. Sheppard plays the Allegro in a warm, lyrical, and at times outright charming fashion. The Andante is pointed and poised, with the playing varying nicely between slightly quick and vigorous and soft and alluring. Sheppard ends the work with a light, lyrical Scherzo dashed off with panache. More good stuff.

    But it is surely the meatier fare that matters more, and so I listened with keen interest to the Op 22 sonata. The Allegro opens in a generally fast and somewhat light manner, but Sheppard allows himself a lot of latitude here, really letting ‘er rip a few times and holding back ever so slightly – via shortened notes or chords or softer volume – at other times. The Adagio is again fast and light, with minute tonal variations and an insistent but never overpowering left hand underpinning. Overall, it’s dispassionate, but it is very well executed. As to the Menuetto, well, it seems that Sheppard likes to play this piece fast and light, and here his tone is quite ingratiating and his overall tempo, too, with the stronger middle section offering a nice contrast. Things come to a conclusion with an energetic Rondo, with some slightly cloudy playing offering a break from the X-ray treatment. It’s rather lyrical, too, and Sheppard brings the thing to a thundering close. Again, another fine performance, if not a front-runner.

    The first eleven sonatas reveal Craig Sheppard to be an extremely talented pianist. He certainly has no difficulty playing the music the way he wants to. And what he wants to do is largely very interesting. His style is lean and pointed and muscular, and largely devoid of emotional excess. He’s classical and occasionally aggressive and always compelling. Indeed, he hasn’t delivered even one dog up to this point. That’s a good sign. I can easily hear why this set has received good reviews and praise from many people. However, Sheppard’s cycle is one of three modern cycles I’m listening to at present (the other two will be covered shortly) and I enjoy the other two even more. That I can write that just goes to show that LvB fans are not starved for choice.


    --


    I guess I should have expected it. Sheppard’s set up to this point has been a serious, completely thought-through and rethought-through affair. Such an approach doesn’t always benefit the earliest sonatas. To be sure, Sheppard’s take on the first eleven sonatas offers some fine listening, but the next eight are altogether better. That much is evident starting with the Op 26 sonata. Sheppard opens the Andante in a clear, lyrical, and surprisingly warm way. Sheppard’s playing to this point has had an appealing tone – somewhat surprisingly given the oppressively close recorded perspective – but this piece sounds even more immediately appealing. Anyway, the variations all sound very good, the fast ones delivered in groovy fashion, the slower ones in more colorful fashion, and all of them display micro-dynamic and micro-tonal variations. The Scherzo opens more softly than I expected, has all them micro- variations again, and then proceeds to build up in tension and speed quite nicely. (Alas, the extra-close miking means that one can hear Sheppard stomping on the pedals too clearly.) The funeral march opens with a nice, brisk cadence and sounds deadly serious if not especially funereal. (There’s little in the way of overt emotion; it’s quite formal and somewhat detached.) Sheppard gradually builds up the power in the movement to near thundering levels. To end the work, Sheppard plays the Allegro in clear, quick, plucky fashion and alternates dynamics nicely. The work ends on a vigorous note. Overall, this is an excellent recording.

    Moving on to the important Op 27/1 finds Mr Sheppard playing at a high level. He opens the work with by playing the Andante in a generally light, sweet, and slightly brisk manner, and the second go-round of the Andante after the Allegretto sounds the same. The second theme is much the same but introduces a steady and clear but never obtrusive left hand accompaniment to add the groove factor. The Allegro, in contrast, is punchy, with the cascading notes a sheer delight. The Allegro molto e vivace sounds clear and pointed in Sheppard’s best style, but he also holds back a little to start with so he can then build up to the powerful, bass-rich climax, which then fades slowly and beautifully into the gorgeous Adagio, which sounds more about lovely surface playing than deep exploration. That’s quite alright here. Alas, the concluding Allegro vivace sounds just a smidgeon too deliberate – where’s the fantastic element? – and detracts slightly from Sheppard’s overall achievement. That quibble aside, the playing is forceful and quick and pointed – the lovely slow middle section obviously aside – and the rolling bass that introduces the final section is powerful ‘n’ rumbly. (After that, though, does Sheppard throw in an extra note in the first ascending figure? No matter.) Overall, this is a fine version and again indicates that Sheppard is more at home in middle period stuff than in early stuff.

    That impression is cemented with the Mondschein sonata. Sheppard opens with a somber, dark, somewhat subdued and perfectly paced Adagio sostenuto. It sounds somewhat straight and shorn of interpretive artifice – and it works! Same with the Allegretto, which is suitably quicker, brighter, somewhat warm, but not quite sunny and cheery. To close, Sheppard lets loose. Sort of. While his playing is indeed very fast, he doesn’t tear into the piece; rather, he starts off somewhat softly, with superb micro-dynamics, and even when he does play louder, he keeps it all under control. Exciting control. Dynamics remain somewhat constrained and never does the sound bite or glare, but who cares? This is a superb reading.

    The Pastorale reaffirms the positive impression made by the 27/2. The Allegro opens relatively briskly, with a gently rocking left hand and supremely lyrical right hand. The overall sound is somewhat relaxed – for Sheppard – but still nicely taut, and Sheppard’s superb dynamic and tonal variations just add to the allure. Throw in a massive climax near the end, and the work gets off to a solid start. The Andante opens with a slightly stiff left hand accompaniment, though the right hand playing is most attractive. The middle section is more pointed and stronger, yet still jolly, and the return of the opening material is lyrical yet slightly cool. The Scherzo opens quite slowly, picks up both speed and volume with the third and fourth iteration of the material, and then reverts back to the opening style. The whole thing sounds a bit contrived and overthought, but I still found myself enjoying it a lot. Sheppard ends with a lyrical Rondo that displays some more noticeable rubato, but it flows along nicely. The middle section finds Sheppard playing powerfully, and the conclusion ends in a nice, rocking fashion. Perhaps this doesn’t scale the heights to challenge, say, Kempff (but then no one else’s does, either), but it is fine version in its own right.

    Crunch time. Could Sheppard pull off a successful Op 31 trio? I, for one, hoped so. Things got off to a promising start. Sheppard opens the first sonata with an Allegro vivace that is suitably fast but also light – his fingers glide across the keys. Then he’ll hammer out some notes just to return to the lighter style of playing. He alternates these styles to the end, throwing in numerous unique touches along the way. The overall effect sounds something like an analytical dissection of the music – but it is a most enlightening and entertaining dissection. Sheppard brings this style to the Adagio grazioso. One notices it first with the trills: they sound crisp but not entirely uniform. Sheppard adds all manner of variations to them. All the while, his left hand is playing a brisk, uniform repeated figure. The middle section sounds much stronger, as is appropriate, and then the return to the trills finds playing much like in the opening, but the left hand playing is even better: it’s amazingly clear (aided by the close recording), rhythmically solid, and utterly enjoyable. The big, bold ending just makes it more attractive yet. To close, Sheppard plays the Rondo in a simultaneously fun and stern fashion. It’s vigorous. It’s muscular. It’s analytical. Yet I found myself quietly whistling along. Superb.

    Musical dissection seems to be the main approach in the Tempest, too. Sheppard opens the Largo with a muddied arpeggio. A slip, I thought, but then he does it again. Not a slip, I thought. It doesn’t really set the mood ideally, but rather creates a simple yet solid platform from which to launch into the Allegro. The Allegro itself is constrained. The dynamic contrasts become more about micro-dynamic contrasts than macro-dynamic ones, and this constrained approach actually works to create a pervasive sense on unresolved tension. The middle section finds Sheppard slowly ratcheting up the tension some more – and pounding out chords so powerfully that some minor break-up can be heard in the right channel – for ultimate release I thought, but no. Even as he winds down he sounds wound up. The brisk Adagio largely maintains the tension, though in a different form. Here it’s suppressed anguish. (Are those small, subdued right hand figures repeated whimpers of desperation? You be the judge.) Sheppard releases all that built-up tension in the concluding Allegretto. The repeated figures are front-loaded – strong start, weaker end – and Sheppard piles on the bass power as things speed up. The torrential outpouring of notes ends up bringing the work to a wholly satisfying conclusion. Sheppard takes the piece apart and reassembles it into something unique and interesting. Again, Sheppard may not be up there with the very best, but his playing is superb.

    The trio closes with a solid 31/3. The Allegro opens with a deliberate sound but quickly segues to superbly paced, energetic, and clear playing laced with subtle rubato. Even so, it sounds purposely constrained. The Scherzo is a bit odd. It’s slower than I prefer, there’s no doubt of that, and it’s too deliberate. These traits sap some of the energy from the music, though Sheppard infuses life into the music with his other traits. The Menuetto is likewise measured, but it’s so lovely and lyrical, that I just don’t care. It also boasts some huge fortissimo climaxes. (At least I hope they’re fortissimo; anything louder would cause deafness.) The Presto con fuoco closes with more musical dissection. Pretty much every note is very clearly and precisely rendered. If’n you’re after somethin’ more relaxin’, this ain’t gonna do. Even with such remarkable clarity and detail, the playing boasts outstanding momentum and forward drive and remains upbeat and energetic. Very good.

    The little Op 49 ditties both fare well. The first opens with an Andante that is rich, beautiful, and serious (too serious?), with dashes of well place virtuosity for good measure. The Rondo is taut and charming. The second sonata opens with a vigorous and lyrical Allegro ma non troppo and ends with a slow, delicate, charming, and almost salon-ish Tempo di Menuetto. While these hardly rate as my favorite LvB works for solo piano, Sheppard does his formidable best to make them more substantial than normal.

    My second helping of Sheppard was more interesting and satisfying than the first. His style is better suited to the more substantial works of the middle period. I wonder what the next batch will bring . . .


    --


    Mr Sheppard’s cycle is one of those interesting ones that gets better as one progresses through the works. At least that was the case with the first two batches, with Mr Sheppard’s serious, meticulously prepared playing more amenable to great middle period works than the earlier works. I assumed he would do well in the third batch. I was right.

    Things get off to a good start with the Waldstein. Sheppard plays the Allegro con brio fast and solid to start, with an unyielding forward drive married to his nicely rounded and variable tone. Never does he sound hard or harsh or ugly, no matter how heated the playing. His playing is remarkably precise and controlled; his playing isn’t “free,” if you will. It is here that his contained, purposeful virtuosity pays big dividends. He’s doesn’t play fast just because he can; he does so to bring forth elements of the score while actually downplaying his own formidable ability. As if to show he’s about more than amazing control of every aspect of his playing at the fast ‘n’ loud end of the spectrum, he’s equally satisfying when he backs off. His softer playing is just as precise and controlled. The Introduzione again sounds controlled, this time sounding restrained and distantly contemplative. Stoic, even. The Rondo opens somewhat softly, with gently varied tone, then starts to build up slowly, with the long transitional trill leading to a massive sounding lower register led crescendo. His ability to play at widely different volume levels with each hand is certainly impressive, and then he adds to that by speeding up while continuing to play huge sounding fortissimo chords. He then backs off as appropriate, and then he alternates styles until the positively sizzling end. It’s superb, and one of his best performances up this point.

    The Op 54 is likewise very strong. The In Tempo di menuetto has a nice overall tempo and is almost as (quasi-) danceable as Silverman’s take. The second section is clear and snappy, with deep, rich bass, and everything sounds relaxed yet taut. The second appearance of the minuet is faster and more lyrical – hell, it’s almost radiant – and that’s followed by a brief return of the second theme that is fast and strong but not overpowering. Sheppard ends the movement with a final shot at the minuet that is nicely drawn out and quick and snazzy, but never flashy. The Allegretto is a bit different. Sheppard opens in a restrained and lovely manner, as if he’ll just play a smooth, sunny closer, but then just after 1’ in switches to thundering, amazingly powerful, yet fully controlled playing that almost threatens to smother the music but never quite does. He plays within this broad range through the end. Another winner.

    I came to the Appassionata with tempered expectations. There’s no doubt that Sheppard could deliver a blistering account if he wanted, but I didn’t think he would, and after Robert Silverman’s superb take, not doing so would mean this would be a merely excellent recording. And so it is. The Allegro assai opens in a slightly subdued but most definitely tense fashion – like a snake coiled and ready to strike. When it came time for the first fevered outburst, I was expecting some heat, but instead Sheppard plays things down a bit. Oh sure, he plays louder, but he keeps everything under wraps, if you will; the rest of the movement is played within a confined dynamic range, but one that maintains tension very well. The Andante con moto offers a respite of sorts, with lovely and direct playing allowing one to prepare for the closer. And it is in the closing movement where Sheppard finally unleashes torrents of impassioned notes, or damned fine approximations thereof. His playing is sharp, tense, and biting. The crescendos are aural tidal waves, and the whole thing comes to a powerful, positively growling conclusion. That’s three for three.

    The Op 78 and 79 sonatas both come off well, too. The Op 78 opens with an Adagio cantabile that’s direct and lean. I guess it could be more lyrical, but what’s there is nice enough. The Allegro ma non troppo sounds comparatively “compact” – ie, played within strictly limited parameters – but is still reasonably lyrical. The Allegro vivace is pure, mischievous fun. The Op 79 opens with a somewhat gruff (obviously purposely so) Presto all tedesca that is nonetheless upbeat and occasionally warm. Sheppard also opts to handle the ‘cuckoo’ figures quite gently – like a revered joke he doesn’t want to overdo – and ends with a nicely emphasized off-key section. The Andante is somewhat faster than normal, with each chord and phrase hurriedly dashed off. The cumulative effect is actually quite serious and searching. To end, Sheppard plays the Vivace in a sunny, unforced manner. Perhaps these little works sound a bit less impressive than the preceding three, but they’re still excellent.

    The last batch of sonatas ends with a superb Les Adieux. Throughout, Sheppard maintains a somewhat formal air, but that may just help things out. The Adagio opening is disconsolate and contemplative, as one might hope for, yet it is also a bit tense and uneasy. The subsequent Allegro section is very formal and serious, but it is instilled with fondness – think of it as the musical equivalent of buddies dressed in suits nudging each other in an otherwise stifling social setting. A bit of vigor pops up, but Sheppard keeps everything under perfect and calculated control. The Adagio cantabile sounds slightly agitated and nervous, and more angry than sad at the friend’s absence. The Vivacissimente opens with an effortless upward cascade of notes and quickly transforms into an ebullient, grand, yet still formal celebration. A nice touch is when Sheppard makes the piano ‘skip’ at around 2’30” and after – a touch unlike anyone else’s – and he ends the piece with grandeur and strength. That’s a fine way to end it.

    And that’s a fine way to end another batch of fine performances. I eagerly await the last six sonatas.

    cont'd . . .

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  13. #28
    Captain of Water Music
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    . . . cont'd

    I came to the last six sonatas in Sheppard’s cycle with high hopes. Sheppard improves as the sonatas progress, so I was eager to hear what he could do. My hopes were met. The Op 90 gets things off to a solid start. Sheppard opens the Allegro with bracing yet rounded playing, and makes the work sound serious and “big,” like a mini musical epic. There’s a nascent otherworldly feel, portending good things for the later sonatas, and if Sheppard can sound just a tad stern in places, the overall effect is such that complaints are fleeting quibbles. I’ve seen various commentaries on the ending movement that describe it as proto-Schubertian with its repetitive lyricism, and whatever one may think of such an analysis, it seems that Sheppard at least partially agrees with it, because his playing is the most Schubertian I’ve heard. (That brings to mind the fact that I’d like to hear Sheppard play some Schubert.) The playing is lyrical and soft, with superb diminuendo playing and delicate piano and pianissimo playing of the most precise yet endearing kind. The movement is one long stream of beautiful music and caps off a fine reading.

    The 101 also receives a fine reading. Sheppard opens the first movement with a taut overall tempo, makes it a point to dispatch much of the movement speedily but also with subtle touches, all while maintaining an attractive tone. The overall feeling is direct rather than ethereal, but it’s still good. The Vivace alla marcia is fast and vigorous, but his beat isn’t really march-like. When one considers the formidable power Sheppard uses on occasion, and the thorough control, complaints are minor. The Adagio sounds somber, and somewhat restrained. Sheppard is holding something back. What? Why? This is never really answered, not really, but that only adds to the allure of the playing. Especially when the Allegro opens in such a jubilant mood. It’s loud and boisterous and celebratory. It has a snappy beat. It is infectious. Sheppard deftly utilizes pauses to buttress the overall mood; it’s subtle and unique and effective. The fugue is serious and fastidiously played, with deep, rich bass and supreme clarity throughout. Overall, the piece never quite attains that otherworldly sound that I ultimately prefer, but what’s there is to a very high standard indeed.

    In some ways Sheppard’s cycle is like Daniel Barenboim’s EMI cycle in that the first twenty-eight sonatas can be viewed as a grand build-up to the mighty Hammerklavier, with the last three sonatas becoming an extended dénouement, though Sheppard’s dénouement is more interesting. For the 106, Sheppard adopts generally brisk tempi throughout, and that makes for an at times thrilling reading. The opening Allegro is quick and strongly characterized and posseses striking strength. Perhaps the most immediately impressive thing about the playing is that despite the speed and strength, Sheppard seems to have plenty in reserve. If he wanted to make the piano roar and play at lightening speed, he could. As it is, the playing sounds, if not effortless, than at least easy. That means plenty of precisely controlled forward momentum and uncommon clarity are on display. Maybe it’s not the deepest reading around, but it is quite simply a treat to hear. The Scherzo is likewise swift, striking, and grand, and a bit stern, too, with some nearly crushing playing near the end. Sweet. Then comes the great Adagio, taken here at a brisk pace. Sheppard’s playing makes the movement sound decidedly more intense and urgent than is often the case. At times it is desolate, and at other times it sounds as though Sheppard is suppressing anger and anguish to the best of his ability, with said emotions threatening to boil over into a searing outpouring. But then he cools things down quite a bit between 5’ and 6’ or so, and the music sounds serene and resigned. It’s truly a breath-holding minute. After that, the playing becomes notably tense. It nags at the listener. It gnaws on the listener. It is a personal take. It is similar in some regards to Paul Badura-Skoda’s exceptional take (on Gramola), and that’s saying a lot. The final movement offers the perfect conclusion. The Largo is comparatively (but not absolutely!) slow and anticipatory – something’s gonna happen, you just know it. Then comes that something, the fugue, and it is everything one might expect. Sheppard’s playing is exceedingly clear – it’s among the most sonically transparent readings of the fugue I’ve heard – so one can follow each musical line with delightful ease. Again, it seems as though Sheppard plays with ease, and as a result, the music sounds almost aggressively giddy, as though Sheppard just can’t wait to play the next section for the listener. He just knows the listener will enjoy what’s coming as much as he does. The quasi-baroque passage offers soothing, calming musical balm in the midst of the great fugue, and then Sheppard returns to his aggressively giddy way to bring the work to a thundering climax. A corker!

    To the big ol’ dénouement. The 109 reverts to the relatively direct yet high standard playing of the 101. The Vivace, ma non troppo sounds fast but easy, with a beautiful tone and a slightly ethereal sound. In addition to gliding across the keys, Sheppard also manages to keep everything under precise control, as one would expect at this point. The Prestissimo is fast ‘n’ clear, muscular ‘n’ wide ranging, pretty much like it should be. Now, the Andante, it offers something else: beauty defined by ultra-precise microtonal and microdynamic variation. So the movement gets off to a good start. The first variation is even lovelier, and incredibly soft. The second variation is clear, choppy, and precise to open, and smooth and beautiful to finish. The third variation is magnificently virtuosic and controlled, and the concluding variations actually remain a bit more muscular than is usually ideal. Overall, the work is not as otherworldly as some, but it is gripping.

    A bit better is the 110. The Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo starts off pretty much where the 109 left off, though not quite as physically powerful. While not as heavenly as some versions, the playing starts off and stays in another realm, as it were. Sure, Sheppard plays with muscular virtuosity at times, but he always knows when to rein it in for the good of the piece. Needless to say, his tonal and dynamic control are superb. The Allegro is potent, fast, incredibly clear, and superbly controlled (a few minor slips be damned). The movement segues attaca to the Adagio, which sounds anxious, indeed, almost twitchy at times. It’s not emotive or searching, but it is compelling. The first appearance of the fugue is a model of contrapuntal clarity and composure, and the playing remains very formal. The return of the Adagio is more touching, and almost vulnerable, if you will, and at times sounds confused. (I mean that as a strong compliment.) The chord build up signaling the arrival of the inverted fugue is unusually fast and wide ranging, from soft to thundering, and the second pass at contrapuntal playing is again clear and formal. The whole thing comes to an intense, powerful ending – so intense and powerful, that this listener was clenching his teeth. Sweet!

    But for the superb 106, I’d say that Sheppard saves his best for last. The 111 is superb. Everything about it is superb. Sheppard opens the Maestoso with excess nervous energy, a compressed dynamic range, and barely contained volatility. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s dark, it’s forceful, and it is most certainly intense. But there’s Sheppard’s control. Even when the playing is ferocious – and it blessedly is at times! – it is meticulously controlled. Seemingly contradictory traits blend together near perfectly, and the intense opening sets the stage for the glorious finale. Another attaca transition to the closer arrives at an Arietta of almost Zen-like serenity. It is very slow and deliberate, yet it is immediately moving, and does nothing less than establish, perfectly and completely, that otherworldly sound so common in the best readings of the work. The first variation, too, is quite beautiful, but it has a unique, well, fumbling sound. Sheppard is grasping unsuccessfully for something, something the listener never can divine, yet he delivers a successful variation. The quicker, more focused second variation gives way to vigorous and groovy third variation, and both are very good if not quite perfect. Then comes the fourth variation. It is characterized by irresistibly feathery, delicate playing miles away from the opening movement. This is perhaps the most succinct, definitive transition from (barely) earthbound Beethoven to decidedly heavenly Beethoven I can imagine, and it succeeds fabulously. As things progress, one approaches those Elysian Fields referred to by various prior commentators. The long trill in the second half of the movement serves as a sonic baseline for even greater, more transcendental ornamentation that transports the listener away from silly little earthly concerns. Even the reappearance of more powerful playing seems otherworldly. The piece then trails off into the musical ether as one could only hope for. It is one fine reading, that’s for sure.

    And that brings another cycle to a close. Sheppard started off comparatively slowly. His meticulous, serious, exceedingly well-prepared style can overwhelm some of the early sonatas – though they are still very good – but his approach is just what’s needed in the later works. If a pianist is going to peak in only a few sonatas, it is definitely best to do so in the late sonatas. That’s what Sheppard does. Really, the already mentioned early sonatas aside, there is little to complain about; this is a fine cycle, and one I know I’ll return to again. Okay, I guess I do have one complaint. The sound is too close. I wish the set had been more distantly recorded, if only to gain an even greater appreciation of Sheppard’s superlative dynamic and tonal range. Other than that, this is a fine set.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  14. #29
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    Robert Silverman

    First some facts. This cycle, on Orpheum Masters, was not recorded in a normal fashion. That is, this set is not a compilation of concert performances or multiple studio sessions. Rather, the cycle was recorded using a Bösendorfer 290SE reproducing piano to playback recordings previously prepared by the pianist. This piano is basically just a standard Bösendorfer grand with an elaborate and accurate computer control system added. And it apparently isn’t cheap. At the time the recordings were made, only 32 of them existed, and two of them were owned by the benefactor of this recording, one Aaron Mendelsohn, in whose home the whole process took place. Silverman recorded and prepared the sonatas during 1999 and then over one weekend the set was committed to tape.

    This cycle was engineered by John Atkinson, the Editor-In-Chief of Stereophile, so sound quality is in the forefront this time around. I wanted to see, or rather hear if his idea of good sound matches mine. But I had to make some allowances. First of all, the concert grand was confined to a two-story, 20' by 50' room in Mr Mendelsohn’s home, not exactly the ideal size venue for such a large piano. But that didn’t seem to matter. In stark contrast to the closely recorded cycles by Georges Pludermacher and (especially) Craig Sheppard, this set actually allows one to hear the surrounding space. Truth to tell, it’s actually a little more spacious than I usually prefer, but the quality of the sound is superb. Mr Atkinson’s credo here seems to be truth in reporting. This sounds very much like a big piano being played in a relatively small space. The sound is tonally and timbrally accurate, and never hard. Of course, this is a recording of a Bösendorfer, so the sound is different from a Steinway. The lower registers are weighty and bold, and the upper registers are tangy ‘n’ tart, bright (but not Fazioli bright) and somewhat bell-like. Even though the microphones were close to the piano, the sense of space one hears means that one does not always experience aural X-ray clarity; sometimes in louder passages the sound becomes blended, just like in recital. Again, truth in reporting. Mr Atkinson most definitely would not be a good engineer for an American Idol reject to use, much to his delight, I’m sure. More information is available at the Stereophile website for those who are interested.

    To the pianist himself. Like both Pludermacher and Sheppard, Robert Silverman has been around the block a few times. He’s been ensconced in a teaching role at the University of British Columbia for over thirty years. He’s made a number of recordings for small labels covering mostly standard repertoire (Brahms, Liszt, and Rachmaninov, for instance), as well as other recordings on the Stereophile label, including a forthcoming set of the Diabelli Variations, which I’m fairly confident I’ll buy. He’s done the concert and recital circuit for years and has collaborated with a number of notable artists, and received various awards. So he’s got the experience and a serious background.

    But what about the music? Well, from the first notes it was clear that this set is something wonderful. The opening Allegro sounds fresh and clean, with wonderful and subtle dynamic variations – more so than most recordings I’ve heard – and a natural overall feel. By that I mean that the music just unfolds before one’s ears. Silverman doesn’t rush, he doesn’t make it a point to underscore everything. He just plays. Throw in a rich lower register that is both clear and occasionally prominent with Silverman’s penchant for providing a flowing, rhythmically solid underpinning that doesn’t sound forced, and, well, one just sits and enjoys the music. The Adagio shows more of what is to come. It sounds touching and unforced. There’s some emotion in the playing, but not too much. Same with the Menuetto, which also benefits greatly from essentially perfect tempo choices, perfect use of pauses, and a flowing, comfortable feel. The piece ends with a Prestissimo that again displays expertly judged tempi and an emotionally satisfying approach. The playing is intense and cutting at times, and sounds superb. It’s been a while since I so enjoyed the first sonata.

    Much the same can be written about the second sonata. Silverman opens the Allegro vivace in crisp, clean fashion. The first return of the opening material is even faster and noticeably louder, with superb dynamic gradations clearly evident. The next return of the material is softer and warmer. The runs and scales sound superb; they’re clear and well done, but not an example of ice-cold perfection (which has its place!). Then Silverman throws some passion into the mix. His playing is definitely on the romantic side. The Largo is superbly played from start to finish. Snappy bass is married to searching right hand playing. I confess to just sitting and taking it in without much concern for every little detail. The Scherzo opens with quickly dispatched figures and has a rich, darker middle section. The whole thing is richer and more varied than is often the case. The Rondo offers more of the same, though some of the playing almost sounds (but never quite becomes) stiff, but not in an unpleasant way. The middle section is rough and boisterous – right on!

    The third sonata makes it three for three. The Allegro con brio is fast and sharp to open (the latter trait due to the Bösendorfer’s upper registers), with unique and exciting accents. The hefty lower register adds to the playing, and the whole thing just grooves, man. Silverman puts on a non-virtuosic virtuosic display; he plays everything well but doesn’t overdo anything. The Adagio sounds more tonally graceful, and Silverman again utilizes pauses in a most satisfying manner. The Bösendorfer’s quick decay helps render the music simply and directly effective, and when Silverman ratchets up the tension, the sharp upper registers just help things along. The Scherzo sounds vigorous and beefy, with softer interludes offering nice contrasts. Throw in a suitably tumultuous middle section, and how can one resist? Silverman ends the work with a light, almost soaring Allegro assai that veers into an almost songful style at times. It’s fun and weighty and groovy, but never rushed but also never sluggish. Why, it’s just right!

    Comfortable. That’s how the opening Allegro molto e con brio of the fourth sonata sounds. Silverman takes the movement at a comfortable pace – which is not the same thing as a sluggish pace – and adds flavor by throwing in some piquant notes and chords and some hefty, venue-filling crescendos. The playing flows and sounds laid back, but not in a mushy way; it’s comfy and rugged. Nifty. The Largo is slow, as it should be, and Silverman proves adept at utilizing pauses for dramatic effect. More of that Bösendorfer weight combined with some tersely punched out three note figures make the whole thing quite fine. The overall sound is a bit less overtly romantic than some of the previous playing, and the tension does weaken at times, but not enough to harm the piece. The Allegro opens smoothly and richly, and somewhat leisurely, before soaring in a pleasant way. The middle section sounds appropriately darker, with prominent bass. To close, Silverman plays the Rondo with a slightly laid back demeanor and more or less cruises along to the end. Yes, there are brief interruptions where things get a little tougher, but the whole thing just moves along comfortably. Silverman’s four for four.

    Moving on to the second trio finds Silverman in even better form. The Allegro molto e con brio opens the first sonata with a powerful opening chord and well-paced (not too fast, not too slow) rising arpeggios with a fluid transition to the subsequent, lyrically played material. The Adagio molto sounds lyrical and beautiful. The rising flourishes sound captivating – they’re soft and delicately nuanced, but never weak or soggy. The at times spiky left hand playing just helps matters. It’s big, warm, and ingratiating, too. To close, Silverman plays the Prestissimo in an initially restrained manner just to pick things up and to deliver huge crescendos. The distant, unfettered recording really lets the dynamic swings shine. Throughout the movement, Silverman resorts to an almost Pludermacher-like deployment of pianistic tricks. He’ll hold a chord just that little bit longer, tweak a note here, and cut short another there. It all sounds natural and unforced and never obtrusive. Another winner.

    The second sonata of the bunch extends the streak. Again, Silverman opens with an Allegro taken at a comfortable pace, and plays with a sense of fun and lyricism that makes the end sneak up on the listener. One doesn’t want it to end. The Allegretto sounds rich, dark, and slightly urgent to open, and has a sharply played, strong ending. The Presto opens at a nice clip, just to pick up a bit more. Silverman never sounds hurried, though; instead, he lets the good times roll with some endearing bass weight and articulation. Bless his heart, he includes the repeat, and ends the work on a strong note.

    So far Silverman has nailed every sonata. Nary a dog is to be heard. But his best sonata to this point comes in an amazing reading of Op 10/3. The Presto opens slightly slower than I usually prefer, only to speed up handily while Silverman also deploys his rubato in a most captivating fashion. The development section is smooth ‘n’ groovy, and things just seem to get better right through to the end. Subtle variations in almost all aspects of the playing really spice things up. It is the Largo, though, that separates this recording from so many others. A number of pianists make this movement sound like a precursor to the great Adagio of the Hammerklavier, but Silverman does one better. He makes it sound like a brother to the great movement. The movement opens in a dark fashion, with sadness practically oozing out via cutting treble tears. The anguished, angry outbursts that follow sound emotionally painful. Silverman makes the piece weep, complete with pauses that sound like the musical equivalent of gasps for breath. The effect is mesmerizing and moving, and draining. The Menuetto thus sounds like an upbeat tonic to make one get over the trial of the second movement. That lower register goodness so prevalent in recordings of Bösendorfers remains, and the sound is nicely blended. Even sunnier is the Rondo, which brings the sonata to a cheery conclusion. This is a remarkable recording.

    A few hours prior to listening to Silverman’s take on the Pathetique, I revisited Ivan Moravec’s recording, which has been one of my favorites for a few years now. Silverman is at least as good. Maybe even better. His take is most certainly different. The Grave opens with drawn out chords and then transitions to faster playing with nice flourishes and beefy bass playing. There’s a nice, long pause before the Allegro, which ends up being slightly slower than I usually prefer, but is still successful. Silverman again deploys his rubato in a satisfying manner, and he makes the intensity of the music undulate between softer playing and loud, swelling crescendos. The Adagio cantabile is rich, grand, touching, and moodily songful. The middle section is predictably more intense, and just as moving. The concluding Rondo is less intense and moody than the opening two movements, but its romantic overall feel and huge dynamic range really hit the spot. Outstanding.

    After hearing so many different takes on the Op 14 sonatas, I was starting to think that the first sonata just isn’t as good as the second. Silverman to the rescue! The opening Allegro is open, free, and downright fun. Silverman never rushes anything, but he never sounds too slow. He just lets the music unfold. The middle section is more serious, as it should be, but it’s still lyrical. After that, Silverman dispatches the scales nonchalantly and brings the movement to a charming close. The Allegretto is taken at a slow-ish pace and sounds bittersweet but not overburdened by “deep” playing. The concluding Rondo is quick and jovial, with pretty much everything done just right. Silverman reaffirms my faith in the piece’s quality.

    The second sonata is also very good. The Allegro opens in a lovely, laid back, and warm ‘n’ cheery manner, and floats along thusly, interrupted only by a beefy middle section and fine, quick runs. The Andante opens in a slow, deliberate fashion and almost sounds clumsy, though purposely clumsy. Silverman picks up the pace so that he can end with a distinct, loud final chord. To close, he plays the Scherzo in a light, punchy way to open only to decrease the volume precipitously while still playing fast. A neat trick. The final third of the movement is played mostly straight and ends strongly.

    The final sonata of the opening batch witness a slight diminution in overall quality. Silverman opens the Op 22 sonata with an Allegro con brio that cruises along at a brisk but not driven clip. There’s some nice left hand accenting and some powerful, swelling playing where needed, and a few times he holds a note a little longer than one expects, rather like a singer ending a phrase with a sustained note thrown in for flavor. The Adagio is softer, quite lovely, and characterized by a fine overall tempo. The playing is somewhat dispassionate to start, though the terse middle section and lyrical ending add a bit of emotion to the playing. The Menuetto is clear and direct, and the concluding Rondo opens in a soft, singing manner and then proceeds to end the piece in a leisurely manner, with only the beefy middle section to offer contrast. This is a good reading, but it doesn’t quite match up to what came before it. No matter, I like it.

    I’ve known about this cycle since it first came out, but I didn’t get around to hearing it until now. That was a mistake. There is a whole lot to savor in this set. Everything sounds right. Silverman’s playing is all about the music. He’s not out to show how loud he can play, or how fast, or how he can twist the music into virtuosic slop. Rather, he chooses to use his technical ability to let the music speak for itself. His playing does have personality, that’s for sure, but this is more about Beethoven than Silverman. Of the three cycles I’m working through right now, I have no doubt that this is my favorite and the one I’ll turn to most often, at least in the opening eleven sonatas. (I’ll be surprised if the same doesn’t hold true for the remaining 21 sonatas.) The Bösendorfer takes some getting used to – perhaps twenty to thirty seconds or so – but after that, it’s smooth sailing.




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    I got back underway expecting good things from the Op 26 sonata. Don’t know why, specifically, though Silverman’s direct, unforced style seemed to portend good things. I was right. But in ways different than I expected. Silverman opens the piece with a poised, very formal Andante. Sure, it sounds tonally appealing and rather beautiful, but its formality makes it sound earnest. Then each subsequent variation is played more or less the way they seem they should be played. The fast variations are fast and articulate, but never flashy, and the slow variations are slow and attractive and there to be savored. Silverman utilizes his by now familiar interpretive devices perfectly. He uses an appealing accent here, and truncated chord there, and whatever else seems right elsewhere as needed. The Scherzo offers more of the same, though here the primary emphases are on speed (though not too much) and large dynamic swings. The funeral march – the heart of the work – is splendid. Silverman again plays in a formal manner, with his serious approach adding gravitas to a movement requiring it. His playing certainly sounds funereal and crisply march-like, with powerful, cutting crescendos adding angst when and where appropriate, and the middle section is notably powerful. The work winds down with Silverman playing the Allegro quickly and articulately with a nicely intense middle section flanked by comfortably dispatched outer sections. A superb recording, and one that compares favorably to the best I’ve heard and certainly surpasses most.

    As I’ve written before, the first of the two sonatas quasi una fantasia is one of my favorite LvB sonatas, and it has become increasingly important to me in assessing a pianist’s overall achievement in this music. Silverman’s achievement is notable. The piece opens with an Andante that is simultaneously relaxed in overall feel but taut in delivery. There’s a subdued anxiety there; something’s going to happen. And that something is the Allegro, which bursts into being with powerful bass coming out of nowhere. The return of the Andante is much like its first appearance, but more lovely since the Allegro is out of the way. Silverman plays the Allegro molto e vivace in a somewhat measured way, but he plays with huge dynamic swings and delivers a rollicking middle section. The Adagio con espressione sounds like a somewhat somber reprise of the Andante, appropriately enough, and as such is rich, moody, and beautiful. Silverman ends the work by opening the Allegro vivace quickly, with a rocking rhythm, and large dynamic swings and bite, and, most importantly, good old fashioned oomph! One just revels in the powerful build up and final, towering chord before the return of the Andante theme and the super fast, super strong end. Yowza! A corker.

    Less important to me is the Mondschein. Too many players try to do too much with this piece, often turning it into a showboat piece. (“How fast can the Presto agitato be played?” often seems to be the question.) Blech. Silverman comes reasonably close to not interpreting the work at all; he just plays the music and lets Beethoven’s writing provide musical sustenance. The opening Adagio sounds serious and solemn, almost barren, and Silverman does an admirable job of riding the sustain pedal while still providing treble playing with a clear attack for each note. Silverman keeps the Allegretto serious and pretty much straight with only some brief pauses before the bass chords thrown in for variety. To end the piece, the Presto agitato is delivered in swift fashion, with rolling, powerful bass, and sharp treble. The energy and intensity levels are judged just right. The whole thing is just right.

    Even righter is the Pastorale. Silverman opens the piece with an Allegro taken at a somewhat brisk tempo and plays with an insistent and solid left hand that remains prominent but not obtrusive throughout. Silverman spins out the melodies with his right hand and otherwise plays in a most tuneful manner, but he keeps things taut, too. The middle section is more biting and substantial, and then he plays through to the end with a most appealing tautness. The Andante opens with the tension of the prior movement mostly in tact, with the Bösendorfer’s bright upper registers adding a dash of urgency to this otherwise genial movement. The middle section is plucky fun – it sounds as though Silverman makes the piano laugh, almost as though he’s telling a somewhat naughty joke and chuckling while doing so. But then the opening music returns and comes to an end with a strong coda that seems to impart a sense of drama. The Scherzo comes off as nothing less than a vigorous, jaunty poke in the eye – or ear, I guess. The concluding Rondo brings the work to a wonderfully lyrical conclusion. Each movement sounds distinct, and Silverman plays superbly throughout, but what is ultimately most impressive about this reading is how the whole thing coheres; it just moves along flawlessly from start to finish. Superb.

    Time for the critical three. Surely Silverman should do well here given how well he’s done up to this point. That’s certainly what I hoped. I was not disappointed with the first sonata. The Allegro vivace opens at a nice pace but in a somewhat soft manner. It’s good, but not especially unique or insightful. Then Silverman proceeds to play the piece in a fashion indicating that he reexamined the piece afresh and reveals insights into everything. Rubato abounds, myriad dynamic gradations tickle one’s ears; Silverman basically offers subtle, unique playing that makes everything sound new. He’ll play a bit slow for a while, then fast. He’ll play with a buttery-smooth legato then with a sharp, pointed staccato. He’ll alter the emphasis of a phrase, cut short a note, vary dynamics within an arpeggio. His touches are everywhere apparent. In that regard, he reminds me of Anton Kuerti in this work, and he’s just about as successful. This variable goodness extends to the Adagio grazioso. The first thing one notices is the trills – they’re different. Rather than just launch into them, he plays the first note, takes a (relatively) long pause, then proceeds to the rest of the trill, which he varies in terms of tone. All the while, Silverman plays with a nearly bel canto left hand that somehow manages to offer rock-steady rhythm. Sweet! The middle section is fast and strong and vivacious – it’s just superb. The return of the opening material finds Silverman playing more vigorously than before, but he never pushes anything to hard. The piece ends with a Rondo that’s at once leisurely and lyrical, and brings to mind an image of a good old boy sitting in his favorite chair, sippin’ some whisky, and strumming a guitar with disarming and unexpected technical acumen while impressing more with musical fun rather than showmanship. Translate to the piano (sans the whisky, I’m guessing), and you have one fine ending. It’s hard to point out any one or two or ten standout parts; it all blends perfectly.

    I guess after four straight knockout or near knockout performances Silverman was bound to deliver something less impressive. That happens with the Tempest. The works opens with a slow, rich, somewhat plain Largo. The Allegro is suitably faster and more intense. One benefit of the more distant recording perspective is revealed by the dynamic contrasts in Silverman’s playing. The contrast is there, but it’s not exaggerated; it sounds unforced. Silverman uses the pauses well, heightening the drama, and then plays the long two-note figure in a clear, sharp way highlighting the contrast between it and the left hand tumult down below. The Adagio opens with a rich, hazy arpeggio before moving on to playing that is both lyrical and melancholy. The concluding Allegretto is played in a measured but flowing way, and sounds more tragic than the preceding movements, with at times cutting treble helping in this regard. Silverman also uses the Bösendorfer’s powerful bass to help accentuate the dynamic contrasts. Over time, the repeated theme takes on a desperate sound that works quite well. Overall, I do enjoy this recording quite a bit, it’s just that it’s not quite up to the level of the immediately preceding recordings.

    The last of the trio finds Silverman playing at almost the same level as in the first of the batch. The Allegro opens in a somewhat leisurely fashion. Silverman seems to be smirking, if you will; the listener expects something more vigorous, something more boisterous. It’s not to be, at least not at the outset. As things progress, though, Silverman does become more animated. He relishes pounding out the boisterous bass notes when they come, and he impishly plays the long trills, then he reverts back to his sly, smirking style. His style is subdued and subversive. A novel and compelling approach, to be sure. Another nice touch comes at around 5’ when the playing takes on a somewhat annoyed, snarky feel. The Scherzo opens with a scampering left hand played in tight, controlled fashion – almost as though the pianist is hunkered down ready to pounce – with some nice right hand playing that just cruises along. Then Silverman pounces, pounding out the hilarious outburst, then he returns to the opening material again. The Menuetto, by contrast, opens beautifully – almost tenderly – and remains so with only the forceful middle section acting as a musical poke in the ear. The work concludes with a fast, flowing Presto con fuoco that benefits from a solid left hand underpinning. Another fine reading, and one sure to get repeated listens in these parts.

    This batch of sonatas ends with the Op 49 works. The first one opens with a rich, substantive Andante tinged with resigned retrospection. Who’d a thought this movement could be so serious yet fun? (Well, others do manage it.) The Rondo is a sunny, vigorous good time. The second sonata opens with a solid yet fun Allegro and ends with a quick, emphatic, strong yet fun Tempo di Menuetto. Both works come off slightly better than normal.

    The second batch of sonatas is, if anything, even better than the first. Silverman has yet to deliver a recording that I dislike. At his best he can withstand comparison to just about anyone, and at his less-than-best (because I can’t write “worst”) he’s excellent.




    --


    After twenty recordings ranging from good to great my hopes were high. The third batch of sonatas has some biggies. Silverman more than meets any expectations, starting with the Waldstein. Brisk and firm to start, Silverman makes the piece sound big from the start. The first slow down in the playing takes on a wistful feeling, and then when he speeds up again Silverman plays even quicker than before, and he expands the scale of the music, too. The return of the opening material is quite something. The overall tempo, dictated by the left hand, is not especially fast. Indeed, it’s slow-ish, but Silverman spins off notes swiftly and precisely with his right hand. It’s got that clear part playing thing going on. Silverman’s cycle is hardly a virtuoso fan’s delight, but here he shows that he can play with dazzling precision when needed. Here it’s needed. Anyhoo, the Introduzione is spot-on; it’s pensive, it’s restrained, it’s uneasy, it’s almost angry at times. It’s just right. So far, so good. Then comes the Rondo. It opens in a nearly dream-like fashion, quiet and subdued and a bit ambling, but then it climbs to near ecstatic heights than expands into a large-scale feast for the ears. The long transitional trill starts off small then gradually speeds up, becomes bigger and more powerful, and then Silverman throws the weight of the Bösendorfer behind it and plays loudly yet in controlled fashion. He alternates the dreamy and grand playing to perfect effect through to the end, and makes the piece sound grand and massive and purely enjoyable. Hot damn.

    The little Op 54 sonata can sometimes (and maybe often) be something of a let down after the Waldstein, especially one as well done as Silverman’s. Not this time. Silverman opens the In tempo d’un Minuetto in a somewhat restrained yet almost literally danceable fashion. His beat is relaxed, his playing incisive, the effect charming. Until he launches into the meatier second section, which sounds cutting and most decidedly vigorous. Small, nothing! The opening minuet returns in more gilded fashion just like it’s supposed to, and then the powerful second section returns for a brief, pointed, invigorating run through before the final appearance of the minuet transmogrifies into a trill laden exercise in musical ornamentation. Spiffy. How to follow such a strong opening movement? With an equally strong closing movement! Silverman plays the Allegretto in perpetual motion fashion; that is, he just lets the notes flow in a most natural and unforced (though occasionally forceful) manner. It’s lyrical, it’s jaunty, it’s just plain fun to listen to. Hot Damn!

    Then comes the Appassionata. Somewhat quiet and tense to open, the piece explodes into an intense, passionate outpouring of emotion translated to the ivories. Silverman delivers all with superb control, room pressurizing weight, and fine clarity (given the realties of the instrument and recording style). Then things slow down, and Silverman opts to elongate certain phrases just a smidgeon for effect. All the better to offer maximum and satisfying contrast for the powerful, throbbing playing that follows. It is in this piece that one really begins to appreciate how much more dynamic a slightly more distant sounding recording can sound. Silverman’s range is huge, yet small dynamic gradations are easily (and greedily!) heard. The peaks-and-valleys approach works both sonically and musically. The Andante con molto offers a needed rest, especially for the listener, and Silverman again delivers. This ain’t no mushy middle movement though. The playing is calmer than in the opener, but it’s firm, too. The overall tempo is perfectly judged, and that means that everything unfolds in a most satisfying manner. Then Silverman speeds up dramatically at the end and launches into the concluding Allegro ma non troppo with a sharp, piercing chord and a rumbling lower register. Things ease up a bit but remain notably tense until about 1’32” or so when Silverman just unloads. This goes on for twenty or so seconds, then Silverman regroups for a brief while, then unloads again. The movement alternates thusly until the end, when Silverman pounds out a thunderous coda to this top-notch recording. Hot Damn!

    After three amazing recordings in a row, one might be tempted to think the Op 78 and 79 sonatas might get short shrift. That ain’t the case – not even close. Silverman opens the Op 78 sonata in a rich, dark hued, almost haunting fashion. It’s more substantial than one might expect. The piece transitions to a perfectly paced Allegro ma non troppo, which, while not as heavy as the opening, maintains a sense of urgency married to sadness until it gives way to a more upbeat tone. This is one meaty (yet brief!) musical journey. But that’s not all! The Allegro vivace closer is vigorous ‘n’ vivacious and ends the piece in sunnier fashion, and with a nifty flourish. The Op 79 is more substantial than normal, too. Silverman opens with a Presto all tedesca that is swift, firm, but unabashedly fun. Beethoven liked the little two-note joke he wrote in the opening piece, and Silverman seems to, too. He loves to tell it, retell it, refashion it a bit, and then retell it yet again. Is it Beethoven or Silverman I write about? Hard to tell, really. The “off key” ending is fun and caps off a fine starting movement. In the Andante, Silverman maintains a gently rocking left hand throughout to offer support to a lamenting, crying right hand. It definitely occupies a world closer to the late sonatas than is often the case. Silverman ends the piece with a sunny and bright Vivace, as one might expect. That’s five for five in this batch so far.



    cont’d . . .

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  15. #30
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    . . . cont’d

    The streak ends at five. That’s not to say the Les Adieux is poorly done – it’s actually pretty good – just that Silverman doesn’t play it at the same level as the preceding works. If anything, that just serves to underscore how good the preceding recordings are. Silverman opens with a slow, sad, almost processional Adagio before playing the Allegro in a small-scale, light manner. There’s little heft; the piece takes on an intimate feel. The protagonist is bidding a fond farewell to a close friend in a non-ceremonial fashion. It reminds me of Paul Badura-Skoda’s take in some ways. The Adagio cantabile sounds like nothing other than a personal lament at the friend’s absence. It’s not especially intense, though there is a slightly stinging feel to it at times. It is in the concluding Vivacissimente that Silverman finally expands the scope of the piece to quasi-orchestral dimensions, and it is here where he delivers a striking and ebullient feeling. Overall, this is very good, but there are a number of others I prefer to this one. I do believe I’ll be listening to this one again, though.

    Silverman just keeps getting better. If the remaining six sonatas are of the same overall quality of the six just covered, I’ll be happy indeed.




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    Up to this point Silverman’s cycle has been pretty much all I could ask for. He hasn’t bombed even once, and his best interpretations compare to anyone’s. So I approached the last six sonatas quite enthusiastically. So enthusiastically that I thought I should try to hear even more of Silverman’s Beethoven. As luck would have it, my local CD hut still had a copy of Silverman’s 1990 Rouvain Recordings disc of the last three sonatas. I dutifully snapped it up. Somewhat like the Orpheum cycle, these recordings were made on a special piano, though here it is a truly unique piano. Silverman played on Steinway #500,000. To commemorate the special piano, the Steinway Company had a custom sculpted case made and then had it emblazoned with the signatures of hundreds of Steinway artists, Mr Silverman included. Sonically it sounds like a Steinway. The only other item of note is that the recordings of all three sonatas were made in one day, so only a limited number of takes could be used. Anyway, these recordings will be covered in due time. For now, it’s time for the Op 90 sonata . . .

    It’s predictably good, but it also extends the streak of only very good recordings to two. (How I wanted a great one.) There’s nothing really wrong with it, it’s just that it doesn’t sound as relatively good as what Silverman achieves elsewhere. In the opening movement, Silverman mixes the Bösendorfer sound and some tightly dispatched chords to create a sense of urgency during the bolder, louder sections, and elsewhere he plays with notable speed and a pointed ‘n’ groovy style. The second movement is characterized by some careful, deliberate, slow playing that veers dangerously close to syrupy lyricism. It’s beautiful and calming, and the whole sonata sounds nice enough, but it doesn’t scale the heights.

    Imagine my dismay when the op 101 extends the streak of only very good recordings to three. What’s going on here? (Okay, I wasn’t really dismayed; I just wanted more. Again.) The Allegretto, ma non troppo is on the slow, relaxed side, with Silverman not really pushing anything (except for a brief passage centered around 3’35”) and achieving a serene, almost transportive quality. The Vivace alla marcia is strongly characterized and delivered with a wry smile (or so it seems). This is serious, late Beethoven – but not too serious, a darker, world-weary middle section aside. The Adagio sounds slow, somber, and decidedly introspective. You’re hearing someone working things out musically in terms you can never fully understand – after all, it’s not you. It sure is good to hear, though. A wonderful trill leads into an Allegro that is sharp, pointed, and fast, but that soon gives way to a beautiful reappearance of the opening material. It is here where the music slowly but perceptibly morphs into that meditative, transportive late LvB that I so enjoy, and it takes on a jubilant overall sound. The fugue is taken at a somewhat measured pace, but still sounds quite nice. Overall, there is a lot to enjoy here – but I just wanted more.

    And now it’s time for the Hammerklavier. Can you believe this recording makes four only very good recordings in a row? What gives? The work opens with an Allegro taken at a broad tempo – all the better to make the work sound large scale. Silverman’s grand conception results in less forward drive than in some other versions, but the trade-off is that there is architectural cohesion. Everything has its place and is put in said place just right. All of Silverman’s previously mentioned traits are there, and he throws in some nice individual touches (as in the opening pages when he will let a chord decay just that itty bitty bit longer than one expects), but they and a romantic overall feeling are all less important that the overall arc of the piece. The Scherzo is more along the lines of what one might expect. Silverman again adopts a somewhat broad overall tempo, but the dynamic range and rolling bass and undulating sound all sound pretty nifty. The great Adagio comes off quite well, but doesn’t quite compare to the very best out there. It opens with a desolate sound, but Silverman’s playing quickly assumes a sense of subdued, resigned desperation. He’s more engaged than at the open, but for what? It’s tragic but not hysterical. The protagonist has accepted his fate. But then, roughly mid-way through, there is an outpouring of anguish. It’s not fevered or exaggerated, but it’s there. The subsequent music is less tragic and less obviously emotive, but it is moving in a way words cannot adequately describe. To end the work, Silverman opts to play the Largo in a slow, slightly ambling way, as though waiting for the grand fugue. And grand it is. Silverman plays with speed and vigor not present in the rest of the sonata, with superb part playing, and notable strength. No, the playing does not achieve aural x-ray clarity (in distinct contrast to Craig Sheppard) – because of a combination of the instrument, the playing style, and the recording – but what is there is clear enough and certainly gets the message across. This is a very fine, big-boned, long-breathed performance, that is certain.

    Silverman gets his groove back with the Op 109 sonata. By that I mean he plays at the highest level and delivers a recording that can be compared to anyone’s. I decided to listen to the Orpheum recording first, just because. The Vivace, ma non troppo opens in reasonably brisk fashion but sounds supremely smooth, then slows up a bit so that some strong, sharp forte chords can receive appropriate attention, and the transitions back to quick ‘n’ smooth. The contrasting themes and their delivery very quickly create that transportive, meditative quality that is so essential in these works. As things progress, Silverman throws in some delicate, almost precious playing, but it sounds sublime. The whole thing does. It’s a world in 4’12”. The Prestissimo is not especially thundering or fast, but it sounds ominous and unsettling. In stark contrast is the Andante, which sounds gorgeous and revives the transportive quality of the opener. Silverman plays with a broad tempo, but it doesn’t sound slow. It sounds timeless. Then come the variations, and Silverman improves on his earlier playing. The first variation is more beautiful than the theme, the second spiky and pointed but measured, and the third fast and strong and dynamically variable. The final variations return to a more ethereal sound world, the last one sounding transcendental, if you will. And finally, the restated theme beguiles with its beauty. Everything is played just right, and in one continuous thread. One continuous, devout thread. The earlier Rouvain reading is a bit more straightforward. Obviously the sound is different. The treble is smoother, the bass less pronounced, and more subtle tonal color can be easily divined. More important are the interpretive differences. Or similarities. Silverman plays in a similar way overall, but doesn’t achieve quite as much refinement and wholeness, if you will, as in the later recording. It’s a bit tauter and faster, with more and subtler coloring, and even more impressive diminuendo playing, at least in the opening movement. The second movement is more direct and has less contrast than the Orpheum recording. The final movement is again much the same, but it’s not as effective, or as devout. It’s still very good, though. But I prefer the Orpheum recording.

    The 110 is likewise superb. Again starting with the Orpheum recording, it’s clear that Silverman knows this piece well and has devoted substantial time to his interpretation. Right from the get-go, Silverman extracts every last bit of transcendental goodness out of the simple yet profound Moderato cantabile molto espressivo. Every note, every dynamic shift, every everything is perfectly judged. Silverman dispenses with interpretive clutter and baggage and plays in an effortlessly ethereal way – he knows the music and is entirely comfortable with its soundworld and makes the listener equally comfortable. He’s not too soft, not too hard, not too fast, not too slow, not too anything. It’s superb. As good, and as well judged, is the vigorous Allegro molto. Take what I wrote about the opener and it applies here. But as with the other late sonatas, it is the last movement that matters most, and Silverman knows it. The Adagio ma non troppo is touching in its sparseness. The lonely contemplation, accentuated by the near silent pianissimos, and the unknowable questioning of the protagonist are quietly moving. It’s not sad or melancholy, it’s searching, desperately searching, and one wants to listen to every last bit of it. The first appearance of the fugue sounds like a sort of idealized, positive response to the imploring opening section, and it is meticulously delivered. Again, everything is judged just right. The return of the Adagio theme then becomes forlorn, exhausted, and inconsolable. Why go through it all again? The repeated chords that signal the transition back to the contrapuntal music are masterful. Silverman uses striking sforzandi and truncated decays followed by deftly deployed pauses for each chord, and he builds the volume up from quiet to very loud in perfect, almost theatrical increments. The inverts fugue and reversion to the original fugal material is tauter and faster than before and the work ends on a triumphant note. It’s an outstanding recording – one of the best I’ve heard. The Rouvain recording is also very good, but it’s not up to the Orpheum recording. The opening movement is more direct, with less dynamic gradation, but greater clarity. The second movement is faster, stronger, with some stomping playing. The final movement is drier, yet also sounds desolate and ethereal as appropriate. It’s not as searching and bleak in the slower sections, and the fugues are more direct, clearer, and faster, and not quite the same type of musical responses to the preceding material. The chord build up is more conventional, too. So, I must give the nod to the later recording.

    As good as the preceding two works are, I wasn’t quite prepared for what Silverman does with the 111. His Orpheum recording is without question one of the finest I have ever heard and can be compared to anyone’s. I can think of none that are better. The only difference is in style and delivery, not quality. And that’s apparent from the start. The opening Maestoso opens in a sharp, striking manner, verging on outright fierceness. It is incredibly intense and dark, with unique and subtle variations in tone and beat. The second section starts with harsh, ferocious bass playing that quickly becomes thrilling, aggravated, fiery playing that is both frightening and growling. I use the word ‘frightening’ in an almost literal sense. For me that word can usually only be used in a figurative sense when applied to music. But here the playing is almost literally frightening at times. It is unyielding. But that’s not all there is. Silverman knows how and when to ease off, quickly and smoothly, to let all concerned rest – before attacking the piano again. As intense as the opening movement is, everything is perfectly judged with relation to everything else. How to top that? With an amazing second movement! The Arietta is quite firm, but still lovely, and it is immediately transcendental. The listener enters another world. That becomes more evident in the even more beautiful yet somewhat detached second half of the Arietta. The first variation marries both halves of the Arietta in a measured yet totally satisfying way. The second ratchets everything up a bit and reclaims just a taste of the urgency and intensity of the opener – but not even close to too much. The third variation is biting and quick and groovy, and the fourth and then the last two variations transform the work into the transcendental work of genius it is. The playing is gentler, the rubato at once more noticeable yet subtler, the effect more intimate. Time begins to melt away. The wonderful long trill, here sounding just a bit cutting and blurred – adds to a sense of moving further away from the crass material world and into a more wondrous realm. The piece concludes in glorious bliss. Since the Rouvain recordings of the 109 and 110 were not of the same quality as the Orpheum recordings, I assumed the same would be true here. I was partially correct. The Rouvain recording is not quite as good, but it is still superb and has its own formidable strengths. The opening movement is not as ferocious as the Orpheum recording, but it is still ominous. There is less contrast, too, as one would expect, but the playing is generally swifter and nimbler. Doesn’t sound especially impressive, huh? Well, the second movement is where the action is. The Arietta here is calmer, more serene, and more beautiful than in the later recording, especially in the first half. The second half sounds nearly static and truly sublime – among the most moving I’ve heard. The variations are less pronounced and contrasty, with the first two sounding more flowing, the second more tuneful, and the last variations lighter and smoother yet somehow nearly as transcendental. No, the Rouvain recording is not quite as good as the Orpheum recording, but it is still one of the better recordings I’ve heard of the piece. I guess if a pianist is really gonna nail one sonata, this is the one. Amazing.

    Robert Silverman’s Orpheum cycle reinforces the reason why I keep buying complete cycles. I keep hoping to find that one (or more!) pianist who does everything right. Silverman pretty much does. He’s not in peak form for every sonata, but he’s always at least very good and interesting. At his formidable best he is much, much more than that. He’s got Beethoven in his blood; he loves the music and wants to share that with listeners. Of the twenty new cycles I’ve heard in the last twelve months, there is no doubt that Silverman is right up there among the very best. I’d put him in the top five, I guess. But he brings something unique to the music. He doesn’t grab hold of the listener, then manhandle and force the listener to hear things afresh in the way Friedrich Gulda does; he doesn’t play with utter indifference bordering on (utterly irresistible) musical nihilism in the same way that Wilhelm Backhaus does; he doesn’t beguile with trickery and an endless supply of nuance in the way that Eric Heidsieck does; and he doesn’t seduce the listener with ravishing tone and fluid grace the way Andrea Lucchesini does. No! He’s his own man. He’s sort of just out there, playing the music the way he sees fit. The listener must come to him. And when that happens, the listener will experience something unburdened by overanalyzation, excessive ego, or a need to impress. Silverman focuses on Beethoven. That’s the way it should be.


    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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