Anton Kuerti Ė Addendum
One of the bigger disappointments in my exploration of Beethoven piano sonata cycles is Anton Kuertiís mid-70s cycle. While Kuerti definitely has the chops to play what he wants the way he wants, what he wants is often unpleasant and occasionally perverse. Generally slow tempi and an obsessive focus on detail do not add up to a maximally satisfying Ė or even partially satisfying Ė listening experience. About a month or two ago I revisited the cycle, and my initial impressions were largely reinforced. To be sure, my unfavorable opinion regarding a few of the sonatas softened just a bit, but in other instances my opinion hardened Ė the Pastorale is just plain awful. Anyway, this cycle was recorded long ago and Mr Kuerti has seen fit to record LvB again, so I figured I might as well try a newer recording. Rather than lay down the long green for his most recent traversal of the last five sonatas, I opted to ante up little money to sample his 1989 live recordings of the Mondschein and Hammerklavier sonatas.
Kuerti morphed into a different pianist in the intervening years. His superb control of every aspect of playing remains intact in these recordings, and his focus on details is still obvious, but gone are his annoying mannerisms. Instead one gets to enjoy more spontaneous music making and more interesting insights. The disc opens with the Mondschein, and a fine one it is. Kuerti plays the opening Adagio sostenuto faster than in his earlier recording, yet the playing is still appropriately slow, tastefully restrained, and decidedly dark and solemn, to the point of almost being downright grim. Kuerti manages the neat trick of obviously riding the sustain pedal while still making the attack of the notes sound deliciously piquant, particularly in the treble. The Allegretto is refreshingly direct and has a nice rhythmic drive, but it also sounds hesitant and unsettling. No easy listening this. Gone is the almost inhuman microdynamic gradation at the low end of the scale, but the overall effect is even more interesting. As in his first recording, Kuerti takes the Presto at a fast pace, though itís a smidgeon slower here. One superb touch is when he builds up the rolling lower register playing to end in terse, sharp chords. This being a live recording, some slips can be heard, but the overall effect is more invigorating and tense and satisfying than the earlier recording.
Next up is the mighty 106. Kuerti trims about six minutes or so off the earlier recording, with the Adagio about four minutes shorter. Still, I came to this recording with some trepidation. How happy I am to report that my concerns were unfounded. The recorded sound makes Kuerti sound ďsmall,Ē but that cannot smother the obviously grand conception of his interpretation. The opening Allegro is taken at a moderately quick pace, but benefits from unyielding forward momentum and clean articulation. More bungled passages can be heard, but they matter not one bit; the dramatic forward thrust of the playing sweeps away any concerns. The Scherzo is largely like the opening movement, with the exception of a fast, pointed middle section. Now to the 21 minute Adagio. Hereís where Kuerti really stumbled in his first recording. Like the earlier recording, the opening section is remarkable. Here, Kuerti plays in a slow, despondent, and tragic manner, with unresolved tension. After just over three minutes Kuerti moves into the second section which here succeeds fabulously. The sense of tragedy pervades Kuertiís playing as he creates a great pianistic dirge. Itís more personal, more stinging, more spontaneous. As the movement continues, it does seem to be just a bit too long in places, but it doesnít seem to go on forever. To end the work, Kuerti opens the final movement with a delicate, gently colored, (quasi-) mysterious Largo that builds up to a brief, frenzied end, with both hands undulating wildly, before moving into a precise, teasingly controlled fugue. Kuertiís playing is not as clear as in the earlier studio effort, but itís tauter and more energetic. More slips show up, but as before are of limited significance. Overall, this 106 is much better than the earlier one.
Indeed, Kuertiís playing is much better overall than before. He still dazzles with superb control of every aspect of his playing, but heís freer and more spontaneous than before. The earlier recordings sound more deliberate, slower, more purposely ďserious,Ē while the later recordings sound more concerned with the music than extra-musical effects. Kuertiís playing is thus elevated from annoying, self-conscious manipulation of the music to musically satisfying playing of a much higher order. While I canít say that either recording ranks among my favorites, I can say that Iím much more interested in hearing his most recent Beethoven recordings. Iím also more interested in hearing how he handles other music. Brahms perhaps.