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Thread: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

  1. #76
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    Irina Mejoueva

    (This is originally from 2010)


    Irina Mejoueva is, as far as I can tell, the newest kid on the block to complete a cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The fifth and final volume was released only a few months ago in Japan on the mighty WAKA (Wakabayashi Koubou) label. Until I bought this set I’d heard none of her playing, and read only one brief article about her where the most unusual fact revealed that she often relies on scores during recital, something that most pianists of course shun. Beyond that, I do know she has recorded quite a few discs of standard repertoire for WAKA, and that’s she’s a Russian living and working in Japan.

    But how’s her playing? Well, it’s a bit mixed. Instead of listening to the sonatas in numeric order, I decided to listen to them as they are presented on disc. The first volume, recorded way back in 2007 and 2008, includes a nice mix of works, as all the volumes do. It opens with the first two sonatas, and I must confess that I wasn’t wowed. Mejoueva displays fine technique, sure, and she tends to favor swift-ish tempi, and she’s most certainly very serious, but neither work is anything special – they’re about “average,” if there is such a thing. The works kind of sound the same until WoO 54, which is excellent. That was intriguing. Then Op 90 came along to end the first volume, and it was the first standout performance. Tense, nervous, and relatively fast in the opener, it started to reveal a pianist with a point of view. Her independence of hands is quite fine, and though the sound is not top flight (more on that later), her clarity offers some interesting insights.

    The next volume starts off much the same as the first did, with some nice but hardly exceptional playing, though parts of Op 2/3 display some superb playing. Op 13 ends the first disc of the volume, and it’s here that her approach becomes clearer. Mejoueva is about Sturm und Drang, albeit of using a more classical rather than romantic style; she’s most at home in faster, more energetic, more aggressive pieces. The Pathetique is fast and somewhat aggressive at times, though Mejoueva never pushes things too far. Then comes Op 10/1 to start the second disc. WOW! I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone launch the opening movement more quickly, and her control is absolute. She dashes through the work, infusing it with drive and energy matched by few. Truth to tell, I had downed a couple glasses of single malt prior to listening, so I had to return to the piece with my full wits about me to get a more accurate picture. Upon hearing it again, I thought, Wow! So a minor downgrade. This is one of the better versions out there. A couple more good works follow, but it is the closing Waldstein that again shows Mejoueva at her best. Speed, clarity, control, drive, and a few personal touches thrown in. This is no lightweight fare.

    Now knowing what to expect for the rest of the set, I proceeded with a bit more enthusiasm. Volume 3 is given over mostly to energetic or intense works, and as such it is generally quite successful. Opp 22 and 26 are both quite good. The sonatas quasi una fantasia are both quite good, with some especially effective dynamic contrasts in the first sonata, and a vigorous ending movement in the second. Op 31/1 is well played if perhaps a bit too serious – where’s the humor in the second movement? – and the same can be said to some extent for Op 7. Op 54 is solid start to finish. I will say that one other trend started to become more apparent about now. Mejoueva’s slow movements sometimes sound a bit cold and detached to these ears. They are well played, yes, but she delivers more in the faster movements. In other words, she’s not much for sentimentality and pretty sounds.

    The fourth volume continues along the same trend, with a good Op 10/3, especially in the faster movements. The Pastorale is more forceful than may be ideal for some, but that’s not always a bad thing. The Tempest is forceful and intense where needed, though a bit desolate in the slow movement. The relative weakness in Mejoueva’s style shows up in her playing of the late sonatas, with Opp 106 and 111 the first instances. Her playing remains rooted more in middle period Beethoven, and as such she never really attains that transcendent sound that the best players achieve. That written, she has her moments, and in the predictable places. Truth to tell, the Hammerklavier fares well from her approach, with a large, quasi-orchestral sound in the opening movements, a nicely cold slow movement, and a truly zippy concluding fugue; Mejoueva plays the entire with amazing speed and dexterity, truly something exhilarating to listen to. Really, it’s the slow movement of Op 111 where things are sub-par, though the tense Arietta and somewhat fierce boogie-woogie variation offer some interesting listening. The chains of trills, well, other do those better.

    The final twofer offers the remainder, starting with a slightly too severe Op 14/2. Nothing surprising. Op 31/3 is not as fun as I like, with an almost aggressive mien throughout, though the nearly growling bass is a nice touch. (How much of that is her playing and how much is the recording I do not know.) Then comes what strikes me as the apex of her set – Op 57. This is an intense, hefty, large-scale, swift-ish take on the work, and one defined by intensity. And more of that delicious growling bass! No, she’s not quite to Annie Fischer’s level of intensity, but she’s close. The final disc is given over to Opp 101, 109, and 110, and once again they sound more like middle period Beethoven than late period Beethoven. Overall, that means they’re not top notch, but that’s not to say there aren’t good portions. The fugue in 101, the fast movements in 109 and 110, the repeated chords in 110 – all sound quite compelling – but interesting parts do not make outstanding wholes.

    As I wrote before, the set is something of a mixed bag. Ms Mejoueva certainly has chops, there’s no doubt of that, but she also plays the New Testament in a stylistically limited fashion. Gulda managed to deliver one of the best sets available doing something similar, but that’s Gulda. Also of note is the fact that as presented on these discs, Mejoueva is not in any way a colorist. While never monochrome, she just never seems interested in presenting beautiful Beethoven. She seeks truth elsewhere. Her dynamic range is hard to assess because of the recordings, but it seems wide enough to do the works justice. Yes, she plays the works well, even if I cannot say that she ascends to the top tier of players, and possibly not even the second tier. Others may disagree, of course, and the five star reviews on HMV Japan’s site indicates that (though almost every recording will have someone give it a top rating). Overall, I had a good time listening, and will do so again.

    The only real complaint has to do with the sound. The recordings are 24 bit (yawn), but they are hardly state of the art. The perspective is a bit distant for the first four volumes, but the usual benefit of a broader dynamic range never materializes – she does not come across as another Gilels or Sherman, for instance. The first four volumes to a noticeable degree, and the fifth to a lesser degree, also display opacity in the middle registers. Perhaps that’s the piano, the hall, the pianist, the microphone placement, or all of those factors and more, but it means that there’s less detail than the best recordings made today have to offer. The flip side of that coin is that in the big, bold passages of works like Opp 53 or 57 sound somewhat bigger than they may – it’s a near wash of sound.

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

  2. #77
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    (Another from 2010)


    Maria Grinberg


    Facing an ever decreasing population of unheard complete cycles, I decided to finally try Maria Grinberg’s cycle because, well, just because. HMV Japan has it an affordable price, even with a weak dollar. I don’t recall ever having read an especially glowing review of her recordings (though the HMV star rankings put her at five of five), and have stumbled across some less favorable ones. I can sort of hear why there have been some less favorable reviews.

    The problem has mostly to do with the sound. Is the sound quality just poor, Soviet era recording technology exposed, or do the recordings accurately portray what Ms Grinberg sounded like? Louder passages sound metallic and clangy. Quieter passages are less troublesome, but the result doesn’t make me want to hear Ms Grinberg’s Debussy.

    Anyway, after one adjusts to the sound, one must confront what is, for me, a mixed cycle. The first four sonatas are all heavy and ponderous, with plodding slow movements and ham-fisted fast movements. The Op 10 sonatas strike me as more successful, with enough drive (the first), pep (the second), and drama (the third) to be enjoyable. But then Op 13 comes along and that metallic, clangy sound comes to the fore, especially in the first movement. It’s a flurry of metal, and sounds uncontrolled. It’s not terrible, but it ain’t my cup of tea. Then follows a series of at least moderately successful sonatas right up to the brink of the late works. The Op 31 trio come off pretty well, even if the first and third don’t quite have a light enough touch where I like a lighter touch. The Op 57 displays some of the same traits that Op 13 does, and it’s a bit heavy and plodding, but it’s okay.

    But then the later sonatas disappoint. Starting with Op 81a, things take a turn for the worse. Grinberg never evokes anything approaching late LvB goodness, at least for me. Throw in some more clangy, out of control playing in the Hammerklavier (no surprise, really), and some oddly phrased and decidedly middle period sounding playing in the last three sonatas, and there’s not a lot to love. Nothing is terrible, mind you, but I can think of probably three dozen or more versions of each sonata I prefer.

    So a less than successful, but also not entirely disappointing cycle. The early and late works aren’t to my taste, but many of the middle works are pretty good. The sound, again, isn’t the most pleasing, but it’s easily adjusted to. So I’ll say it’s a so-so cycle, and one probably of more interest to people who just want to hear more and more and more Beethoven.
    Last edited by Todd; Jan-28-2016 at 03:35.

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

  3. #78
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    Definitely running low on readily available complete cycles to hear, I decided to go for two from pianists I probably would not have experimented with had they not recorded the New Testament: André De Groote and Gerhard Oppitz.

    Mr De Groote, a Belgian pianist, was first. His cycle, apparently recorded for Naxos Benelux in 1998, was a surprise, but only because I knew nothing about the pianist. I found a few blurbs on line about him, and one Indiana critic – De Groote has taught in Indiana – described him as a “sit down and play” type pianist. I assume the critic meant that De Groote plays without exaggeration or eccentricity, because that’s certainly the case with the cycle. De Groote adopts sensible tempi throughout, never rushing anything (no light speed openings for the Waldstein, say), and never wallowing anywhere (the slow movement for Op 106 isn’t given the Slow Is Profound treatment). Nor does he seem to exaggerate dynamics, thundering out unnecessary fortissimos when mezzo forte will do. No, generally, he’s sensible. That’s not to say he’s nondescript or without ideas. He reveals personality with a satisfyingly intense Op 10/3, displays ample humor where appropriate in the great Op 31 triptych (dig that second movement to Op 31/1!), and delivers better than average late works. His Op 106 opens with a large-scale, suitably quasi-orchestral sound, and the slow movement is nicely cool. The final trio, while not the best I’ve heard, evoke a detached, transportive sound I like in these works. These are not merely sonatas penned by a composer; these are supreme, moving masterpieces written by one of the greats. While I can’t say that this rates as a great cycle for me, it is very enjoyable, and was well worth the meager asking price.

    I’ve been aware of the Gerhard Oppitz cycle for a while, and finally, when it was released in box set form at a cheap price, I went for it. Oppitz comes across as another “sit down and play” pianist, though he sounds a bit more serious and uncompromising. He also tends to play a bit faster. His Op 10/1 opens with intense, high speed arpeggios, for instance, and his Op 106 is a model of firm, quick playing (though he doesn’t attempt Gieseking or Gulda tempi in the opening movement). He’s a bit less playful in the earlier sonatas and the Op 31 works (smiles are in short supply in 31/1), and plays with more drive in some of the middle and later works. The Waldstein and Appassionata, for instance, possess compelling energy, as does the superficially impressive Op 106. Oppitz doesn’t plumb the depths of the late works as well as De Groote, at least for me, and his overall style come across as just a bit stern.

    So clearly I should prefer De Groote. Yet I think I prefer Oppitz, ever so slightly. While De Groote offers more flexibility and personality, I find the uncompromising, muscular Oppitz more to my taste. His approach reminds me a bit of Gulda’s Amadeo in that he seems to adopt a similar style for all of the works and largely makes it work. That written, he’s no Gulda. Overall, I’d say that both of these cycles fall into the average or slightly above average category for me. There are definitely better cycles out there, but there are definitely worse ones, and both offer more than enough for me to return to again.

    I will say that both cycles share one common trait: sub-par sound. De Groote’s cycle sounds glassy, with a small, distant piano lacking in dynamic range and clarity. The Oppitz cycle is too reverberant for my taste. One gets a better sense of dynamics, but the price is a lack of clarity.

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

  4. #79
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    When I bought the Andante set dedicated to Friedrich Gulda several years ago, I noticed that the liner notes mentioned that Gulda had recorded three complete LvB sonata cycles. Well, I had the Decca and Amadeo cycles, and the idea of a third cycle was rather exciting, but of course it was nowhere to be found. Now it is! Orfeo has reissued what is Gulda’s first complete cycle and Op 126 Bagatelles, recorded in 1953-1954 for RAVAG, a Viennese radio station, along with the Eroica and Diabelli Variations, recorded in 1957 for ORF. (It’s worth remembering that some of these recordings are not the first LvB sonata recordings Gulda made, the Decca cycle having started in 1950.)

    After devouring the cycle, I must say that it basically sounds like a test run for the Amadeo cycle. It displays many of the same traits: generally fast tempi (including an Op 106 clocking in at around 37 minutes), an unerring and snappy rhythmic sense, almost devout seriousness with appropriate hints of levity thrown in, clear articulation, a broad dynamic range, and an overall command of the pieces matched by few. That written, it is not as good as the Amadeo cycle. Gulda seems to be working out ideas he mastered in the 1960s. On the plus side, the set is more consistent and generally better than the Decca cycle.

    Not too surprisingly, Gulda is at his best in the more energetic sonatas. There are no real weaknesses in the early sonatas, and some – Op 2/3, Op 10/1, Op 22 – are superb. The Op 27 sonatas are not quite as good, but the Pastorale and Op 31 sonatas are all excellent. The big middle sonatas are more about speed and drive than anything else, but still the opening of the Waldstein is thrilling in parts, and the opening movement of Op 54 is satisfyingly zippy. The later sonatas are probably the weakest of the set, with the Hammerklavier a bit sloppy and the last three a bit shallow. Still, there’s more than enough there to hold this listener’s interest. I do wish that Gulda would have played some of the key repeats he omits, most notably in the finale of Op 57 (which he does in other recordings) and 10/2. That’s a minor quibble. To the other works, they are stylistically similar of course, with the Eroica Variations faring best. The Diabellis are quick, quick, quick and a bit monochrome, but the playing is good enough for me to want to get the Amadeo recording of that work to see if there’s a similar qualitative improvement.

    Sound is about what one would expect, with some spurious noise here and there in the sonatas, a bit of distortion, some dynamic limits, and so on. The 1957 recordings, not too surprisingly, sound a bit better. The performances do seem to be real performances in some cases; there is a live in the studio feel. There are some noticeable slips, starting in the finale of 2/3, and as mentioned before Op 106 is a bit sloppy, but the energy level benefits.

    Overall this is a good set and I’m glad I got it. It’s not as good as the Amadeo set, but it is better than the Decca set, and it’s above average overall. That written, I think this is probably for collectors like me who can’t have enough Beethoven, or for Gulda aficionados.

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

  5. #80
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    I didn’t buy Louis Lortie’s Beethoven cycle with very high expectations. I rarely if ever see his name mentioned as one of the great Beethoven pianists, even if only living pianists are considered. That’s okay though, because having not so high expectations means that said expectations can be easily surpassed, as is the case here.

    This cycle took a long time to record. Most of it was recorded in the 90s, with the eight sonatas that weren’t recorded back then being recorded in 2009 and 2010. The middle and middle-late sonatas were recorded in 2009 and were performed on a 1936 vintage, refurbished Steinway; the last three sonatas were recorded in 2010 and performed on a Fazioli, thus beating Ms Hewitt to the punch for the late works. (Aldo Ciccolini did record the last five sonatas on a Fazioli in the 90s for Nuova Era, though.) In addition to the standard 32, the set also includes the small Op 6 sonata for piano four hands with Mr Lortie being paired with (now) über-wealthy pianist Hélène Mercier. (Okay, it’s her husband’s billions.) The work is nice but slight and not of much interest to me.

    The set is presented in mostly chronological order by opus number, and right out of the gate a few things are clear. First, Mr Lortie cannot and does not play an ugly note. Not ever. Not even close. Second, his approach is decidedly classical. He doesn’t really storm the heavens; he plays with restraint and elegance, and while never slow, he rarely rushes things. Third, Lortie plays all of the music with ease. Anytime something sounds slow or deliberate, it’s because he wants to play it that way. Generally speaking, I prefer my Beethoven fast and/or gruff, so this would seem to mean that Lortie misses the mark. Not exactly. Even in the first sonata, in the intense closing movement, there is enough drive to satisfy.

    As I progressed through the sonatas I more or less heard what I thought I would hear. The first two sonatas are crisp and classical and not romanticized. The third is fast and fun, with Lortie playing the fastest parts with brio. Op 7 is quick where needed, and broad where needed, with nice dynamic range. The outer Op 10 sonatas show some limitations in terms of drive and intensity, while the second one is delightful, fun, and snazzy in the outer movements and contemplative in the slow movement. It’s one of the better ones out there, I might add. Op 13 is too classical and restrained for my tastes, though the Op 14 sonatas, a bit slower than I tend to prefer, are nonetheless charming.

    A bit of a surprise comes in Op 22, which is slower that I prefer, but it also just kind of falls flat. Op 26 is good, if not my cup of tea, and the two sonatas quasi una fantasia are nice enough. The Pastorale, though, is wonderful. Perfectly paced, beautifully played, with wide dynamic contrasts, it hits the spot. The Op 31 triptych more or less met my expectations, which is to say the first is generally good, but not witty enough; the second is poised and not fiery enough; and the third is playful and fun and the best of the set. The Op 49 sonatas are elegant, pretty, and charming. Lortie rates among the best in these lesser gems.

    Moving into the middle period works proper finds a Waldstein that is too broad in the opening for my taste, though the final movement makes amends with plenty of oomph. Op 54 is quite good, with the contrasting movements nicely played. The Appassionata, while “classical” in nature, is quite good, with huge crescendos and a nicely driven final movement. The Op 78 and 79 sonatas again lack the speed and wit I generally prefer, and Op 81a is nice enough, with an exceptionally moving final movement, but ultimately not top notch.

    It is in the late sonatas where Lortie performs best, which is always a good sign. His take on Op 90, recorded in 2009, is spectacular. The opening movement, while lacking the bite of, say, Angela Hewitt’s latest, is quick enough, pointed enough, and transcendent enough to make it work splendidly. Better yet is the endlessly beautiful second movement, which Lortie plays with uncommon grace, elegance, and beauty. (I’d like to hear him play some Schubert.) Op 101, recorded in the 90s, shows that his affinity for the late works is not new. Start to finish, it is perfectly paced, exhibits that late LvB goodness that I demand, and has a satisfyingly clear ending fugue. The mighty Hammerklavier, also an “old” recording, is perhaps a little smaller in scale than ideal in the opening two movements, but there enough heft and drive for me. The slow movement is cool and pristine. Only the final movement misfires for me. It sounds a bit stiff, and is not ideally clear.

    The last three sonatas, which are all basically hot off the press, are of varying quality, but all are good. The Fazioli, as recorded for this set, is not as bright as in other recordings I’ve heard, but the sound is sharper and the upper registers are clearer and less resonant than one gets from a Steinway. Anyway, Lortie plays Op 109 generally quickly and cleanly, with a quick and strong Prestissimo, and nicely played variations. Op 110 is, for me, the best of the lot, with that ethereal, transcendent goodness obvious from the first note. Whether it’s the lovely opening movement, the quick second movement, the fugues in the last movement, or even the massively powerful repeated chords, Lortie really delivers. No, I cannot rate it among my top five or ten, but it’s superb. The last sonata is excellent. The first movement benefits from the Fazioli sound, and if not fearsome in any way, it is nicely energetic. The second movement starts with a gorgeous Arietta, and moves on to lovely if understated variations. This is mostly a “problem” in the third variation, where there may be enough woogie, but there sure is not enough boogie. The fourth variation makes up for it. It is one of the most beautiful, delicate, and feathery light takes on the music I’ve yet heard. It melts in one’s ears, if you will. The final variation has some gorgeous trills and moves onto musical Elysium beautifully. Again, I cannot place it among my favorites, but it is better than I hoped for.

    The same can be said for the cycle as a whole. Lortie’s style is not my preferred style, but he plays with enough panache and enough conviction to make it not only work, but work beautifully. In some ways it reminds me of Paul Lewis’ cycle, though I definitely prefer Lortie. He just seems to have the touch. (That written, Lewis blows Lortie into the weeds a few times, most notably and by the widest margin in Op 106.) The cycle does not end up in my top ten or even my top twenty cycles, but rather it ends up in the same category as other quality cycles that I’m more than glad to have – and that includes pianists like Craig Sheppard, Irina Mejoueva, Alfred Brendel (second cycle), Michaël Levinas, Takahiro Sonada, Friedrich Gulda (Orfeo), and Akiyoshi Sako. All told, it’s pretty darned good.

    Sound is good across the cycle, with not too much separating old from new, though the 2009 recordings are a bit more distant and the 2010 recordings a bit closer than the older recordings.

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

  6. #81
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    Jeno Jando (from early 2011):

    I’ve reached the point where readily available, reasonably priced complete Beethoven sonata cycles are almost non-existent. Peter Takács’ upcoming cycle fits the bill, but it keeps getting delayed, and I had a hankerin’ for a new cycle, so I decided to finally go for Jenő Jandó’s cycle from the earliest years of the HNH empire. I’ve hesitated to buy this cycle for a couple reasons. First, Naxos prices keep going up, even for their old stuff, so Jandó’s cycle is now not competitively priced unless it is on sale. (Fortunately, I bought it on sale.) Second, and more important, Jandó doesn’t leap to mind when I think of compelling pianists. He’s most decidedly talented, but some of the recordings I’ve heard reveal him to be a competent, middle-of-the-road pianist who doesn’t take many chances. That’s not always bad, and he does have at least one extraordinary recording to his credit (Bartok chamber works), but in Beethoven I generally want a bit more.

    Suffice it to say, Jandó’s cycle is pretty much what I thought it would be. Start to finish, he plays the pieces well and takes a middle-of-the-road approach. On the plus side, there are few or no eccentricities. Jandó does not take anything too fast. Nor does he take anything too slow. Dynamics are not exaggerated. Phrasing is almost universally safe and predictable. On the negative side, there’s very little in the way of individuality. Almost nothing stands out. The middle-of-road-approach generally works best in the earlier sonatas and results in less than compelling late sonatas, and that is certainly the case here. The late sonatas are not really bad, and one gets a sense of how great they can be, but one must listen elsewhere for great renditions of the works.

    All that written, there are a couple of highlights. For some reason, Jandó fires on all cylinders in Op 26. There is an urgency and intensity largely missing in most of the other works. The funeral march is powerful and displays individual character; no one else plays it quite like him. A few times in the piece Jandó’s phrasing is stiff, but it is done purposely, to good effect. It’s really quite good. Also surprisingly good is the Les Adieux sonata. Well played and both demonstrative and restrained, it strikes a nice balance. Indeed, volume 2, which has Opp 51, 31/2, and 81a is a pretty good disc all around.

    A quick word on sound: it’s not what I feared it would be. Many old Naxos recordings, especially orchestral recordings, sound rather poor, being opaque, distant, and glassy all at the same time. The recordings here are a bit close, a bit brittle, a bit glassy, and definitely bass shy, but they withstand comparison to many contemporaneous piano recordings.

    So, I’ve finally heard Jandó’s cycle, and it is the competent, middle-of-the-road affair I thought it would be. For someone coming new to these works, it wouldn’t be a horrible choice, as Jandó plays well enough, but I can’t say that I find it to be a first choice. I’d put it somewhere in the 31st – 40th choice range, better than quite a few, but not quite as good as quite a few others.

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

  7. #82
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    The niggling issue with most of Rudolf Buchbinder’s Elveebee cycle is apparent right from the get-go. That issue is sound. It is almost claustrophobically close, almost too detailed, and as a result of that and knob-twiddling somewhere along the way, somewhat limited in bass reproduction, rendering scale less than exemplary. In this it reminds me of Craig Sheppard’s cycle. For whatever reason, the last three sonatas fare better in this regard. They were recorded in the last concert of the series, so maybe something was different in the set-up.

    That issue aside, the only observation that could be taken as negative has to do with the fact that there are some obvious slips and memory lapses. No biggie for the most part as these appear to be true blue concert recordings, but I have to mention it. Only once or twice does Buchbinder seem at sea musically, and then for only the very briefest of spans. He’s human. I like that.

    Also immediately apparent is the fact that this is a heavy duty cycle. Buchbinder does not produce the most mellifluous piano tone. He does not play up the witty passages a whole lot. (That’s not to say he doesn’t at all.) But that’s okay, because he has heftier things to say. And he largely wants to say them in a hurry, for his playing is generally quick across the board. His playing is also incisive, with nice bite where needed. In some ways, his playing reminds me Friedrich Gulda’s. The aforementioned Craig Sheppard also came to mind because of Buchbinder’s seriousness. But Buchbinder is his own man.

    But his style has its limitations. The early sonatas tend to sound a little too intense and forced. Some pianists can pull off intense early sonatas (Annie Fischer, say), and while Buchbinder ain’t at all shabby here, he must cede to many other players on many of the works. None of the first three sonatas are knockouts, though the ending to 2/3 has more than a few exciting moments. Op 7 and 10/2 are similar. Op 22 is a bit leaden and flat, for some reason. The heavier sonatas – 10/1, 10/3, and 13 – all fare quite well, with nice intensity and drive and energy. Maybe the last bit of drama is missing, but that’s quite alright. And for some reason, the two Op 14 sonatas are superb, with ample energy and playfulness. I wasn’t expecting it, but there you go.

    The middle sonatas are better. In fact, from 27/1 right on through to the last five, there’s really not a bad sonata, though 81a is a bit less personal and emotive than I tend to prefer. Particular standouts include 27/2, 28 (really, an outstanding performance), 54 (if anything, even better), and a nice, stormy 57. Too, the Op 31 trio, always critical for me, all come off well, with 31/3 striking a nice balance between seriousness and wit.

    Which leads to the late sonatas. Here there are some issues, as it were. It’s not that Buchbinder is bad, not at all, it’s just that he lacks that certain something I find in the best recordings of the last sonatas. His playing isn’t transcendent/philosophical/etc enough. Op 101, in particular, doesn’t work, sounding like an extension of middle period works. The mighty 106 is played nice and fast, with a nicely brisk slow movement, but it, too, sounds too middle period in nature, and too small in scale. The last three sonatas start auspiciously, with a fine 109. The improved sound gives the piece a more ethereal air than what came before, and the final movement displays a bit of that transcendent sound I’m looking for. Op 110 is sort of a blend of 109 and earlier works, and is good, if not a world beater. Op 111 is almost a tale of two sonatas. The opening movement comes off nicely as a result of Buchbinder’s incisiveness and drive, but the second movement is missing a little something. The trills could be better, I suppose, the Arietta a bit more ethereal, as could the playing after the boogie-woogie variation. It’s not that anything is wrong, per se, it’s more that the overall feeling of the work is missing that ultimately indefinable something of the best performances.

    Yet another cycle down, and as with many cycles, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of the best out there. That written, Buchbinder has more than a few interesting things to say. His seriousness, intensity, swiftness, and obvious familiarity with and love for the music make the set enjoyable to listen to, especially in a good number of the “middle” works. For me, this cycle falls into a category populated by a good many fine cycles – the aforementioned Sheppard, Mejoueva, Brendel’s second cycle, among others – that I’m quite glad to have, but that do not ultimately scale the highest heights.







    What I wrote about Buchbinder’s RCA cycle basically applies to his Teldec cycle, only more so. It is more consistent, more straight-forward, in more appealing sound and, as befits a studio cycle played by a younger man, beset by nary a slip. Buchbinder’s very serious approach means that some more playful elements are largely AWOL (31/1, say), some earlier sonatas wilt a bit (Opp 14), and his late sonatas here are very much a young-ish man’s take, and they certainly don’t rival the best out there, though the super intense, crazy fast opening movement of Op 90 is intriguing. That written, I must say that I enjoy this cycle more than his newer one, and when one considers the seven CDs of piano music included in addition to the sonatas, including a compelling Diabelli, this is the Buchbinder set to get, or would be if I didn’t feel impelled to own both. No fussy, prissy, silly HJ Lim-like dross here; this is the real deal. It definitely served to tide me over until Guy’s cycle is done.

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

  8. #83
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    After waiting for months and enduring delays, including one attempt to purchase the set several months ago on its third (I think) release date, I finally got my hands of Peter Takács' new Elveebee cycle. It was worth the wait. Mr Takács, whom I had never heard nor read of prior to learning of this cycle, is a professor of piano at Oberlin College. One can surmise that he knows a thing or two about playing the piano and playing Beethoven. This project started in 2001 and took years to record. This seems to imply a bit of dedication. These are good things.

    Mr Takács does indeed know his Beethoven. His cycle is pretty much a no-nonsense take, though one riddled with interpretive leeway around the edges. His tempi are just about right, and if they stray from “neutral,” they stray slightly (and I mean slightly) fast. His dynamic range is just about right, though from time to time it's possible to enjoy a titanic range offered by someone like Russell Sherman. His technique is solid. His independence of hands fine. Inner voices get their due without becoming the main event, as it were. Everything is immaculate, and everything sounds both studied and fresh. When Mr Takács does allow himself some leeway, it's in the form of musically suitable embellishment. And he does like to play the bass an octave or two lower than usual, something enhanced by the use of a Bösendorfer.

    The cycle starts quite promisingly with an excellent, vibrant Op 2. The first can be stormier, sure, and the third more overtly virtuosic, but what's on offer here is uniformly excellent. All three come off as youthful, though they are played quite seriously. Takács' is a studious, classical take. Op 7 is splendid first to last, and Op 10 is nice, indeed. Takács takes the opening arpeggio of the first sonata at a fast, precisely controlled pace, and things proceed nicely from there. The second of the set is suitably humorous. The third perhaps lacks the ultimate in drama in the slow movement, but that doesn't make the recording any less compelling. Op 13 is more classical and restrained that the most fiery versions, but it works for me, and both Op 14 sonatas are joys to listen to. (That's two cycles in a row with high grade Op 14 sonatas.) Op 22 is energetic and youthful, the last gasp of young Beethoven, and Op 26 is superb, with distinct, colorful variations, a somber and heroic funeral march, and a snazzy ending. Things drop a level for Opp 27 and 28. There's nothing wrong with them – indeed, they're quite good – but they just didn't tickle my fancy quite as much.

    Then there's Op 31. Takács delivers a crackerjack trio. The first is all humor and wit; the second is dark and brooding; the third is a vigorous musical prank. I can't say that Takács delivers world beaters in any of the three works, but it was fun to just sit and listen to all three consecutively. Twice. The musical goodness doesn't end there. The Op 49 sonatas, on an earlier disc here, are little gems and are played as such. The really good stuff comes in Opp 53, 54, and 57. The first two are superb, with a perfectly paced opener for the former, and a superbly judged closer for the latter. Op 57, though, is the peak of not only the middle sonatas, but of the whole cycle. Takács adopts tempi suitable to his classical but intense approach, and he takes maximum advantage of the Bösendorfer's lower register. Climaxes thunder in a most satisfying way. This is right up there with the best of the best.

    All but one of the remaining middle sonatas are a bit less enthralling; they are merely of the same high level as Op 31. Except for 81a. Takács brings forth the bittersweet farewell, sad longing, and joyous reunion with aplomb. It's a corker, and can withstand comparison to almost any other recording. Op 90 is very good, too, but not quite in the same league, and I do confess that I like the second movement to be a bit more lyrical.

    That leaves the late sonatas, and Takács delivers here, as well, for the most part. That late LvB transcendental sound that I found missing from Buchbinder's cycle is here basically from note one starting with 101, which pulls off the trick of still possessing some middle period zeal. Op 106 is suitably large in scale, with the quasi-orchestral opening movement again leveraging the Bösendorfer's lower register heft. The slow movement is taut and unforgiving at under seventeen minutes, but it's also just contemplative enough. The final movement offers nice playing and clarity, though others seem more at ease here. Op 109 and 110 both sound quite fine, with the latter's repeated, ascending chords before the arrival of the second fugue sounding suitably hefty. Op 111 is a bit less impressive than the rest, lacking the ultimately ethereal sound I crave in the second movement, but make no mistake, the opening is intense and the Arietta lovely and calm.

    The eleventh disc in the set contains all of the WoO sonatas, including the sonata for piano four hands, as well as the Andante Favori. They are all very well done, but they are also all lesser works that could probably have been excluded. Come on, how many people really care much about the WoO sonatas?

    So this is a good cycle. A very good cycle. An excellent cycle. But it is not a great cycle. It does not come close to my top tier, which is no surprise. Between the Buchbinder cycle and this one, I listened to part of Wilhelm Backhaus' first cycle again and was reminded anew how great the old master's LvB is, and how these new cycles jut don't quite achieve the same thing. That written, I must say that of the four recent cycles I've listened to – Lortie, Buchbinder, and Jando being the others – Takács' is easily my favorite, and if he does not ascend to the highest heights, he's in good company, being on par with Takahiro Sonoda (Denon), Michaël Levinas, Akiyoshi Sako, and Seymour Lipkin. Not household names, perhaps, but all of these pianists have a lot to offer.

    Sound for the cycle is generally superb. The earliest recordings, which include Op 2 and the big middle works, are more reverberant than I prefer, but most of the rest of the recordings are spot on in terms of perspective, timbre, and clarity. That's for the CD layer. I didn't try the SACD layers, so those may sound better yet.

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

  9. #84
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    A couple more new, or at least new-ish, complete cycles, one from Germany and one from Japan.

    Michael Korstick first. I first got two volumes from his cycle a few years back, and I decided to wait for the complete cycle before splurging. His playing was technically superb, though the sound was a bit metallic, and I wasn’t wowed. Well, pretty much the same thing holds for the cycle as a whole, though listening to all the works shows Mr Korstick to be a bit better than the two volumes indicated.

    Korstick’s approach is one of the more consistent out there, I must say. He deploys his formidable technique without flash, but it’s clear he can play everything anyway he so chooses, and quite easily at that. And what he wants is to play fast movements very fast and slow movements very slow. This approach reaches its climax with Op 106, which opens with a blazing fast, proper tempo, nine-ish minute first movement that never sounds rushed or strained at all, and has at its center a monstrously long slow movement. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. For a long, slow adagio, Gilels or Eschenbach seem more the way to go, at least for me. This highly contrasted tempo approach is standard throughout, and has largely predictable results. In the fast opening to all manner of sonatas – eg, a vibrant, slightly cutting Op 7, a forceful Op 10/1, a thundering Op 57 – Korstick does not disappoint. The slow movements are more variable in effect and quality. I could have used a bit more, what, depth, beauty, insight in some of the slow movements? And I can’t say that the late sonatas end up being world beaters. That written, the critical Op 31 trio turns out very well, if perhaps the outer sonatas are a bit on the stern side. Op 28 still seems to lack that something special, and some of the earlier sonatas are perhaps a bit too intense, but overall there are no real clunkers, and quite a few good things to hear. Korstick’s cycle is very serious, and in many ways it reminds me of Gerhard Oppitz’s cycle in its seriousness and penchant for quick tempi, and in its less than perfect modern sound. A middle of the road cycle interpretively for me, then, but one I will gladly return to in order to hear effortless playing with massive dynamic range.

    Yusuke Kikuchi offers a bit more. Like Korstick, Kikuchi generally favors swift tempi in quick movements, but he also tends to favor swift tempi during slow movements through much of the cycle. Also like Korstick, Kikuchi has a most impressive technique. A monster technique, really. The young-ish man plays even the most challenging passages with ease, a vast dynamic range, and a superb independence of hands, with uncommon left hand clarity and weight. Many times he reminded me of David Allen Wehr in this regard, but Kikuchi is more subtle and nuanced in how he plays the bass lines. From the first notes of the energetic, and suitably fresh Op 2 and Op 10 sonatas, complete with a 10/3 slow movement that gains intensity from its fast delivery, right up to the cusp of the late sonatas, with wonderfully virtuosic but never overdone “Monumental”* sonatas – eg, Opp 53 and 57 – Kikuchi never misses. The critical Op 31 are superb across the board. Even the little Op 49 works are quite something. They remain small, youthful works, but Kikuchi’s delivery, especially of the second sonata, and then the second movement, sheds new light on these little gems.

    The late sonatas almost sound like a different pianist in some ways. Oh, sure, there are flashes of brilliant, potent, fast playing, as in Op 109, or the gorgeous, nuanced trills in 111, but Kikuchi goes for something more than speed. Op 106 is taken at a conventional pace, but sounds uncommonly “orchestral”, and the finale is uncommonly clear, for instance. All six of the sonatas from Op 90 on have a weightiness and depth differentiating them from what came before, as the pianist almost certainly intended.

    As to sound, well, there’s great news, and not so great news. The second and third volumes are possibly the finest sounding recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas I’ve ever heard. The first volume – Monumental – seems slightly excessive in the lower registers, though that could also be the instrument used. The final volume of the late sonatas displays the same trait, though to a lesser extent, and also has a slightly different perspective. Nonetheless these were a pleasure to listen to from an aural perspective.

    As is my wont, I couldn’t help but compare Kikuchi first to other Japanese pianists I’ve heard, and to all other cycles. To the former, Kikuchi is right up there with Takahiro Sonoda, and probably even better overall. His technique is better, and if he doesn’t scale the heights in the late sonatas as well, he comes close enough. (I recently relistened to Sonoda’s Op 111 on Denon, and must say that I now find it among the finest ever recorded, and if ever I can make it through all 90+ versions of 111 weighing down my shelves, I’ll have an even better idea just how good it is.) Kikuchi’s may be the best Japanese cycle. Among the broader market, Kikuchi’s is extremely fine overall, and among cycles from this century, one of the best. Only Lucchesini and Guy (from the two volumes out now) are better among the Here-And-Now sets. It’s a real find. I may very well give his Diabellis a shot.



    * Like HJ Lim, Kikuchi’s cycle is in four two-disc volumes, each given a name. But Kikuchi’s set uses names like Beethoven Debut, Monumental, Fantasia, and Ultima. You know, names that make sense. Really, it’s a shame that of the two Northeast Asian pianists with luxurious heads of hair who recently recorded all or most Beethoven sonatas, it’s the decidedly less talented pianist who got to record for a major label.

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

  10. #85
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    Around six or seven years ago, I picked up Abdel Rahman El Bacha's first LvB cycle on Forlane. I was underwhelmed. The playing could best be described as BAM Beethoven – Bland And Mechanical. To be fair, El Bacha, like all pianists, did better in some sonatas than others, but the overall impression was one of a pianist not comparable to the best. His playing often overemphasized staccato and suffered frequently from stiff phrasing; dynamics tended to be somewhat stark; and often the playing seemed like dutiful sight reading. It was, and remains, one of the weakest overall cycles I've heard. I was not especially enthusiastic when I recently learned he had recorded a second cycle for Mirare. But I had to hear it.

    Mr El Bacha has improved in the intervening couple decades. Most obvious is the change in style and phrasing. El Bacha's playing is more fluid, displaying a less incisive staccato and often an appealing legato. Rarely, if ever, does he sound stiff. The Bechstein he uses, allied with his altered approach, is more tonally appealing. Dynamics are more finely shaded. The tempi are generally slower this time around, but most of the time, the tempo choices work well and seem natural, with one unfortunate exception that he duplicates from his first cycle. And most important, he comes across as having more to say, as it were.

    The early sonatas are perhaps not too impetuous and brimming with excess energy, but they are never dull. The Op 49 sonatas are perhaps taken too slowly, and for those who like explosive opens to 10/1, this will not satisfy, but really El Bacha presents everything right up through 27/1 very well. My only beef with 27/2 is that he doesn't ride the sustain enough in the opener, but he delivers a vibrant closing movement. Op 28 displays an ever so slightly aggressive mien, with a more cutting staccato than I was expecting, but it works well. 31/1 and 31/2 are pretty darned good – not world beaters, but good enough. 31/3 has the big tempo flop mentioned previously: the second movement is taken too slow for my taste, and he did the same thing before. The rest of the middle sonatas are quite good, with nothing sounding less than good.

    The late sonatas are nicely played, but they lack the depth and/or transcendence of the great cycles. 101 still seems to evoke middle period style here, at least to an extent, and while the fugue is vibrant, the performance lacks the traits I want. 106 opens with a grand-scaled, muscular, staccato approach, and a slow-ish tempo. The second movement is a bit heavy and slow. El Bacha plays the slow movement quite well, though, and the final movement is both energetic and clear. The last three sonatas ultimately are not up to snuff. Op 109 seems somehow incoherent – it just never jells. Op 110 is more successful and largely conventional. The opening movement to 111 is pretty good, with El Bacha displaying his more incisive style, but the second movement lacks that late LvB goodness right from the too tense Arietta, through the too fast boogie-woogie variation, to the just kind of there final variation. El Bacha is at his comparative best earlier in the cycle, there's no doubt.

    When listening, I decided to sample a few recordings from the old cycle for A/B comparisons, and ended up selecting 2/3, 10/3, 31/3, and 101. In the first three cases, the playing often displays the traits I mentioned earlier, and if the Largo in the earlier 10/3 displays louder playing in the most intense music, it comes dangerously close to sounding like mere banging. Somewhat surprisingly, I found the earlier 101 to be more to my taste than the newer recording. Overall, though, the newer recordings won out.

    So, this cycle improves on the earlier one, and it is generally pretty good. It is not, however, a great cycle. It falls into the vast qualitative middle ground occupied by many other pianists.

    Sound is excellent throughout.

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

  11. #86
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    When I scooped up the Paul Badura-Skoda JVC/Astree cycle and Wilhelm Kempff 1961 cycle on King International from Japan, it just kind of made sense for me to buy a new cycle by a Japanese pianist, too. I had three complete sets to choose from – Ichiro Nodaira, Takahiro Sonoda II, and Shoko Sugitani – and one probably complete but can't buy it complete set – Kazune Shimizu. The last option didn't entice me this time, precisely because it's the one disc that isn't available that I want most, and I have Sonoda's Denon cycle (superb) and Sugitani's LvB concerto cycle (not so superb), so I opted for the name new to me: Ichiro Nodaira.

    Mr Nodaira is a good, old-fashioned pianist-composer, with recordings of his own works floating around Japan and online. This struck me as a good thing. My experience has generally been positive with other pianist-composers; Kempff, Schnabel, and Michaël Lévinas all have unique, insightful things to say, as it were. Casadesus, too, I hasten to add. Perhaps Mr Nodaira would join them.

    This is not a brand new cycle, having been recorded between 1998 and 2003 for the Live Notes label. It is also super complete, filled with all manner of one-off movements and some variations, and so on, though it is not completely complete. The entire set also includes the Diabellis, but I skipped that for now, so I ended up with eleven of the twelve volumes. Being an all-Japanese affair, the only English comments consist of a blurb about Nodaira repeated in all volumes, so there's precious little information about the set, including which kind of piano is used, or pianos are used. I will say that the piano sound is very clear and dynamic, but lacking a bit in tonal color. I'm betting Yamaha, but I could be wrong.

    To the playing, well, Mr Nodaira shows that perhaps pianist-composers do have some special connection with these works, because his cycle is uniformly excellent. His tempi are generally quick. His overall approach is serious, almost reverential, which seems common among Japanese pianists. And Nodaira is definitely very "classical" in nature. He doesn't utilize outsize dynamics or attention grabbing rubato, nor does he perfume the music with excess pedalling. His is basically a straight-ahead, no-nonsense style. The main liberty he takes is that he tends to exclude repeats.

    Nodaira is solid, really solid, across the board. Actually he's better than solid. His early sonatas are quick and intense and serious, but never heavy. His middle sonatas are swift and powerful, though in some sonatas the bass registers growl and sound indistinct. He brings out some left hand figurarations in a way I had not quite heard before in Op 28 and Op 53, though each note is not crystal clear. Whether that is purposeful or an artifact of the piano used, or the recording technique used, or some combination of the three, I cannot say. What I can say is that Nodaira nails Op 31. Each is characterized pretty much the way I like. The outer sonatas are great good fun, and 31/2 is intense. I just sat straight through the disc, listening, more than occasionally smiling, and always reveling in the playing. He pretty much nails the last five sonatas, too. 101 and 106 are not showcases of unlimited technical prowess, like with, say, Korstick or Goodyear, but they are just so right. Even more right are the last three sonatas. The playing manages to achieve late LvB trancendence while at the same time sounding incredibly proper. Nodaira opts to just let the music speak for itself, as it were.

    This is really a superb, consistent, and consistently enjoyable cycle. Early this year I picked up Yusuke Kikuchi's cycle, and I deemed it perhaps the best Japanese cycle I'd heard, trumping even Takahiro Sonoda's Denon cycle. (Maybe – that's not etched in granite.) Nodaira doesn't quite match up to those two of his compatriots, but he's pretty freakin' close. He also rates quite highly overall, besting, for me, some big names, though it's hard to say if he joins the elite. That will take some time to determine. In the meantime, this cycle makes a most welcome addition to my collection.

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

  12. #87
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    Back in the mid-aughts, when I was buying new LvB cycles two and three at a time for months at a stretch, I picked up Paul Badura-Skoda's Gramola cycle, where he plays on a Bösendorfer, and it came at the right time, as I was slogging my way through Anton Kuerti's cycle. I much preferred PBS' approach in every regard and almost every sonata. I had known about Mr Badura-Skoda's HIP cycle for Astree, and though not a big fan of HIP keyboard playing, I figured I should look into it. Alas, the cycle was out of print. Now, though, it is a available in Japan, reissued by JVC using the XRCD24 process, for the low, low price of ¥27,000. While expensive, it is not the most I have paid for a cycle (both Ikuyo Nakamichi's and Akiyoshi Sako's cost more), and, well, I just had to have it.

    It's an all Japanese affair. Only one page of the booklet is not in Japanese, so this makes me think it will not get wider distribution. And packaging for this deluxe set is, well, it's deluxe. There are four robust two disc packages, and one robust single disc package, along with a robust booklet, all snuggled inside a robust box. (It's almost identical to King International's issue of Wilhelm Kempff's 1961 cycle.) The discs themselves, emblazoned with not one, but five logos for labels and technologies, are stiffer than normal and seem to be slightly thicker than normal. I assume this has to do with the vaunted XRCD24 technology the discs use. This technology supposedly offers superior sound when compared to normal CDs, though that strikes me as impossible given that it's red book. That written, part of the XRCD and XRCD24 process, as I understand it, is that the recordings are remastered. Since I have not heard the original Astree issues, I cannot say whether the current issue offers better sound, but I can report that it offers almost state of the art sound – which is impressive given that the cycle was recorded mostly in the 80s. Clarity matches the best recordings I've heard, timbre and tone strike me as very accurate, and dynamics are super swell. Maybe the sound can be just a smidge bright, but then, I often found myself listening at higher than normal levels, which I usually don't do with bright recordings. The sound is almost on par with the essentially perfect sound evident in Penelope Crawford's late LvB disc.

    So is the playing. Prior to this cycle, my only complete LvB cycle on period instruments was Ronald Brautigam's. I'll just get straight to the point here: Badura-Skoda not only bests Brautigam, he stomps the Dutchman's guts out. He does this by not being a one-trick pony like Brautigam – FAST! – but rather, to continue with an animal metaphor, by being a world class dressage horse. PBS plays everything the way I like it. Fast movements are fast. Slow movements are slow – but not too slow. There's tonal variation aplenty. Dynamics are subtly shaded, or not, depending on what the music calls for. The music flows, except when it shouldn't. It's aggressive where it should be, playful where it should be, deep and transcendent where it should be. PBS plays quiet when he should, and as loud as his instrument of choice will allow, or something close to it, when he should. This is one of those lovely sets where I can't really pinpoint this or that sonata as being really great and this or that sonata as being bad. Everything is uniformly excellent – or better. Think Friedrich Gulda's awesome Amadeo cycle, but on period instruments, and that's the kind of sustained excellence I'm talkin' 'bout. Okay, for those who need nitpicking, Op 28 is not as lyrical as it could be, but then, fortepianos don't generate the same tonal luxuriance that modern grands can, and maybe PBS pushes things a bit in Op 106, losing the last degree of precision and control, but that's something I can easily live with.

    About those instruments, they sound pretty damn good. All of them offer more color, more dynamic range, more everything than I'm used to from fortepianos. No, they do not match a modern Steinway, or Stuart & Sons, or Bechstein, but they more than do the job. Perhaps one downside is their mechanical noise, exaggerated perhaps by the obviously very close miking, but here, if anything, it adds a little pizazz to the proceedings.

    So, Paul Badura-Skoda's HIP cycle offers not just great HIP Beethoven, but great Beethoven, period. I like everything about it. Even if it does not join the ultra-elite (ie, my Top Ten), it does join the elite, nesting with the likes of Francois Frederic Guy, Claude Frank, and Claudio Arrau. August company, to be sure. Perhaps a shoot-out or two is needed, to see where PBS will land. A solid top ten finish is most certainly not out of the question.

    My only complaint about the cycle is the extraneous noise, particularly some occasional low-frequency noise. Some of it is clearly the pedal mechanism of the instruments, but some of the other noise seems more distant and unrelated to the instruments – I assume something like a truck or train or HVAC is going in the background. It detracts but slightly.

    For me, the cycle is worth the steep price, and then some. This is why I continue to collect cycles.

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

  13. #88
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    How good is Wilhelm Kempff? I mean, really, how good is he? At his best, he matches anyone and surpasses most. In some ways this ought not to be. Kempff was not a dazzling virtuoso. In some live recordings, there are slips and memory lapses that should derail the performances – yet, in many cases, that does not happen. Even in some studio recordings, Kempff comes across as not especially secure technically. Take his Liszt concertos. His playing is light and comparatively quiet and definitely lacking in dynamics, and there isn't even a hint of diabolical intensity or fiery impetuosity, yet the recordings work in there own way. Even the rare studio efforts that just aren't very good – his Chopin, which is too stiff, slow, and sometimes almost heavy – still have some strong points (eg, his ravishing Andante spianato), and his take on the Goldberg Variations, derailed for me by a lack of ornamentation, still boasts some of the most beautiful Bach playing around. (I really wish Kempff would have recorded a full WTC.) How did he do it?

    When contemplating Kempff and his artistry, the CBS interview with Bruno Walter, previously packaged with the stereo Mahler 9th, comes to mind. In it, Walter opined on one difference between Bruckner and Mahler was that whereas Mahler was searching for God, Bruckner had found God. While I wouldn't go so far as to state that Kempff found God, though he certainly may have, it seems to me that in a more practical sense, Kempff, by the time of his great post-war recordings, had arrived at a place artistically where he was comfortable and secure and played music, all music, with a sureness and profundity that can only really be achieved when an artist reaches such a place. Not being an artist, I could be way off, but it sure sounds that way to me. His generally beautiful tone; his mastery of quiet playing, finding numerous fine gradations between pianissimo and piano; his depth, poetry, and, where called for, serenity, all combine into something special for me.

    And never more so than in the core Germanic repertoire. His Schubert just sort of floats above all comers, missing the intensity of some other great pianists, but achieving a transcendent beauty and poise that no one, not even Andras Schiff, he of supreme artistic refinement, can quite match. His Brahms and Schumann, while not the stormiest, most romantic takes out there, display clarity, sureness, and a just right sound that always works for me. His Mozart is, in a word, delightful. His Beethoven, well, that's what Kempff is really about it, isn't it? Both of Kempff's studio sets of the sonata cycle land in my personal Top Ten, something not even Wilhelm Backhaus manages to do. Both cycles are sublime, with each and every sonata receiving its extraordinarily well thought out, poetic due. Whenever I listen to Kempff's Beethoven, I listen to greatness in both composition and interpretation. When I found out about a new cycle, recorded live in Tokyo in 1961, there really was no question whether I would get the cycle. It was just a timing thing.

    So I got it, and I listened. It's essentially what I expected, though sometimes more, and, alas, sometimes less. Kempff has always seemed equally at home in the early and the late sonatas, and the early sonatas here all sound dandy. The close, dry, bass-shy recordings reveal Kempff's style satisfactorily, and Kempff plays the works with spirit and energy, but also with more than a few slips. Sometimes he surprises: the last movement of 2/1 is more intense than I would have imagined, and 2/3 is more overtly showy than I anticipated. Sometimes he exactly meets expectations: Op 7 is a lyrical delight, and offered a well-timed, lovely antidote to the bruising new take by Maurizio Pollini. Op 10 is generally excellent, and 10/3 is especially good for the first three movements, with great piano and pianissimo playing, and the slow movement is effectively intense, but the last movement is just too sloppy and sort of ruins what came before. Opp 14/1 (especially) and 2 are also curiously sloppy for some reason, but they are still fun.

    When it came time to listen to the Pathetique, I asked myself 'why listen to one version when I can listen to four?' So that's what I did, in chronological order, starting with his 1936 recording. Not too surprisingly, the four versions all sound similar in style. Also not too surprisingly, the 1936 (not too much editing with 78s!) and the 1961 are similar in that they are a bit more impetuous, more vibrant, and more immediately alive than the standard studio recordings. Kempff does not storm the heavens in any version, but he delivers a light-ish yet effective approach, and I must say that the slightly cutting sound of the stereo recording helps here. In in this case, call it something of a draw between all the versions.

    Opp 22 and 26 are both nicely characterized, 27/2 is more or less like I expected it to be, as was 27/1, though there are perhaps too many slips, which detracts from the music.

    I've always rather fancied Kempff in Op 28, preferring his stereo recording to all others I've heard, so I decided to listen to all three versions. The DG mono set, while very good, lacks the same charm that the stereo recording brings to the fore more often. The phrasing is a bit clipped, and Kempff sounds less solid technically. The 1961 recording, while it has a few memory lapses, including a noticeable one near the end of the first movement, sounds more lively than the studio mono set and almost as charming as the stereo. The stereo recording maintains its top slot in this work, for the perfect balance of intensity, charm, and near effortlessness/effortless lyricism. Still, here the live recording is something I will gladly revisit, and is a highlight of the cycle.

    On to the ever important Op 31. Not too surprisingly, it is very good. There are more slips, but here they are generally not too bad, and one also gets to hear in 31/1 a prime example of how to recover from a memory lapse while making it seem that it was intentional. 31/2 is more poetic than stormy, and 31/3 lacks the last bit of wit, but all is better than well. The Op 49 ditties are quite nice, too.

    Op 53 surprised me. Kempff plays it faster than expected, commits few unforced errors, and really brings the piece to life. Superb! Op 57 is a bit less secure, but the opening movement, with its insistent repeated notes and thundering (for Kempff) climaxes, and effective merging of middle period storminess and late period transcendence in the last movement, bridged by a serene middle movement, is quite something. Both basically match his studio efforts.

    For Op 54, I went the four version route again. With the DG mono, the opening movement sounds lyrical, beautiful, flowing, with more vibrant sections controlled and strong but still pleasant – perhaps too much so? (Nah.) The second movement offers a charming and fun jaunt through the music. The 1961 recording opening movement alternates between intimate quiet passages and stormier vibrant sections, and the second movement sounds a little too loose, and not quite as charming. The DG stereo recording opening sounds similar to DG mono, but the brighter, harder sound detracts slightly from the lyricism. The second movement lacks a bit in charm and sounds a wee bit congested. The BBC Legends 1969 is again quite similar to the DG mono, with gorgeous slow sections and strong fast sections, though it's not as secure. The second movement sounds big and occasionally forceful, and regains a fair bit of the fun and charm of the studio version. DG mono wins, though.

    Opp 78, 79, 81a are all excellent, but sort of act as filler until arriving at one the best ever recordings of Op 90. The second movement, in particular, is a stream of beautiful music, transcending (rightly) Schubertian goodness and heading straight to Elysian Fields. Kempff was on.

    Op 101, like Opp 13 and 54 before it, got the four version treatment. The DG mono recording is clipped and sprightly in the first two movements, slightly tense yet ethereal in the slow movement, and downright joyous in the fugue – yes, a joyous fugue. Kempff displays nimble enough fingerwork and admirable clarity. It's perhaps a bit light, but it's transcendent. The 1961 performance is similar, though a bit less secure, but right with the first movement there is a greater sense of deeper depths being plumbed or higher heights being scaled. It is a perfect example of a live performance having that something special that many or most studio recordings do not offer. The DG stereo recording is very much like the DG mono recording, though lacking that last tiny bit of energy and fun, but not enough to make this a less than superb reading. The 1967 BBC Legends recording bests the other three, though, in a (near?) perfect reading. It is more technically secure than the 1961 performance, but retains the vitality and depth – and perhaps offers even more of both. It offers proof that Kempff, on a good night, could produce music as good as anyone ever could or will.

    The mighty Op 106 has some too noticeable slips, and is not gigantic in scale, but rather is more personal, and at times, especially in the slow movement, sounds more like the last three sonatas than normal. So, not a top choice, perhaps, but an individual take that I shall listen to again.

    To the last three sonatas. Op 109 is quick and virile in the first two movements, and positively sublime in the last movement. Here is late Beethoven in all its transcendent glory, with an imaginative pianist offering the highest degree of recreative art. It's much the same for Op 110, just less sublime. Op 111 is fast 'n' almost furious in the opener, but not very secure. The second movement opens with a magnificent Arietta and first two variations, but Kempff pushes things too far in the third variation, playing too sloppily and in too rushed a fashion. But then he goes and redeems himself with the rest of the work, glimpsing musical Elysium in the process. Yes, there are some boo-boos, but here they don't seem to matter at all. So, the last three sonatas are mixed, peaking very high with 109.

    These being concerts, one doesn't get just Beethoven sonatas – there are some tasty encores from Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Gluck/Brahms. All are delightful, the Bach especially.

    As good as the highlights are, though, I cannot say that this cycle matches the studio sets. There are just too many slips, too many moments when Kempff is musically at sea, if even for brief moments, for it to rate among my favorite cycles. The best recordings here – Opp 28, 53, 101, and especially 90 and 109 – can be compared to any recording by any pianist. The rest really cannot. I do enjoy this cycle, but it is not a great one, and it ends up in the vast middle group of available cycles. This does not in any way diminish Kempff's stature in my eyes. He is still one of the greatest Beethoven pianists. He's got two of the best cycles yet recorded to prove it.

    Packaging and presentation for the set is exemplary, and sound, as already mentioned, is close, dry, a bit bass shy, and definitely aged, though it never detracts in the least from enjoying the music.

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

  14. #89
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    Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal-51ilybfaspl-_sl500_aa300_-jpg

    Until a matter of only weeks ago, I'd never even seen the name Yaeko Yamane, let alone heard any of her recordings, but since she recorded a complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle, I knew I'd become familiar with some of her playing. I could dig up precious little information about Ms Yamane, but from her press bio, it seems she graduated from the Conservatoire National Superior de Music de Paris in 1953, after studying under Lazare Lévy before pursuing additional studies in various European locales. She then won a prize or two. She first performed the complete Beethoven sonata cycle in the 1970s, and has remained busy since. A quick perusal of Japanese CD huts shows that she has recorded her share of other standard rep, too. This Beethoven sonata cycle was recorded between 1993 and 1997 and was released on the ADAM label. It is of the super-complete variety, including the standard 32 sonatas, the Op 6 sonata for four hands – though I can't determine who the second pianist is – along with the WoO 47 and 51 sonatas and the WoO 50 and Anh 5-1 and 5-2 sonatinas. The sonatas proper are presented in order of composition, so Op 49 comes immediately after Op 2 on disc.

    That's all fine and dandy, but what about the playing? Well, I started with disc number one, which has the first three sonatas. Turns out she plays pretty well. Her playing in these early sonatas is clear, with nice independence of hands letting some little details shine through. Her rubato is tasteful, but it is willful, and this becomes more noticeable later on. Her tone is beautiful. Her pedaling perfumes the music, sometimes generously. She avoids clangy staccato. She does not play with a huge dynamic range, but she can belt out some notes when needed, as evidenced in 2/3. While capable of playing the music well, she does not seem to have the most perfect of techniques, a la Michael Korstick. Her playing displays an elegant, light touch that betrays a French influence. This results in a nice Op 2 trio. The first is vigorous, with an intense but not overdone closing movement. The second sonata is fun and light. The third is sprightly and tastefully virtuosic.

    Op 49 are lovely, charming, almost precious (in a good way), with, for some reason, the second movement of both possessing some miniscule hesitations that add even more charm yet. Ms Yamane possesses that lovely ability to play diminuendo as good as or better that crescendo. Op 7 is energetic to open, but also finds Yamane playing more willfully, and she uses the una corda pedal a whole lot when playing some usually loud left hand chords. The Largo is quite beautiful, perhaps too beautiful, and I must say the espressione doesn't seem that gran, while the third movement is fun and charming in the outer sections, but too muted and dynamically limited in the middle section. Much the same can be said of the closing movement. Yamane limits her dynamic range quite a bit. How much is playing, how much the piano, and how much the recording, I can't say. While not a world matcher, it is unique, and I will revisit it. 10/1 opens with swift arpeggio, and with a bit more dynamic range, though it doesn't thunder in the way of some other recordings. The second movement is light to the point of being delicate at times in the outer sections, but it glides along elegantly for the most part, and a few passages have a bit more intensity. The closing movement is generally on the quick side, but there are passages where Yamane seems less than secure, but then she'll play a succeeding passage that sounds even more complex more cleanly. I have to assume she recorded exactly what she wanted. 10/2 must bit a bit light and fun to be ideal or close to ideal, and Yamane does not disappoint here. The outer movements are a joy, and rhythmically snappy, and the inner a bit more serious without being serious.

    10/3 opens with a vibrant Presto, with some personal rubato thrown in, and moves into a nicely dramatic Largo, which here enjoys clean playing and a suitably wide dynamic range, and then moves into a rhythmically snappy Menuetto and Rondo, which have a few passages of an almost Russell Sherman or Eric Heidsieck level of rubato at times. Most satisfying, I must say. The closely miked Op 13 opens with some beefy chords, complete with nice sustains, before moving onto a nicely paced Allegro, complete with rumbly bass, and a nice, classical mien and not a little personal rubato and sforzando thrown in. The slow movement is a bit dark and cool, but it is punctured by some powerful playing in the middle, which is a bit out of left field, and the closing movement is similar to the opener in style and sounds just swell. 14/1 is generally light, charming, and attractive, with some curiously serious playing in the last movement. 14/2 is a charmer, with a fluid, lyrical Allegro, a delightful, swift Andante with notable clarity throughout and a fun march style in places, and a Scherzo that could wipe a frown off the face of even the gloomiest listener.

    Disc four opens with an Op 22 possessed of a sprightly tempo and rhythmic vitality that sounds just about right, and enough left hand heft to make the piece pleasantly beefy, and a nicely judged dynamic range. The Adagio sounds almost more like an Andante or even Allegretto, and remains surprisingly taut throughout, and Yamane’s lovely tone just helps things along. Much the same holds true with a swift and strong Menuetto. The concluding Rondo flows nicely and has a more relaxed feel in the outer sections than the preceding two movements. All told, this is an exceptionally fine Op 22, one of the best new recordings I've heard in a while, and, yes, it is better than Jean Efflam Bavouzet’s new recording. Op 26 opens with a set of beautifully contrasted variations, moves to a Scherzo of contained vibrance, then to a funeral march of not a little heft and solemnity, before ending with a slightly (and I mean slightly) slow (maybe even slow-ish) Allegro that nonetheless sounds just right. Op 27/1 is played in a dynamically contained (but not constrained) way, and has some clipped phrasing in parts, especially to start, and alternates between a joyful, youthful exuberance in the faster parts, and a more thoughtful, but not deeply burdened, reflectiveness in the slower paying. Yamane also appears to deploy the una corda pedal here and there for short term effect. Op 27/2, while nice enough to open, isn't as hazy as I prefer, though the second movement is nice, with the finale lacking enough force, and the bass notes, while hefty, lack attack most of the time, yet Yamane emphasizes some details in a unique way. While I can't say this is a favorite version of this work, it is an intriguing one.

    Disc five starts with Op 28, and Yamane plays swiftly, with a narrow but well judged dynamic range, an insistent but not too insistent dotted rhythm, and an overall just right feel in the opening movement. The second movement offers plenty of flexibility in phrasing while maintaining a steady tempo and just a bit of tension in the outer sections, and a playful middle section. The Scherzo and Rondo are both likewise just a bit tense, but both are tonally attractive and Yamane retains a snappy rhythmic sense throughout and offers hints of more intensity where needed. This is an outstanding rendition of the sonata. Now to the start of the ever important Op 31. Ms Yamane starts 31/1 in a playful enough manner, putting a bit more emphasis into bass notes here and there, and distending a few chords, all while maintaining nice forward drive. The comparatively quick Adagio is very much a grazioso sort, and Yamane's trills blur together a bit, though to nice effect, over pretty steady left hand playing, and she dashes off the middle section with great brio until the end, where she stiffens and slows the playing to good effect. The Rondo is taken at a nice, nay, a just about perfect tempo, and is good, charming, lightweight fun. 31/2 is a bit different. Yamane's tempo choices are pretty much conventional overall, but she generally plays it a bit light, and really rushes some chords and passages. It would sound edgy or jittery but for the lovely tone. It ends up sounding, well, anxious. That's quite alright, as it turns out. This occurs throughout the work. It makes for a good listen, at times a compelling one, but I could have done with either more intensity overall, or a more measured take. The only suitable thing to do, though, is to listen at least a few more times to determine how relatively good it is.

    Disc six opens with 31/3, and Yamane imparts personality everywhere. At times her playing is a creamy, blurred legato, sometimes slightly pointed staccato, with dynamics ranging from constrained to boisterous, for no good reason – though in this sonata, it's for very good reason – and some notes are accented out of the blue. There's a sense of prankishness, though it also sounds studied and seasoned. The Scherzo sounds somewhat stilted yet still manages to move forward effortlessly – I've not yet heard anything quite like it. The Menuetto is disarmingly lovely and restrained in the outer sections and gently fun in the middle. The Presto con fuoco glides along, with largely subdued, but clear, bass and more of Yamane's superb rhythmic sense. The Waldstein starts off in subdued fashion, with Yamane deploying idiosyncratic rubato in the melodies. The faster sections seemed more approximated than precise, though that also seems as though it's done for effect. About midway through, Yamane slows things way down, and plays gently and in a fussy manner. Why? Well, whatever the reason, it's strangely compelling. The slow movement again finds Yamane slowing down and playing gently for the most part, and it's quite effective, and the final concluding movement starts off slow and builds, with enough heft to satisfy where absolutely needed, but Yamane always finds places to play more gently than I'm accustomed to, but she also plays some chords in big, bold fashion. For some reason, when listening, the best association I could make was with painting – some fine strokes yielding fine details offset big bold strokes filling the canvas. Anyway, it's not necessarily a favorite, and I dare say many people may dislike it, but its unique traits make for some strangely compelling listening. The first movement of Op 54 ends up blending together more than normal since Yamane doesn't play the faster portion with much intensity, but it works well, and the faster, but dynamically constrained second movement has enough energy and drive even though it never sounds especially potent.

    Yamane's Op 57 opens more intensely than I expected, and it generally stays that way through the first movement, though she never seems to completely let loose, and her occasional fussing with tempi, however briefly, seems superfluous, and her phrasing borders on clunky at the end of the first movement. She does manage to keep an attractive tone at all times, though. The Andante is generally tense, with some accented bass notes and minor tempo changes, and is quite effective, and the final movement is suitably stormy, even with at least one noticeable edit and strong but not perfect technique. A satisfying version. Op 78 is a speed demon of a performance, moving from an Allegretto of an Adagio to a Presto of an Allegro, and then to a perky Allegro vivace. Op 79 is similar in style, with a vibrant opener, a slightly solemn and more than slightly lovely Andante, and a fun, vivacious Vivace. Op 81/a sounds attractive overall and is generally conventional, but it sounds somewhat contrived, with almost undue focus on some details, especially in the last movement, but then, it's also intriguing to here. Op 90 receives the highly interventionist treatment, I can't say that all of the idiosyncrasies work well here; both movements sound slightly disjointed.

    Disc eight starts in on the late sonatas, and in Op 101 the high frequencies sound somewhat dull throughout, and Yamane delivers a middle period sound world opening movement, with some odd accents and some minor tempo tinkering, and the march is somewhat too low key, without enough dynamic punch. The Adagio starts to show glimmers of the late LvB sound I prefer, and then Yamane starts to come alive in the Allegro, complete with a wider dynamic range and effective rubato and nice clarity. Overall, the concluding movement is quite good, but it can't make up for the less compelling earlier movements. The Hammerklavier, recorded with more reverb than the other sonatas up to this point, no doubt to add scale to the sound, and displaying a sharper tone than normal, is taken at a slightly fast but still conventional speed – no Korstick style opening here. Yamane does an excellent but not quite great job of presenting a big, bold conception. The second movement is quite nice and moves forward with a contained yet swift momentum. Yamane does not deliver huge dynamic contrasts, but somehow she makes it work. The great Adagio is taken at a not too slow pace and remains tense throughout, and at times the playing assumes a feeling of subdued anguish. The final movement starts off off with a somewhat swift and quite perfunctory Largo then moves into a fugue of greater energy and clarity and control than I was expecting, and Yamane keeps indulgences at bay most of the time. It's really quite good. So, in both of these sonatas, Yamane seems to save her best playing for the concluding movements, and as such both rate as interesting, 106 more than that, but neither are world beaters.
    For Op 109, Yamane opens very slowly but quickly moves into very swift, somewhat dynamically limited playing, and then to a nicely paced and nicely dynamic Prestissimo. She then plays the closing movement in a slightly too rushed fashion. Her playing is certainly cantabile, but it seems forced and she seems at the very limit of her technique in the fastest sections. 110 fares better. Swift again, and also lovely again, she doesn't push things so much in the opening movements. The final movement has a nice sense of urgency imparted by the tempo choice, the fugue is clear and strong, though with a couple passages where Yamane seems to drift, and her tone becomes harder. The repeated chords ascend in volume nicely, ending in a satisfying, hefty climax, and the inverted fugue displays all the positive traits of the original fugue, with none of the shortcomings. Yamane startles somewhat in Op 111, opening with thundering, slightly metallic sounding chords, before lowering the volume a bit. Her tempo choice in the Maestoso is brisk, and it stays brisk in the Allegro, and she plays the bass parts with satisfying heft. Yamane doesn't even really slow down for the Arietta, though for the first time in the last three works she plays with some late LvB transcendence. The variations all show a bit of nervous energy – more than a bit much of the time – and the boogie woogie variation is very tense, with emphasis on the beginnings of phrases. Yamane plays the quietest, most subdued, indeed weakest trills I can recall hearing, and the ending of the sonata is almost blunt. No glimpses of Elysian fields here. It is unique to be sure, and Yamane does not end the sonatas proper on a comparative high note.

    The final disc is given over to the WoO sonatas and other odds and ends, and it is all very well played, and largely devoid of excess mannerisms. It makes me think that her Mozart would be superb.
    As to comparative assessments, well, last year I picked up Ichiro Nodaira's excellent, straight-forward cycle, and I made sure to do a couple direct comparisons between the two, and while stylistically quite different, they are close to equal qualitatively, though I'd give the edge to Nodaira. Among the Japanese cycles I've heard, then, that puts Yamane in the middle of the pack, not quite rivaling Sonoda or Kikuchi, and roughly on par with Nodaira and Sako, and better than Nakamichi and Yokoyama. Ms Yamane also invites comparisons to women pianists, and in that regard, she fares relatively better among the seven complete cycles I've heard from women. Only Annie Fischer is better, and quite a bit at that.

    As to an overall assessment, something interesting about this set is that even when Yamane plays in a way I'm not overly fond of, I couldn't help but listen very closely to every little detail. I always listen closely to Beethoven's sonatas, especially the first few times I hear a new recording, but this set made me want to listen more intently than normal. Why did Yamane make the choices she did? Why did she play this way or that? And why is the result so often so good? There is no doubt in my mind that some people would find her playing too prissy, too fussy, and too willful. I can even imagine some people disliking her playing for often being too feminine, heavy as it is on elegance and charm and finesse and beauty. (If my characterization of feminine attributes and playing offends some readers, so be it.) Were I to compare Yamane to one pianist, I'd say she is closest in style, or perhaps more accurately spirit, to Eric Heidsieck, but less idiosyncratic, less perfectly polished, less dynamic, and less compelling, but still, she's got something unique to say and overall I like it. But even that comparison is not apt, because in some ways she seems to meld together some traits of Eric Heidsieck and Wilhelm Kempff, with a dash of Andrea Lucchesini thrown in when it comes to her beautiful tone. Ultimately, she does not rival those pianists, and in some works, especially the late works, she charts a course not quite like anyone else, but she is always interesting to listen to even when she is overshadowed by many others.

    Sound is very good to excellent, and generally quite close and dry.

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

  15. #90
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    Since you're recapping cycles that haven't previously appeared in this thread, could you please do Claude Frank?

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