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Thread: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

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

    Since April, I’ve been devouring Beethoven piano sonata cycles. I’m working my way through my eleventh new cycle right now, but I figured I’d go back over prior reviews and post them here, in order, over the next couple weeks or so. Here goes:


    Friedrich Gulda, Amadeo cycle (1968)

    What would happen if you could combine, in one pianist, the best traits of some of the best pianists? Say you could combine the passion of Annie Fischer, the mercurial wit of Artur Schnabel, the serious-mindedness and technical acumen of Maurizio Pollini, and even a degree, however small, of the tonal grace of Wilhelm Kempff. You’d end up with Friedrich Gulda! Okay, I exaggerate, but only a bit. While it’s not possible to combine all of those elements to an ideal degree – hence the impossibility of any one pianist being able to play this New Testament of the keyboard perfectly – it is possible to experience a pianist who encompasses them to a certain degree. Friedrich Gulda does that to an extent.

    Since receiving the complete piano sonata and concerto cycle yesterday, I’ve already managed to listen to the first seven sonatas and the Emperor. I’ll save my thoughts on the concertos for later, and will instead focus for now on the early sonatas. Gulda is almost uniformly superb across the board. Almost. I’ll just start with the Op 2 sonatas. These are winners! Unlike a number of other pianists, including even the great Wilhelm Kempff, Gulda takes all of the works at a refreshingly brisk clip. Some may find his tempi a bit too fast at times, with Allegro sections veering closer to Presto relatively often. But that’s a good thing. The first sonata is delectably delivered: Gulda’s articulation is truly remarkable, each note so utterly clear and perfectly executed, and the textures so clear, that one revels in all of the puckish humor while never once losing sight that this is Beethoven. (See, Schnabel meets Pollini. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.) The closing movement is very swift and quite passionate, at least compared to some accounts. Sure, Annie bests him in this department, but the lighter sound benefits Mr Gulda. The second and third sonatas leave the indelible impression of a pianist moving from strength to strength. Perhaps one may want to hear more of the influences of Haydn and Mozart – though those influences can be heard – and perhaps the unrelentingly determined passion of Ms Fischer still makes her impossible to top in my book, but Mr Gulda now assumes a place of pride in my collection of the first three works.

    The Op 7 is not quite as successful. The watchword here is speed. The next watchword? Swiftness. Gulda brings the whole thing in at just over 25 minutes, and at times the excessive reliance on speed detracts from the piece. The opening movement, for instance, more or less completely lacks a nice, flowing feel. There’s no early, quasi-Pastorale (as in Op 28) feel. For those who like jaunty, punchy playing, this recording is a feast, though. The second movement, though labeled Largo never really lingers or hangs on an idea in the fashion I like. It’s swifter, emphasizing that clear articulation. Gulda’s tone, which varied rather nicely, if within a limited range, in the first works, here is relegated to either a coarser, more percussive and sharp staccato with little in the way of pedal enhanced flavor or to an unusually dainty and quiet, feathery sound. Take those delicious little three note arpeggios about mid-way through; things go from near-hammering to too soft. “Where’s them notes?” I wondered. Anyway, as the final two movements are played, the unyielding swiftness remains. Clearly this isn’t for me? Well, I noticed something. As well as I know this piece, I was listening unusually intently – more so than when I last listened to it just over a month ago, in John O’Conor’s extraordinary rendition – and I noticed my toes, they were a-tappin! This is thought provoking pianism, even if it’s not perfect.

    My final works for now are the Op 10 sonatas. ‘Tis back to form! Like Claude Frank, Gulda launches the first sonata very quickly and succeeds marvelously. He’s not straining, and his rock-steady rhythmic prowess ensures that the right hand can crank out the melodies while the left hand keeps everything on solid ground, as it were. Perhaps his experience playing jazz helped here, who knows? One thing is certain: that rhythmic prowess is there in each of the first seven works. Anyhoo, back to the sonatas. After the rapid-fire open, it’s on to an equally successful second and then third movement. The finale is a joy. So, too, is the entire second sonata, including that almost incomprehensibly delightful Presto finale. Here Gulda doesn’t ever push the speed barrier; it is never in danger of veering into prestissimo territory. It’s more of the same for the final sonata, and here Friedrich is right on target in every way. Indeed, as a set, this emerges as the only uniformly credible rival to Claude Frank’s take on this batch. A welcome addition to my collection, indeed!

    I shall post my reaction to more sonatas from time to time as I work my way through the cycle. (I don’t think it will take very long.) For the boring physical attributes: the piano sound is close, immediate, and dry, with a bit of break-up in some very loud passages (though blessedly few so far), and dynamic range, while quite good, is not as good as can be had. That written, it does hang between and behind the speakers well enough. Amadeo did a good job. Decca did an even better job by repackaging it as a budget box five years ago. I can’t wait to hear more!


    --


    Another couple days, another seven sonatas. And this time Gulda goes from strength to strength. Going in sequence – how else to optimally enjoy LvB’s sonatas? – I started with the Pathetitique, and what a treat! While Gulda established his ability to play quickly from the start, and while he certainly does that here, it’s not his only trick. The work opens in dramatic fashion, with nice pauses between the chords, and then Gulda goes onto play nice ‘n’ quick. He never just lets loose, though, keeping everything under control but always passionate – or at least just this side of passionate. It is an excellent reading that compares favorably to anyone’s.

    The two Op 14 sonatas both fare well, but Gulda’s tendency toward seriousness prevents them from assuming that charming aspect that Gieseking brings. No matter: fleet fingerwork and ultra-clear textures combined with Gulda’s remarkable rhythm makes ‘em enjoyable. My toes were tappin’ again.

    Op 22 hits like a ton a bricks. Here, Gulda is all speed and drive, all constantly supported by his remarkable sense of rhythm – did I mention Gulda’s rhythmic abilities? – and all of the most complicated passages are dashed of with ease and brio and damned if I didn’t detect just a hint of nonchalance in the air. This is without question one of the best versions I’ve heard of this work, probably superceded only by Jean-Bernard Pommier. It kicks ass!

    So does the Op 26. Gulda starts out quickly, but then he changes moods at just the right time, his percussive, borderline-sharp tone doing wonders for the piece. The funeral march comes off splendidly, but in an appropriately macabre sort of way, and it is decidedly Beethovenian. That is, it fits within the sound world of the Bonn born master. Claude Frank’s tale, which may still be my favorite (I’ll have to listen soon to know for sure) includes some inspiration from Chopin’s great funeral march, but boy, oh boy am I glad to have Gulda in my collection!

    Ditto the first of the two Quasi una fantasia sonatas. I admit to preferring the first, and dammit, I hate to sound like a broken record, but Gulda again goes straight to the very top! Quick, jaunty, heavy and light as needed, always flowing forward, with some punchy playing here and flowing playing there, here’s another case where I listened so intently I blocked out everything else, including the beginning of dinner. And I like dinner. I’m hard pressed to really think of a version I like a whole lot better. Maybe a detail or two, but probably not the whole thing.

    The Mondschein fares very well, too. This probably over-recorded work starts of slow ‘n’ somber, with a dash of moodiness thrown in, transitions to a perfectly paced and sprung second movement before the rapid-fire concluding movement reveals all it can reveal.

    Yes, this is turning out to be one fine cycle, if one for those who like their German music suitably German. Seriousness and meticulousness are increasingly becoming the hallmark traits of this pianist. And did I mention Gulda’s got rhythm? My opening from my last post still stands – he does combine a number of traits – but he’s quite a serious guy overall. God, I need to hear more!



    --


    Another day, another six sonatas. (Well, I guess you can count the two itty bitty ditties grouped in Op 49 as sonatinas, but you get the idea.) My opinion of the esteemed Mr Gulda grows with each day. Today I celebrated the end of another dismal, unrewarding workweek – er, um, I mean five glorious days of unique challenges and growth opportunities – by listening to some “core” Beethoven. The Op 28 and 31 sonatas form one of the primary groups of work I use to assess a pianist in this repertoire. If a pianist blows it here, they just ain’t a great Beethoven pianist. Period. Mr Gulda has the makings of a truly great Beethoven pianist.

    I approached the Op 28 with a bit of weariness. Gulda’s approach to the (somewhat) similar Op 7, while good and thought-provoking, just wouldn’t cut the mustard here. Apparently he thought the same thing! While still on the quick side, his sound is more flowing and relaxed and suitably pastoral in nature. Each movement is perfectly sculpted, and I swear that each note can be clearly heard and was completely thought through before the red light went on in the booth. It’s just plain fun to listen to.

    More substantive yet are the trio of Op 31 sonatas. Again, speed is the name of the game, sometimes dramatically so. (Should any movement labeled Largo sound so Presto and still be so good?) The first work is staggering. Nimble, dodging, alert – Gulda unloads not only his usual speed, seriousness, and rhythmic perfection, but also a suitable amount of drama, humor, and punchiness. Claude Frank has a new challenger. I think it’s time for a shoot-out!

    Better yet is the Tempest. I do believe I have a new favorite. Wilhelm Backhaus has reigned for a while, his uncompromisingly German sound and approach fending off all comers, most notably Stephen Kovacevich, Walter Gieseking, and Mr Frank again, but along comes Mr Gulda to show me the light. Impossibly assured playing – his fingers dodging in and out of harm’s way as he battles with this piece – Mr Gulda brings out the, well, the tempestuous nature of this piece with its contrasting, moody movements. It’s got real drive and drama, and is so serious that it almost makes one want to read Sartre. Almost. I cannot praise it highly enough.

    Not quite as successful – that is, merely exceptional when compared to any recording by anyone – is the last of the trio. I’d say Gulda makes the piece dance, makes it swing, but it’s too fast and propulsive for that. Yes, speed dominates, but it works! Really, really, really, really, really well. Really. I know in my mind I shouldn’t like it – he brushes over some things to quickly – but that scherzo, that conclusion; forget my mind, I’m following my tappin’ toes.

    The little Op 49 works come off about as well as can be expected, the first one with a surprising gravitas. I always love revisiting the second one to hear the a la carte theme from the Septet, and Mr Gulda does not disappoint. This is shaping up to be a major cycle. Perhaps I’ll listen to more tomorrow.


    --


    Another seven down, with a couple doubled up. I started up with the Waldstein, of course, and what Waldstein it is! Gulda’s hallmark traits are everywhere evident, and if ever one of Beethoven’s sonatas benefits from rapid play with little in the way of overt romanticism, it is surely this one. Gulda opens the work with a nearly breathtakingly quick opening movement, and once again his remarkably clear articulation and rhythmic sureness pay enormous dividends. A quick second movement followed by a quick final movement, albeit one with heaving and swelling playing, really fills the bill. This goes straight to the top, sharing honors with Rudolfs Firkusny and Serkin, John O’Conor (notable for making a more romanticized version work), and of course Pollini’s live account.

    Next up finds the Op 54 sonata, and what turns out to be a mini-slump in the cycle. Keep in mind that when I say ‘slump’ I mean merely very good to excellent, not staggeringly great. I can’t really pinpoint what it is about this work that doesn’t quite work. All of Gulda’s traits are there, and one would think they would be enough, but even with every element in place and each admirable by itself, it just doesn’t click, or at least optimally click. It’s still very enjoyable, but when one considers Annie Fischer’s crushing intensity, Sviatoslav Richter’s fleet and passionate account, or Wilhelm Kempff’s poetic and contemplative approach, Gulda just seems to fall short. So he doesn’t bat a thousand. That’s okay.

    The Op 57 is relatively less impressive still, and I had two to choose from. The Amadeo recording is the relatively more successful of the two. His omnipresent speed, flawless staccato and generally urgent drive all work quite well, but he’s somewhat rigid in overall conception and doesn’t bring enough passion to the piece. In this work, obviously, that just will not do. Less successful is his 1973 Decca recording. Here, Gulda allows himself more breathing room, more flexibility, especially in the first movement, and he manages to extract substantially more passion. It’s just not quite enough. The second movement comes off quite well, and the final movement starts off promisingly enough, but he again lacks that last bit of power, and he cuts the third movement repeat. That does the interpretation in. Without it, the piece comes to an end much too quickly, and I sat there thinking to myself: “That’s it! That can’t be it! Crap!” The Decca sound is markedly different from the Amadeo sound: it is much richer, with far greater lower register weight, but the low frequencies overwhelm the middle and upper registers a few times, and the whole thing sounds oddly distant and veiled. Sounds like Gulda didn’t get Decca’s top engineers. I’ll take the closer, dryer, leaner sound of the Amadeo recording any day. So, Annie Fischer still overwhelmingly dominates this work, with only Richter able to muster a truly satisfying alternative. (And at least two of ‘em at that!)

    Next up are the two little sonatas, Op 78 and 79. (I always consider them together.) Gulda’s back in fine form here. The two versions of the Op 78 have so much in common as to make any distinction between them rather futile. Richly, strongly, and quickly dispatched, they both come off very well indeed. Same with the Op 79, though the mood here is suitably livened, and those delicious and hilarious out of tune notes are perfectly done. These recordings fare quite well when compared to anyone else’s.

    Both the Les Adieux and Op 90 sonatas come off quite well, but both also fail to reach the summit of interpretive greatness. Here’s where Gulda needs to start adding more tools to his formidable arsenal. While one can hear the emergence of a more contemplative, introspective, indeed philosophical sound, it’s not quite enough. Granted, neither one of these works aspire to the same things that the last five sonatas do, but I find that how an artist approaches one or both of these early late sonatas, if you will, tends to predict the relative success of the crowning achievements in Beethoven’s solo piano output. Of the two, I’d say the Op 90 fares better, which is certainly good news for the last five, as he opens strongly enough and doesn’t delve into quickness for the sake of quickness. This is serious business for Gulda, as it should be. (Can you imagine light-hearted late Beethoven?) So, they are excellent, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll no doubt spin them both again many times, but they ain’t the greatest. That written, I now feel as though I need them. After all, how else can one arrive at the truth in these works? Now it’s time for the late sonatas.


    --


    I had nothing to worry about. Op 81a and Op 90 both fared well, but represented a slight step down in quality from the best recordings in the set, but in the last five sonatas, Gulda returns to form. The Op 101 comes across as remarkably and powerfully compact, the powerful utterances of the final movement bold and controlled and probing. Gulda maintains his penchant for quick speeds – and he does through all five works – but he is so assured in his interpretation that nothing ever sounds rushed or out place. Things can sound choppy from time to time, I suppose, but only when they should. A slight though not entirely unexpected sigh of relief was forthcoming, followed by a deep breath.

    Which was needed for the Op 106. This is a work for the heaviest of heavyweights – Pollini, Serkin, Annie – and now I can add Gulda to the list. This is a staggering, stupefyingly great reading. Gulda comes flying out of the gate, but under absolute control. Sharp accents; strong, spiky staccato playing; a thundering, thrusting opening theme: it’s got it all. It’s an almost breathless experience for the listener, and invigorating. No ponderous, thick opening this! The second movement is dashed off with brio and dynamism to match anyone’s. Then the magnificent slow movement, here taken markedly faster than “normal,” engrosses one’s attention during each note, each phrase, each chord. It is desolate and haunting and moving and searching, all in the appropriate proportions, and all at the right times. The grand fugal conclusion is as breathtaking as the opening movement – perhaps more so. Gulda’s playing is beyond assured, achieving sublime mastery as he spins off each contrapuntal section with ease, brio, and, perhaps oddly, sternness. This is serious business, but he likes being serious. Overall, this is the second fastest version of this work I have heard at just a few seconds over 37’ – only Gieseking is faster, and nowhere near as successful – and it is everything I hoped for and more. A few hints of steel not only don’t hinder the recording, they actually enhance its stature.

    The final three works all inhabit a similar, wonderful world in this set. Again, Gulda plays briskly, but it never intrudes on the proceedings. All that contemplative, philosophical goodness contained in these three works is amply displayed. The 109 opens strongly, moves quickly through the compact middle section and unfurls magnificently through the concluding variations. Even with his tempi choices, when an air of slowness is appropriate, it is there, even though the notes go by the way they do. This is even more profoundly realized in the opening to the 110. Ethereal and marmoreal at the same time, it’s as though time stands still. The grand ending movement is as wondrous as that for 109, but also just a bit better. How, I don’t know. I cannot describe it. Throughout these works, Gulda’s tone is more varied and his touch more nuanced than in many of the earlier sonatas. One just sits in wonder.

    The concluding C minor sonata – possibly, possibly Beethoven’s greatest sonata – comes off remarkably well, if perhaps not as comparatively well as the preceding three works. He just tears into parts of the opening movement, belting out the dark, ominous sounding chords with ferocity and intensity perfectly fitting what is to come. And what is to come is a meticulously, swiftly played final movement, with a glorious Arietta followed by some variations dashed off with remarkable speed and others delivered with just the right degree of distanced contemplation. I enjoy this recording more than the Orfeo recital recording, and indeed it rates very highly overall, but the competition is stiff here. And rightly so.

    So, yet another Beethoven sonata cycle down, and a welcome one it is! So I guess I must ponder its relative worth as a whole, and invariably it must be compared to my other cycles. Ultimately, Annie Fischer remains my benchmark. Her serious, passionate, uncompromising readings just get me every time. But Gulda, with his serious, virtuosic, committed, and serious playing is not far behind. (There are hint of lighter things as noted.) Had I got my hands on this cycle seven or eight years ago, I may never have even bothered with Ms Fischer. (Okay, that’s unlikely; curiosity would have gotten the best of me.) Gulda certainly rates right up there with Kempff and Schnabel in my book. This is easily my favorite “new” recording(s) of the year.

    Bring on the Decca cycle!


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    I figured I should finish off the box by back-tracking to the first four concertos. In my review of the Emperor, I determined that while there are some fine things to listen to, the performance is not the best around. Pretty much the same can be said of the first four concertos. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all good – the B flat and C minor, especially – but better can be had. One problem plagues all of the recordings. The too distant for my taste recording is obvious rather reverberant, and Horst Stein’s conducting while capable, rarely elevates much beyond that. Gulda’s sound is cutting, steely, and a bit harsh from time to time. I assume this is due to some combination of the voicing of the specific piano used, the recording, and his playing style.

    The performances all display some of the same traits, too. They mostly sound a bit studied and unduly restrained, and Gulda keeps a tight rein on his tempi – in contrast to his sonata cycle. The C major is big-boned and injected with a bit of fun, but it’s a bit to ponderous at times, and never really excites. The Second Concerto fares better. Here Gulda lets loose a bit more, and Stein is in his best form of the cycle, with both artists bringing out the youthful, playful, but already titanic Ludwig van splendidly. This recording actually does fare well against most versions I’ve heard. The C minor, likewise, is quite successful. Appealingly dramatic and explosive, the tandem work very well together, and Gulda’s impressive seriousness of purpose is on effective display. A little bit of relaxation from this seriousness is displayed in the fine concluding movement. The G Major largely resembles the C major in overall feeling. The music is of course markedly different and presented as such, but the occasionally ponderous feel dilutes an otherwise fine performance. I’ll no doubt spin all of these recordings again, but other, more successful cycles are out there. At least his sonatas are of the highest order.

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Yukio Yokoyama

    When BRO first carried Yukio Yokoyama’s 12-CD set of Beethoven’s complete solo piano music, I passed. Never heard of the guy, I thought. Nor had anyone else. Why risk sixty whole dollars? Well, after finishing my first Friedrich Gulda Beethoven cycle and while my Yves Nat cycle was on order, BRO got the set back in for $24. $24! I saw no reason not to buy. I figured, worse case scenario, he’s no good, and I can trade this bad boy in for at least what I paid. Best case scenario, I find an undiscovered gem. So I went for it.

    Being the curious sort, I looked around the net – after I had already ordered – to see if I could find any comments on Mr Yokoyama’s artistry, with a keen interest in his Beethoven. English language information and reviews are few in number. About the only thing I could find was a positive and perplexed review of a Chopin recital that Sony let languish in the can for years. The reviewer pondered why Sony would let such a fine recording languish. That was a good sign. But I was still a bit wary. Chopin, great though his music undeniably is, is not Beethoven. Perhaps there is a reason why Sony let the young Japanese pianist record almost all of Beethoven’s piano output (he’s also laid down a piano concerto cycle!), Chopin, and Liszt (he has recorded the Transcendental Etudes, as well) without engaging in a global PR blitz; perhaps Mr Yokoyama is a Japanese artist for the Japanese market, displaying traits that only the Japanese might admire fully. I wholeheartedly reject such notions, mind you: fine artists are fine artists, period. A&R folks sometimes see things differently, though. Still, there was a chance, and a pretty good one, of Yokoyama being a provincial artist not really capable of holding my interest.

    That he most certainly is not. The young Yukio – he was born in 1971 – is a talented pianist who studied both in Japan and France, graduating from a conservatory in the land of cheese and whine, er, wine, at the age of 19. He studied with a number of French pianists (of course), including Vlado Perlemuter, so he should have learned something. He did. Like my favorite French pianist – Robert Casadesus – Yokoyama does not play in an overtly romantic way. He can and does let loose, but his overall approach is a more measured, more precise, more architectural approach than a heated, of-the-moment one. Generally, that’s what I like. (There are always exceptions, of course, like, oh, say, Annie Fischer.) He also has a fine technique, but he often chooses not to display it for the sake of displaying it. No, he deploys it in the service of the music.

    Anyhoo – it’s time for the Beethoven. These twelve discs of music were recorded in eighteen days over a nine month period in 1998 and 1999, so Yokoyama got to lay down his initial thoughts on the works while still very much a young man. That’s not a bad thing, and with Gulda’s Decca cycle soon to be mine, I figured it would be worthwhile to hear how another young man, a half-century removed, plays the same music. He plays it well. Well, at least in what I listened to today. Rather than present the works chronologically, the twelve discs comprise all-Beethoven recitals, much as Claude Frank’s cycle does, so that meant that I needed to disc hop to obtain my objective. The set opens with Op 2/1. (It ends with Op 111, thus mirroring Mr Frank’s layout to a degree.) What a fine opener! Yokoyama is measured and restrained and presents everything lucidly, cleanly, and with just the right degree of tension, proper tempi, and enthusiasm. To an extent, this feels like a by-the-book recording: everything is obviously thought out and well-planned and, if perhaps not as spontaneous as some, it is still completely satisfying. He may lack Annie’s passion, and Gulda’s pointed, groovy style, but Yokoyama offers a peachy opener. “If only the next two are like this,” I though to myself, “I’ll be a happy man.”

    They’re not. They’re better! The second sonata is infectiously buoyant and upbeat, Yokoyama relishing the alternating runs and delivering them with nary a note out of place. Each movement is joyously dispatched, but in a carefully crafted sort of way. While he’s a young man who very much enjoys this music (or at least that how it seems), he never lets his fingers get ahead of his mind or the music. All serves the greater good. Even better, the third sonata is just a joy. The opening is most certainly allegro con brio, and a few times Yokoyama gets to show what he can do as he lets some of the quicker, more virtuosic passages fly – though always under precise control – and he unloads some big-boned, big scale chords, too. The Adagio is slow, heavy-ish (but not ponderous), and, if perhaps lacking the probing depth that some older, more experienced pianists can bring to it, it nonetheless makes one contemplate the music, not the pianist. The scherzo and finale are both joyous and a joy to hear. So, the first three works are down, and a fine set they are. As a set, it does not match Fischer or Gulda, but it easily bests Nat, not to mention a number of others. It’s really superb. One thing of note is how unnotable much if it is. Yokoyama does not adopt especially fast tempi, nor does he favor slow ones. They’re just right. His dynamic range is wide but not amazingly so. His control is exemplary, not flashy. His tone is pretty straight-forward, favoring neither a lean, crisp sound, nor a rich sound, nor a heavy sound. It’s middle of the road, but blessedly so. In other words, Yokoyama is largely eccentricity-free.

    Moving along finds a remarkable Op 7. Of the three new versions I’ve heard over the last few weeks, this is the best. Yokoyama adopts a flowing, graceful overall approach, bringing out the quasi-Pastorale feeling that I like. He still accents a few notes and chords sharply, but it all blends together in a most wonderful way. All the movements are cut from the same cloth, Yokoyama choosing to emphasize their coherence and unity as opposed to accentuating the differences. While this sonata can sometimes seem a bit long – and Yokoyama brings his in at over 28’ – here, it’s all over before one knows it. When the last notes rang out, I was in minor disbelief. How? How could it be over so soon?

    The Op 10 works open with a slight decrease in quality. Sort of. Yokoyama opts for a not-too-fast opening, which is to say, a slow-ish and decidedly dramatic opening, an approach he applies to the opening of the third movement as well. In this sonata he allows himself more noticeable interpretive leeway, choosing to present this C minor works as a preview of the next C minor work. The outer movements can sound a bit heavier than ideal as a result, but the middle movement suffers not one bit. Indeed, I enjoyed how he’d hold on to a chord just a smidgeon longer than I’m used to, allowing the next melody to begin before finally releasing. A number of similarly nice touches can be heard throughout. It’s not bad – not at all – it’s just different from what I’m used to. The second sonata is more to my liking, Yokoyama taking a lighter, brighter approach. Something interesting happens, though: he opts not for quick speeds – some of the playing is deliberate, but in a decidedly positive way – but his, well, relaxed and joyful approach is irresistible. The final movement is most intriguing. It opens slowly, or at least slowly compared to some other versions, but each time the main theme is repeated, Yokoyama picks up the pace a little until he arrives at a nice pace and keeps it to the end. He chooses not to play the repeat, but it works. The final sonata is similar in overall approach, with especially and effectively buoyant and sunny outer movements flanking some more serious inner movements. The second movement is definitely played Largo and Yokoyama plays in a fashion that seems to portend that he will do very well in the late sonatas. The serious, slower tone carries over to the third movement, rendering it less than perfect, but it’s still enjoyable. As a set, Yokoyama does very well, though the slight inconsistency – good first, stellar second, near-stellar third – prevents me from placing him in the upper echelon. He’ll have to settle for merely superb.

    The first of the big name sonatas comes off reasonably well. First off, this is a young man’s take, emphasizing athleticism and quickness rather than depth and pathos. If you hanker for the latter, this will probably not satisfy. His opening chord shows that he means business – it’s strong and he holds it a while. His fingers handle most of the more challenging parts of the score rather well, and if he does suffer a notable memory lapse in the first movement, it is easily and quickly forgotten. The middle and closing movements both support and further his view on the work, and he ends very strongly. Okay, it’s not the best, but in the Op 13 the competition is incredibly stiff and comes from the greatest pianists, so there’s not much shame in a young man not rising to the top.

    I began the two Op 14 with high hopes, given Yokoyama’s take on the earlier works. The first sonata opened a little too slow for my liking, but that hardly precludes a given performance from being a good one. Yokoyama’s playing is alert, nuanced, and colorful throughout the first work, but it’s also just a bit cool and detached. It’s not that he doesn’t like the piece, or so it seems, it’s just that he doesn’t bring out the lightness I like. Even so, his clean, uncluttered, unaffected playing made it a pleasure to listen to. So I expected the second sonata to be similar. Instead, I heard a performance that knocked my socks off! Yokoyama is not quick. Not at all. He takes a measured, relaxed approach, and he plays just beautifully and with a splendid tone. But what really makes this sonata a success is his almost effortless, gliding feel. He knocks out the notes alright, but there’s a grace and subdued happiness throughout. It’s poofy, cloudy playing, though everything is clear. Nonsensical, perhaps, but that’s how it sounds. The second movement is as if from a dream. The finale is light, chipper, and clever. It’s all so wonderful that I never wanted it to end. But it does. No matter – this one’s getting played again as soon as I’m done with the whole cycle. (I may even be naughty and sneak a repeat in.) So, the Op 14 is a tale of two sonatas: one very good; one great.

    Some readers may have noticed that I said Mr Yokoyama suffers a memory lapse in the Pathetique. That’s because, despite no mention in the pitifully scant liner notes, the performance sounds as though it were recorded live. Many of them do. I’d almost be willing to bet that the whole set is. How else to accommodate so much music into eighteen working days? There are some tell-tale signs: some coughing here and there, as well as some other extraneous noises. No applause ever intrudes, but careful editing and obedient audiences can account for that. The sound on all of the recordings thus far is a tad on the bright side, and lower-register weight is a bit lacking. Everything is mostly clear, a few passages where sound becomes a bit congested notwithstanding. (Such passages seem to point to live recordings, too; surely no Sony engineer would allow this to pass in the studio.) The piano used (I’m betting a Yamaha) is not ideally voiced, producing muted color and a bit of clang from time to time. I don’t think it’s Yokoyama – the sound occurs at seemingly random times, and not always during the loudest passages. Minor misgivings aside, this cycle has started out in a most promising way. And this time I have all those tasty variations and bagatelles to look forward to too. Perhaps I’ll listen to some more tomorrow, who knows?


    --


    Moving on to the Op 22 finds a return to the style Yokoyama displayed in the first sonata. His approach, at least for the first three movements, strikes me as an almost textbook approach: adhere to the score; don’t engage in any wild gestures; don’t indulge any personal desires. If that reads as a damning comment, it’s not. Yokoyama keeps everything under control, not indulging in virtuoso showiness and not allowing any one element to dominate another. Where the piece should be jolly and swift, it is. Where it should be slower and more contemplative, it is. In the fourth movement, Yokoyama does add a dash of individuality. He makes the piece sound stormier than I would have thought, giving us a little taste of sturm und drang. If ultimately this is not a top contender, the straight-forward style still allowed me to revel in Beethoven’s writing.

    Op 26 fares better. Here, Yokoyama is more individual from the start. He plays the variations of the first movement with enough distinction to make the listener want to hear what he’ll do next. The scherzo is dispatched with taste and drive in perfect proportion, bridging nicely to the funeral march. Yokoyama’s funeral march is superb. It’s funereal in feel, but he never resort to extending or distending anything, and he refrains from exaggerated dynamics in making his points. The finale is played quickly and stylishly, with Yokoyama playing a bit more with phrasing and using a discreet rubato that blends in well enough. Again, this doesn’t rise to the top of the heap, but it is sufficiently good – hell, it’s better than merely good – to insure it will be played again. Perhaps in a comparative review? Who knows.

    The two Sonatas quasi una fantasia represent perhaps the weakest performances of the set thus far, though at least one offers a glimpse of something that may prove to be special. That occurs in the first of the two sonatas. Yokoyama takes a basically slow approach where even the opening and closing portions are on the slow-ish side, though with moments of swiftness. The core of the interpretation lies in the slow middle portion. While the second movement is labeled Allegro molto e vivace, Yokoyama plays it Allegreto at best. Artful use of the sustain pedal combined with strongly sounded notes create a wonderfully dreamy atmosphere, and if it is all on the noticeably individual side, it is nonetheless effective. The transition to the Adagio con espressione is flawless, and the atmosphere and mood are maintained. When the more rapid closing portion of the work arrives, it seems a bit out of place. Yokoyama has much to offer, but I feel that his interpretation is a work in progess. His approach doesn’t quite jell yet (or didn’t when he recorded it), but perhaps it will in the future. If so, I hope to hear it. The Mondschein comes off as run of the mill. The opening is solemn enough, the second movement (relatively) buoyant enough, and the third movement quick and alert enough, though a brittle and metallic sound appears in the louder passages. Time to move on . . .

    . . . to a superb Pastorale. I had a sneaking suspicion that Yokoyama would do well here given his outstanding Op 7, and he does not disappoint. The whole thing has a nicely laid-back feel, though it never threatens to slide into lax boredom. Yokoyama’s fingerwork is clean and articulate, and judicious use of the pedals and immaculately timing allows one to savor each lovely melody. The young pianist’s sense of rhythm, while perhaps not as accomplished (and, frankly, stunning) as Gulda’s, lets the whole thing just cruise along while never becoming the dominant trait. In the third movement, Yokoyama favors some more pointed playing, but he never forgoes a nicely, well, pastoral feeling, and allows a nicely reined in display of what he can do. And what he can do is shown off best in the final movement. His utterly tasteful use of rubato allows him to start off with a few slow notes just to have them segue flawlessly to more rapid, though never too fast key tinkling. The very end is played with just the right dash of impressive virtuosity, and the whole thing comes to a nicely eventful conclusion. Really, this is a peach of a recording, and one of the strongest of the cycle thus far.

    So far Yokoyama’s cycle displays a bit of variability. Since every other cycle does, too, that’s probably a good sign. He tries some unique things and has some original ideas, and if they don’t all work equally as well, that just means there’s room for improvement.


    --


    The Op 31 sonatas started in a most promising fashion. Yokoyama takes the opening movement swiftly, with delectably light fingerwork. Everything is generally clear and upbeat and just plain fun to listen to. A few times he contrasts some passages with simplistic dynamic variation - everything is really quiet and then really loud - but that minor misgiving aside, he does a fine job in the opener. The second movement finds the young pianist putting his stamp on the work. He opens with a lovely trill, and he implements a tasteful and noticeable rubato, with subtle yet marked tempo changes altering the meaning of some passages, and his use of some personal pauses and hesitations just adds to the overall appeal. During a few passages, his left hand plays a waltz like rhythm (as in inspired by Chopin's waltzes) to support the right hand's melodies. While successful on its own terms, some may be less happy with it. The final movement is poised and meticulous, and loaded with charm. Yokoyama plays extremely well, and ends in dazzling fashion. This is definitely on the light side, interpretively, and some may want something heavier, but it's quite good on its own terms.

    Decidedly less successful is the Tempest. Here Yokoyama's youthful and apparently not fully worked out ideas don't work. He opens the piece tentatively, and not until around 45" in is there any substance, which isn't necessarily bad, but what follows certainly is not that good. As in the first of the bunch, Yokoyama opts to use stark dynamic contrasts to make his point, here taking things down to a mere whisper at one extreme and up to a hard fortissimo at the other. To accentuate the pianissimo playing, he slows way down at times, almost and perhaps on occasion losing the musical line to short-term effect. It just doesn't work. The finale is better and more standard in conception, with dramatic playing, and Yokoyama does play with some urgency, but here, too, he seems to be trying a bit too hard. At least he tries something individual, I guess.

    The third sonata lies midway between the first two, qualitatively speaking. The opening of the piece is a decidedly low-voltage affair, and at about 1'20" in Yokoyama seems a bit out of sorts, though he recovers nicely enough after that, infusing some joy and humor into the proceedings, punctuated by some hearty low notes. The second movement is jauntier and generally more successful. Here Yokoyama's individuality pays off a bit more. The third movement comes off as light and graceful, and the finale is both forceful and playful, as well as extremely well done. But taken as a set, this most crucial batch of sonatas cannot be rated a complete success. The second is not good, and only the first really stands up to the competition. This more or less precludes Yokoyama's cycle from being a great one to my ears, but the fine music making that came before surely must show up again, redeeming the cycle. Right?

    The two little Op 49 sonatas do come off well, both being played with the right blend of beauty, charm, with, and seriousness, and the second movement of the second sonata does evoke the glory of the Septet. But these are merely stopovers until the bigger works arrive.

    When the first of those bigger works arrives, it seems a harbinger of, if not doom, then at least slight disappointment. Again, some of Yokoyama's ideas do not sound fully worked out. The work opens in a measured way, definitely avoiding the quickness of some, while never slipping into sluggishness. It seems a bit contrived, though. During the first slower passages, Yokoyama's playing takes on a ruminative feel, but again, it's somewhat contrived. As he works his way through the piece, Yokoyama displays an ability to alternate tempi fluidly and with panache, but sometimes his transitions aren't musically successful. The second and third movements are presented as one track in this recording. The opening Adagio section is played very slowly - to the point where the work almost doesn't flow. While Yokoyama lavishes attention on each note and chord, it sounds a bit contrived. Again. The Rondo portion opens quite tenderly, and then swells into broad, powerful playing, although the price is paid when one hears a bit of steel. At about 7' in, Yokoyama lets loose with a display of virtuosic pianism that, while impressive in itself, doesn't completely further the work. So, all told, this is another mixed bag. My hopes for the set started to wane.

    Fortunately, the next five sonatas assuaged my concern. The Op 54 sonata comes across as a deft mix of slightly quick and decidedly lyrical playing. Yokoyama doesn't hammer home any points, and he doesn't rush; he lets everything unfold in a most pleasing manner. His tasteful rubato and nimble fingerwork add to the allure. No, this is not the best around, but I can easily envision myself listening to it many times.

    As for the Appassionata, well, Yokoyama very much plays a young man's version. I suppose that shouldn't be too surprising. His sound is big, bold, and definitely passionate, but in a slightly restrained way. He doesn't want to let it all hang out. He wants to and does revel in the showier parts of the music, and to his credit he never goes overboard. The fast passages can at times be excitingly fast. He'll attack a crescendo with satisfying intensity, though he never sounds out of control. (Perhaps
    a bit more fury would be nice at times.) Yes, it's a good opener. The second movement acts as a nice bridge, with Yokoyama's playing taking on a slightly plaintive tone, and it possesses an anticipatory air about it. That's because he's anticipating the close. Yokoyama tales it fast and revels in some of the showy parts. Energy and intensity abound, but this remains a young man's conception, without the depth of better performances. That written, I'll take it!

    Both the Op 78 and Op 79 sonatas come off very well. Yokoyama treats them as substantive, meaty pieces, not just brief little stopovers. Common to both is a strong, insistent playing that makes them sound close to the surrounding works. The 79 benefits from tightly played movements that really make it sound all encompassing despite the brevity.

    The Les Adieux concludes the winning streak, and ends another session on a high note. Yokoyama opens the work in a strikingly disconsolate way, but then erupts into more accessible playing as appropriate. This is quite the goodbye. The second movement broods and is haunted by a pervasive melancholy. Pianist and composer both seem to be looking back, weighing what has happened, and what is to come. When the return arrives, it is with a veritable outburst of joy. Everything sounds exultant, but never tips over into sentimental gushing. Some of Yokoyama's playing can sound a bit more mannered than ideal, but it really hinders nothing. This is a fine recording.

    So, another big batch down, and it has become clear that Yokoyama is variable. At his best, he is remarkable. At his worst, while he's never bad, he's still got some things to work through before his performances seem complete and unified. The good definitely outweighs the bad, though. I wonder what the late works will bring.


    --


    Though the prior listening session ending strongly, I approached the Op 90 sonata with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. Yokoyama's shortcomings are obvious, and the late works can demolish a pianist, yet his handling of the five immediately preceding works seemed to bode well. Perhaps not surprisingly, the results are mixed. Yokoyama plays the piece well technically, and doesn't succumb to a false need to present the work as interminably profound, yet he is a bit too shallow. He opens strongly, with some striking chords to grab one's attention, and the he softens up a bit, with a nicely varying tone. But where's the metaphysical beef, as it were?
    Well, the closest approximation comes in the second movement. While the opener is well played but shallow, the second movement finds Yokoyama offering an extended essay in beauteous, almost ethereal playing, extending the movement perhaps a bit longer than ideal, but nonetheless providing one with a ravishing aural experience. I'd be lying if I said it offered the depth and insight of some other players, and a half-so-so, half-beautiful sonata is not my idea of a masterful reading. Still, I'm glad to have heard it.

    The 101 is likewise a mixed bag. Again, Yokoyama plays very well, but it is all too superficial. The first movement contains a soft but ultimately manufactured sadness at times, that while nice to listen to, is ultimately too bitterly saccharine to satisfy. The second movement finds the young protagonist somewhat at sea. He plays the notes, sure, but he sometimes seems to be doing no more than that. Sections seem disconnected, the flow is interrupted. The last two movements are merged into one track here, and it all blends together as a whole, I suppose, but even here, with some energetic, invigorating playing, all is too manufactured.

    Things just get worse with the Hammerklavier. Yokoyama was just not ready to play this work when he recorded it. The problems are evident from the start. He takes the opener at a pace he seems to handle with ease, yet his overall conception is shallow and small. About 9' in, he slips a bit, and then for a minute or so he seems adrift, unable to get back into the groove. The second movement doesn't really improve things. While no major faults mar his playing, he still doesn't play with 100% assurance and focus. The great Adagio continues on the same way. While generally desolate and cool - which is fine by me as an overall take - he still has some trouble holding the musical line, and all while offering little insight. He also plays the movement slowly, and while slowness can make this piece of music sound more profound, that's not the case here: at times it just sounds slow. At times, the whole thing takes on a quasi-episodic feel that really annoys more than enlightens. The finale offers the best playing in the work. After an appropriately poised open, it's off to the races, with Yokoyama flying across the keyboard. Unfortunately, the speed is not accompanied by notable contrapuntal clarity. So, let's just say that this isn't likely to be played a lot around these parts.

    After three disappointments in a row, I figured the last three sonatas were bound to be less than exemplary. While they are that, they are also far better than I had anticipated. The youngster redeems himself! The 109 opens gracefully, and the first cascade of notes is light 'n' feathery. Careful underscoring and tasteful rubato helps things along. The second movement is bold, assertive, and direct, offering a nice contrast to the opener. The final movement opens similarly to the first movement. Yokoyama's nicely graded tone and gently nuanced (some may even say precious) approach, complete with tasty little arpeggios, works rather nicely. The middle section crescendo is marvelously controlled and meticulously played. While I'd hardly characterize the interpretation as particularly deep, Yokoyama's thoughtful approach makes it very attractive, indeed.

    Ditto the 110. While it opens a tad quicker than seems the norm, and moves along perhaps too quickly overall, Yokoyama's playing is stylish, with his finely graded tone and seamless dynamic transitions make it a joy to listen to. His stabs at those ultimately indefinable traits that characterize late Beethoven - titanically meaningful chords, trills bursting with spiritual strength, etc - are commendable, but not quite up to the best. Again, he's a bit superficial. The second movement feels pretty much the same way. The third movement opens with a suppressed cry for understanding, followed by a familiar, fatalistic admission that it won't, it can't come, so fugue it! Which Mr Yokoyama gladly does. He dispatches what follows nicely enough, and the big chord buildup is well done, too: he starts quietly and gently rises to a loud but not blaring fortissimo loudness before proceeding on. Okay, the third movement is shallow, too, but I still rather fancy the recording.

    The 111 is perhaps the best performance of the late sonatas. Yokoyama opens the work firmly, displaying his strengths in superb fashion. Ominous rumbles precede the darkly hued hammering chords, and if he is not crystal clear throughout the opening movement, like, say, Gulda, he still offers more than enough to warrant paying very close attention. The second movement opening may be slightly overdone, purposely trying to play up the profundity, but any damage is negligible. To the end, the tempi are very well judged and Yokoyama opts for an eccentricity-free approach. Close attention is required to get the most out of this recording: each moment, each phrase, each idea is clear and loaded with meaning, but all can be viewed as a bit underplayed when compared to some other recordings. No, Yokoyama cannot match up to the greats - I'll leave it to you to pick 'em - but he does very well. As an added bonus, the sound for this recording is superb: clear, weighty, warm.

    Wrapping up the late sonatas means that I must try to figure out where he belongs along the qualitative spectrum. There's no doubt that he's just not up to the best out there. Annie Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff, Artur
    Schnabel, Friedrich Gulda: all offer far more than the youngster. I suppose I'd say this about on par with Jean-Bernard Pommier's set overall. While offering many good things, and some extraordinary things, his shortcomings are just too significant to say that he is a great Beethovenian. Of the three sets I've recently acquired, this is the least satisfying overall. Perhaps more important than what Yokoyama accomplishes is the promise he shows. He was only in his 20s, after all. Perhaps a decade or so from now he can revisit some or all of the works and lay down even better interpretations. I hope he gets to.

    Since Yokoyama recorded more than the sonatas, I guess I should cover those works, too. I'll keep it brief. Despite the labeling, this set does not include all of Beethoven’s solo piano music. Rather, it includes all of his solo piano music with opus numbers. So, there’s no Für Elise (schucks), nor some well known variations, and so on. But there is plenty other piano goodness on tap. Overall, Yokoyama does a fine job, and the earlier works fare relatively best. The Op 33 Bagatelles are very good, with the delightful Allegro ma non troppo played super-fast. (I’d love to hear Yukio play Chopin’s Third Ballade!) The Opp 119 and 126 sets of Bagatelles both come off quite nicely, as well. The Op 34 Variations are played reasonably quickly and strongly and make for a fine diversion, the Op 76 Variations are superb, and the Op 77 Fantasy, while okay, I guess, isn’t quite fantastic enough for me. (Rudolf Serkin rather handily outpaces the newcomer, but that’s to be expected.) The Eroica Variations are fine indeed. Each of the short variations holds one’s rapt attention, and the concluding fugue is superb, if perhaps a bit brittle sounding at times. The two Op 51 Rondos are superbly and beautifully played and deserve more air time, and the Op 89 Polonaise, while not of Chopin quality, is nonetheless good. The ever delightful Rage over a Lost Penny is played in pure virtuoso fashion and thrills in so far as it can. That leaves the Diabelli Variations. While I have few if any recordings of the other works, I’m more familiar with this work. Yokoyama suffers the same shortcomings here as in some of the late sonatas. At times, he seems as though at sea. He’s not inside the music and it shows. Some of his playing is technically dazzling, but he hasn’t much to say. For a modern recording with some insight, Piotr Anderszewski delivers the goods, and my standard bearer still remains Rudolf Serkin, and quite comfortably at that. (Must be the cricket accompaniment.) There are some fine things in all of these works though. Of course, it’s the sonatas that matter most, but a little extra something is nice.

    Overall, I'm glad I bought the set, and at the BRO price it should be considered by anyone interested in hearing a different slant on Beethoven. Hell, even at the Tower price it's worth it. But it ain't the best out there.

  3. #3
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Yves Nat

    About the same time that I preordered the Decca Original Masters set containing Friedrich Gulda’s first complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle, I also ordered Yves Nat’s complete cycle. I originally planned to do an A/B comparison of each cycle. But I’m impatient, particularly when it comes to new Beethoven recordings, so I promptly started listening to the Nat cycle since it arrived first. So I figured I might as well offer a few, brief observations.

    I would have been hard pressed to find a pianist who offers a more worthwhile contrast to Friedrich Gulda’s approach. Whereas Gulda is about speed, agility, and lean, non-vulgar virtuosity leading to Beethovenian truths, Nat is all about a richer sonorities, slower (but not slow) tempi, controlled emoting and a lower-register-heavy approach leading to weightier Beethovenian truths. The one thing both pianists have in common is seriousness. While I’ve only made my way through the first seven sonatas (all tonight), my impressions of Nat’s approach is as I described. I can’t imagine things lightening up or changing much from this point forward.

    So I might as well cover the openers. The Op 2 as presented by Nat are weighty, powerful, and if they were written by a youthful Lou, they are not really presented as youthful music. Nat obviously put much time into formulating his approach; while Nat plays more emotionally than Gulda, his is not a hyper-romantic or even markedly romantic approach. In the early sonatas, that’s fine, but these are not jovial. Right from the start, Nat’s rich, rounded tone and occasionally thundering lower octaves banishes many thoughts of playfulness. He produces a big sound, one that reminds me more of Annie Fischer than anyone else, and when he comes to the closing movement of the first sonata, it is moderately quick (though not quite prestissimo) and meaty, though the last note is peculiarly unaccented. For those who like a lighter take, listen elsewhere. The next two sonatas are pretty much the same. A few times, Nat shows his age and technical limitations, particularly in Op 2/3, where he becomes muddled and a bit disjointed in the last two movements, seeming to skip over a few notes and seriously underplay a few others. ‘Tis no matter: this is some heavy-duty early Beethoven, and I like it! Okay, I like Gulda even more, but surely both approaches have their merits.

    The Op 7 fares relatively better here than with Gulda. Nat takes the opening relatively quickly, and once again his fallible technique can be heard, but a few minor reservations apart, he proceeds to deliver a nicely lyrical and rich reading. The second movement sounds Largo, with each note and chord properly placed and played, and the concluding movement offers just the right blend of lyricism and heft.

    The Op 10 works offer greater riches yet. Again, swiftness is not really Nat’s forte; playing forte is his forte. The first sonata opens in loud, strong, and powerful fashion, showing that a swift opening is not the only viable way to go. Nat allows every thing to sound out as appropriate, and he maintains a high level of musical tension and meaty playing. The second sonata in the group is the quickest of the lot, and if that implies that it is prosaic, it’s not; no, it’s exciting, filled with jaunty, humorous bits all delivered with earnestness and seriousness of purpose that simultaneously delights and stimulates. Nat should have included the third movement repeat, because it ends too quickly! I wanted more. The final sonata in the set is likewise superb, and if a couple noticeable slips can be heard in the final movement, they are ultimately inconsequential.

    So, the cycle is off to a strong start. I can’t quite abide by the hagiographic liner notes in assessing Nat’s artistry; so far, I can think of pianists I prefer in every sonata. But his level of achievement is high, his insights unique and ultimately invaluable, and if the rest of the cycle is at least as good as what I’ve heard thus far, it will make a more than welcome addition to my collection. Thus far, I’d say think of him as a Gallicized Annie Fischer: he’s passionate, powerful, intense, and serious, just with a bit of restraint and intellectual rigor holding everything back, though never harmfully so. The 1955 recordings all sound surprisingly robust, with a strong low end and more than acceptable clarity and warmth off-set only slightly by a bit of dimness, a few patches of distortion and other spurious noise, and some obvious edits. I should probably listen to a few more sonatas here pretty soon.

    --


    Another night, another lucky seven sonatas. Tonight started much more promisingly. Indeed, Nat’s reading of the night’s opener – the Op 13 – is a great recording, plain and simple. Here he brings all of his strengths together in a passionate yet controlled reading to excite. This work can be played any number of ways, including an appropriately pathetic way, but Nat’s is more about fiery intensity and urgency. While neither dizzyingly fast nor overwhelmingly powerful, Nat brings enough of each of those traits to render a near-edge-of-the-seat performance. I hung on every note, and even when playing slowly, he captivates. His technical lapses are once again noticeable, but utterly irrelevant. More troublesome is the worst sound in the fourteen sonatas I’ve listened to. Much spurious noise can be heard, and it sounds as though at least part of the transfer was made from a less than pristine condition LP. Wouldn’t you know it – the best performance has the worst sound.

    But don’t take that to mean that the Op 14 sonatas aren’t spectacular. They are! These 1953 recordings (along with the Op 22) are the best sounding of the cycle thus far, and they find Nat in better technical form. There are a few minor slips, but nothing detracts from the supreme music making. In both of these works he plays relatively briskly. Not as briskly as Gulda, but definitely briskly for Nat. And his strong left hand is on display again, but only and always to serve up nothing more than a delicious underpinning for the even tastier melodies that Beethoven spins out. The runs and figurations sound nearly effortless, and if Nat maintains a sober, serious sound overall, a few instances of relative levity make themselves known. I was expecting something more akin to the Op 10 works, but what I got was some truly top-notch playing that compares to the best around. Okay, I still prefer Gieseking and Richter, but Nat joins the short list after those two.

    Three remarkable performances in a row give way to merely outstanding one. Nat’s Op 22 again demonstrates his traits – serious, slower, heavier, richer playing that never or at least almost never veers into ponderousness – to extraordinary effect. He opens a little on the slow side but quickly picks up the pace, winding his way through the first movement with, well, brio, and introducing an eminently tasteful and well-nigh flawless rubato deployed in just the right measure at just the right times. He’ll bring out an interesting point here and a serious one there, and, just when you think his variety can’t be bettered, he’ll sock it to you with a witty little phrase punched out right after some serious note spinning. His lower register playing is pronounced but not as relatively pronounced as elsewhere; he keeps thunder in abeyance so as to never muddy anything further up the ivories. Perhaps French pianists have a special affinity with this piece, but whatever, this is a superb reading and if it just barely misses out on top honors, it assumes a place of honor after Pommier and Gulda.

    As if to show that no one can keep a streak alive for too long, the Op 26 is not quite so successful. Oh, sure, the opening is strong, with some of the variations taken at an exhilarating pace, and the funeral march is suitably funereal, and the ending satisfies. But it still misses that extra little something. Part of the problem may be the slips, particularly in the funeral march. Nat is not bad, mind you, but some of the slips seem to be too much. (Perhaps he’s telegraphing – really telegraphing – a desynchronization of the hands, but mostly it sounds like less than exemplary pianism.) Nat again deploys his tasteful rubato to good effect, but it cannot prevent me from saying that this work is a relative let-down. It’s still good, but it’s bettered by the surrounding works.

    And the works on the aft side are remarkable. Nat nails both of the Sonatas quasi una fantasia. The first, much my favorite of the two, is dashed off with charm, wit, humor, power, richness, speed, a tad more power, and a sense of fun. Nat adopts a brisk, choppy approach, and if perhaps the final movement doesn’t exactly sound as lyrical as I like (and thus, for me, not quite as fantastic as my ideal), he nonetheless knocks this one out of the park. Open to close, he’s on and he’s on fire. The Mondschein fares quite well, too. The opening is somber and dark, just like I like it, the second movement offers a rest of sorts, and the conclusion is fast, driven, and pungent. Nat’s tone takes on a clangy, sharp sound in the closing movement, but the swift, unstoppable rolling notes build enough momentum to carry it to the end without a real complaint. Yep, I like these. So, while Nat shows signs of minor inconsistency, the overall level of achievement seems to me even higher than last night. I can’t wait to dig into some of the big works coming up.


    --


    Night three saw a slight diminution in the number of sonatas ingested – I cut back to a half dozen. But as we all know, quality is more important than quantity. And four of the six morsels, well, they’re musical meals unto themselves! The Pastorale! The Op 31 Triumvirate! Oh my!

    Alas, this evening did not get off to the start I had hoped for. The problems with Op 28 sonata are apparent from the get-go. Nat opens slowly, heavily, and, truthfully, somewhat ponderously. I suppose I can live with the slowness, but the deliberate, overemphasized left hand chords distract, and the rubato detracts. I don’t mean to make it sound as though Nat kills the piece – he doesn’t – it’s just that when I think of the other fine versions on offer, this one is lacking. The inner movements both sound appreciably better, and more in line with the nature of the piece, or at least how I like it. Nat is tauter than ideal at times, and he still brings some force to bear on them keys, but ‘tis all good. Alas, the closing movement is not. It suffers from the opposite fate of the first movement – it’s too fast, though it, too, has some hefty left hand playing. I want more grace and lyricism. Indeed, that’s what I want for the whole piece. Well, as has been my experience with every LvB sonata cycle, no pianist can play them all equally well.

    Fortunately, things pick up in the mighty trio. Nat does a superb job of making each work sound unique and remarkable in its own right, while still making them sound as though they are temporal brethren. For the first sonata, Nat eases up a bit, by which I mean he discards his generally serious tone for a lighter, brighter, and, hell, funner (yes, funner; I’m just gonna use that word) sound. He plays most everything for fun, and brings out all those little figurations with a hint o’ delight, and when he plays that long trill, well, it’s peachy. Other approaches to this work are just as valid, and a decidedly weightier approach can pay dividends, but this one is fine by me.

    The second of the triplets is suitably darker. Nat relishes the minor key piece, and he thrives on the stark contrasts and mood swings within the work. Tempestuous this! His bold left hand comes in handy many times, and his rubato, definitely from a world gone by, aids in the effort too. If perhaps his technique shows a few signs of faltering, that matters not one bit in the face of his stormy, dynamic reading. Gulda rather handily trumps him, but Nat is no slouch. Not at all.

    So that leads to the concluding sonata. Is there a more quintessentially Beethovenian work? Think about it. Here’s a work that is obviously brilliantly crafted, but at times it sounds as though Beethoven thought most of it up on the spot. The piece will sort of amble along for a moment or two, then, all of the sudden and without reason or warning, Beethoven erupts into boisterous laughter on the keyboard, then contemplates his good humor, moves on to something seemingly more serious or perhaps truly serious, just to burst out in (rightfully) self-approving laughter a few moments later. His youthful prankishness and his middle period heroics collide happily. Only his late philosophical style goes missing. Nat is at home here, playing each part to near perfection, and seeming to enjoy the outbursts when they come.

    This trio of sonatas is one of the critical components I use to assess the overall quality of a pianist in Beethoven. If a pianist botches this set, said pianist just ain’t no great Beethovenian. Nat succeeds in this set. I’m not ready to declare him a great Beethovenian just yet – after all, another dozen sonatas remain – but he does a splendid job. Of course, Gulda does a mind-blowingly great job, as does Annie Fischer, and a few others, but I did enjoy my time with these works.

    That leaves the Op 49 works as something of an afterthought. Nat does well enough here, though perhaps he’s just a tad too heavy in the first sonata. The second sonata is plagued by ubiquitous, intrusive distortion, but the playing still sounds fine.

    Another batch down, and Nat’s overall quality is coming into sharper focus. How good is he? Well, let’s just say that I must listen to more. Soon.


    --


    Night four heard another six sonatas, and once again proved a tad uneven. The opening work this evening was the Waldstein, and this sonata more or less set the pace. On the positive side, Nat opens the work briskly and more or less keeps it that way. I generally prefer this work on the swift-ish side (though there are exceptions), and Nat’s fingerwork is plenty spiffy for me. Perhaps he sounds just a tad taxed at times, but such concerns are fleeting. The generally buoyant mood of the opening movement and the appropriately held back second movement, delivered in superb overall fashion, give way to a somewhat overwrought third movement. Nat again plays relatively swiftly, but as he pounds out some of the passages with some notable heft, the effect becomes slightly tiresome. He resorts to the same tricks time and again, offering less development and change that is ideal. All told, the sonata is very good, but it’s not a contender.

    The same applies to Op 54. Nat again adopts a faster-is-better approach, and while such an approach can work – Richter makes it work wonderfully – the pianist must possess the technique to make it come off without a hitch and must be able to hold the musical line. Nat sounds too choppy at times. As he introduces a more robust, full-bodied sound akin to what Annie Fischer brings, he’s not up to snuff in that regard either. His passion is forced. Again, while hardly terrible, this ain’t no top tier recording.

    The Appassionata fares no better. Again, it seems best to consider Nat as something of a blend of Richter and Ms Fischer in approach, lacking the control, speed, and precision of Richter, and the punishing (in a good way!) intensity of Saint Annie. The furies of the outer movements are rousing, but ultimately not satisfying enough. The slow movement is moving and searching, just not moving and searching enough. In this sonata, I admit to being extremely prejudiced: Annie Fischer blows all comers into the weeds as far as I’m concerned. Only Richter has mounted a suitable challenge to her sovereignty (and twice, at that!), but even he cannot unseat the regal musical deity. Nat more or less blends in with the crowd. Let’s just move on.

    The two little ditties otherwise know as Op 78 and 79 suffer the same fate as the Op 54: they are overwrought. Though short, they ain’t dainty, but even so, they can be overplayed. Nat’s penchant for a powerful bass underpinning continues unabated here, and as one progresses through the works, such a standardized approach becomes limiting and stifling. A bit more nuance is needed, or at least an altered deployment of technical means. Op 78 is the less successful of the two, but even Op 79 doesn’t rise to meet the best. The opening, while charming in its way, lacks either the outright humor or detached circumspection to make it work. To Nat’s credit, though, the second movement is strikingly poignant. But that’s a rare moment of valuable insight.

    So as I spun the Les Adieux, it was with lowered expectations. To my delight, Nat got back on my good side. His performance is excellent. The opening has a nice melancholy tinge to it, the second movement is expectant, and the finale resounds with, if not quite unabashed triumph and glory, than at least a marked improvement in mood. A few less than ideally secure passages, and a few oddly accented phrases notwithstanding, Nat is back in (near) top form. While it doesn’t rise to challenge the best of the best, it offers hope for the last half-dozen sonatas.

    I don’t want to leave the impression that these are bad performances – they’re not – it’s just that Nat is relatively less impressive here, and in this most august piano repertoire, that will not do. Or it will at least be pointed out. Sound quality falls into the various categories already described. Well, six more to go. Can Nat end on a strong note, as it were?


    --


    I’ll just get it out of the way early: Yves Nat is not great in late Beethoven. I wish he were, but he ain’t. The problems present themselves early, as it were.

    The Op 90 is a bit odd. The opening movement isn’t ideally coherent, and if Nat can summon some impressive weight and a rich tone, it doesn’t really compensate for what’s lost. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint. His playing is generally good, but his phrasing, his emphases – they all sound as though he’s not in tune with the music. The second movement fares better, but that only serves to underscore the problems. Why was the first movement not of the same caliber? How does this make for a satisfying whole? The answer is: it don’t.

    The 101 is similarly uneven, and it introduces an issue to be heard in the last three sonatas: Nat plays fast. Too fast. Now, that may seem odd given that I was so taken by Gulda’s similarly fast take on the works. But Nat is not Gulda. And Nat’s penchant for quickness shows why: he’s not as technically well equipped as Gulda. There are only a few audible slips of any consequence, but there is a sense much of the time that Nat is playing right at the very edge of his ability, and perhaps just beyond, and that his artistic conception therefore outpaces his digital realization. The first and third movements of this work suffer from this in a pretty clear fashion. His playing shows a sharper, harder staccato than in some earlier works, and while one can say that most of the notes are at least reasonably cleanly articulated, some of the themes and figurations sound congested or ever so slightly muddled. I’m certain a pianist could far more clearly describe what I heard, but that’s the gist of the problem. Compare him to someone with the skill of Pollini or Gulda, and the problem becomes clear enough. While he does better in the second and fourth movements, a sense of false profundity creeps in. Yes, this is deep, thought-provoking music, but Nat seems to not be probing deep enough. Not really.

    Matters are more complicated in the Op 106. Nat’s conception is Big. His ten fingers comprise an orchestra in the opening movement. Alas, that orchestra is less the Berlin Philharmonic than some less talented, less well-funded orchestra from eastern France. His phrasing is bold. His sonorities, too. He plays fast and with some impressive power. But what he wants is outside his grasp. The same holds true for the second movement. The great Adagio fares better, with Nat offering a fine degree of control. False profundity nags at the listener, though. Nat liked – probably loved – this great music, but he doesn’t seem to be able to realize his ideas. The closing movement is not much better. Nat just cannot match more technically assured players for accuracy, or more devoted players for intensity. So one is left with a good but hardly outstanding interpretation. To his credit, Nat does offer some of the slower portions in a manner that suggests, very strongly, that he would have been a knock-out in Bach. But in this grand fugue, he’s not quite so accomplished. This is most certainly not a terrible Hammerklavier, but it’s not especially competitive in a very competitive field.

    The last three sonatas all suffer from the too much speed and superficial depth, if you will. The 109 really does nothing for me. Nat’s playing is more assured here, the opening movement being dashed off quickly, the second as well, and the final movement variations do vary – from too quick to way too quick to rather unsatisfying. Op 110 is better, but only marginally. He opens the piece beautifully, but he then returns to his quick and shallow ways. When he builds up the repeated chords in the final movement, the whole passage goes by too quickly, and while he gets progressively louder as he should, he stagnates on a few repeated chords. The 111 is the least successful of the bunch. First up, at just a hair over 20 minutes, it’s just too fast. The opening movement is rushed, the dark chords sounding more harried than ominous. The second movement opens with a weak Arietta and then proceeds to offer a rushed progression to the end. During a few passages, Nat is very effective at conveying an ethereal, timeless quality, but those moments zip by too quickly for one to savor. The coda is decidedly uneventful, and uninformative to boot. Suffice it to say, Nat does not rise to the level of the greats here.

    Perhaps I’m too hard on the recordings. Keep in mind, these are not bad recordings. I’ve heard worse. But these simply are not great recordings. If I am critical and nit-picky, it’s because this is late Beethoven. Only the very best will do. Good, exceptional, outstanding – these aren’t good enough. Greatness is the only acceptable level of achievement. Nat does not achieve greatness. To an extent, his cycle reminds me of fellow countryman Jean-Bernard Pommier (though Pommier’s technique is superior). Both pianists do exceptionally well – indeed, they’re both great or near great – in a few early sonatas and a good number of middle period sonatas. But when asked to scale the heights of the late works, they’re styles don’t really deliver. Some nice things can be heard, and I will spin Nat’s cycle again, but others have much more to offer. Compared to Friedrich Gulda’s Amadeo cycle, the short-comings of the Nat cycle prevent me from saying this is a great cycle. The strengths of the cycle – the Pathetique, the Op 14 works, Op 22, the two Sonatas quasi una fantasia, the Op 31 sonatas, Les Adieux – are strong enough for me to say that if you hanker for an alternative approach and can stand some variability in both playing and sound, then this set may very well be worth the outlay. As it is, I’m glad to have it, and it was well worth the price I paid. Hell, I could even see paying mid-price for it. But it is not a great cycle.

  4. #4
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Friedrich Gulda, Decca (1950s)

    It finally arrived. The Decca cycle includes some early recordings of Mr Gulda, encompassing recordings ranging from 1950 (the Les Adieux) when Gulda was a mere twenty up through 1958. This cycle is therefore very much a young man’s take on the New Testament of the piano literature. While Gulda was hardly an old man at the time of his Amadeo recordings, he had time to mature, to work out ideas, to become more familiar with the music. It shows.

    The set opens with very good readings of the Op 2 sonatas, yet I was keenly aware of how much more I like the Amadeo recordings the whole time. It’s hard to pin down exactly what the differences are. His overall approach is similar, his timings relatively close, though a few seconds slower across the board, and his tone is richer and more varied than in the later recordings. What gives? I thought. While I can’t call any of his playing stodgy, I find that Gulda is more restrained; he seems intent on playing this serious music in a serious way, or at least what he thought was serious in his early 20s. (The recordings for tonight are all from 1954.) So he’s clear and articulate, but not especially pointed. He’ll play the witty passages well, but without notable wit. He’ll play quickly when called for, but without great energy. Only with the last two movements of Op 2/3 does he seem to come alive in a fashion similar to his later recordings: he digs in, playing quickly, colorfully, with notable intensity at times, while never overdoing it. Don’t get me wrong, the first three sonatas are very well done, it’s just that they’re not up to the standard he would later set.

    The Op 7 sonata fares relatively better. The opening movement is superb. Where I find his later recording too quick and not flowing enough, here it’s just about perfect. Gulda favors a moderately quick pace, and he produces streams of lovely sounding music. The second movement is likewise slowed down a bit, but here he plays in a contrived sort of way that makes the piece sound too episodic at times. The last two movements both receive a more satisfying take more akin to the opener. While still not in the uppermost echelon of interpretations of this work, I prefer this to the later recording.

    The Op 10 sonatas are mixed. The first sonata is excellent, boasting a nicely fast and effective open – almost as good as his later recording – while finding a greater degree of flexibility later on. The second movement is a full minute longer than in 1967, and at times he stretches things perhaps a bit too much, but the drawbacks are minor. The conclusion is fine. The second of the set starts very well, with clean articulation and a generally peppy feel, and the second blends perfectly with the conception. The concluding Presto, though, sounds too deliberate. It’s slow, it’s stodgy, it’s contrived to try to make the music sound more serious (?) when it probably shouldn’t. The third sonata in the group is possibly the best of the bunch. Again, it’s slower than the later recording, but also more flexible – though not freer. He keeps the work light and reasonably brisk and ends strongly. Again, the Amadeo recordings are more enjoyable on a number of levels, but these three sonatas compare favorably to many other recordings.

    Back to the flexible yet not freer thing: Though Gulda uses a wider color palette and more widely varying dynamic range – including some delicate pianissimo playing to catch ones fancy – everything is well-controlled and within pre-determined bounds. This is not of-the-moment Beethoven. This is thought-through Beethoven. Of course, so is the Amadeo cycle, but it’s almost like in the later cycle Gulda placed a narrower interpretive range, but then played everything within that range in the most pronounced, emphatic way possible. There’s less sense of hitting any limits here. One other thing that’s missing is the masterful sense of rhythm. Perhaps one can attribute this to less exposure to jazz, but whatever the cause(s), his playing doesn’t exert the same toe-tappin’ influence in this set. That’s not to say that the music is flat and lifeless, mind you, it just ain’t so groovy.

    Sound is variable and not so good. At its best, it’s barely better than mediocre. I have a number of other piano recordings from the same era, and most exhibit more body, weight, and clarity. An above average level of hiss and frequency of drop-outs sullies things a bit from time to time. And in a few instances, the piano sounds so distant that it sounds as though it were a couple recording studios away. That written, the piano tone sounds attractive pretty much throughout.

    At least with the early sonatas, I can say that I prefer the Amadeo cycle. But there are some fine things to be heard. I’m willing to bet there’s more good stuff to be heard going forward.


    --


    First a correction. Last night’s recordings were split over 1954 and 1955. All of tonight’s recordings were made in the last quarter of 1957. The now stereo sound is better than the mono recordings, though quite a lot of hiss can still be heard. A mere four sonatas were on the menu for tonight, and one word comes to mind: relaxed. Well, a phrase, really: relatively relaxed. Compared to the Amadeo recordings, the greater sense of flexibility in these earlier recordings manifests itself in less energy – nervous and otherwise – and less drive. I can see some people actually preferring the sonatas I listened to tonight to the later recordings, though I still favor the Amadeo set overall.

    The Pathetique is actually a few seconds faster in this earlier recording, yet that relaxed sense is everywhere apparent. Gulda does not turn the work into a droopy, weak essay, but the lack of that last degree of dramatic oomph and the more delicately played softer portions differentiate it from the later recording. The Adagio cantabile is more attractive here, there’s no doubt, and if in faster passages he doesn’t simultaneously fly across the keyboard and pound out the notes, Gulda more than compensates with a more attractive legato and more intimate phrasing. This is less showy and more personal, though it’s not an overtly emotional reading. I must confess that I’m having a hard time determining whether this or the later recording is “better.” They’re sufficiently different and distinct to warrant hearing both at least a few more times.

    The Op 14 sonatas, too, sound sufficiently different to warrant repeated listens. While neither as serious nor as groovy as the later recordings, the lighter approach actually makes the works sound more lively and sunnier. Gulda still dazzles with his precision and swiftness when necessary, but he’s more charming. And a more flexible approach and more variable touch creates effects largely missing in the Amadeo recordings.

    The Op 22 is markedly more relaxed with about forty seconds more to enjoy in the opening movement and about a minute in the second. As a result, the work flows more smoothly, and the second movement, in particular, sounds more purely pleasing. More beautiful sounds are on offer, and Gulda’s tonal variety and subtle dynamic contrasts really help out. Only a somewhat hazy sounding recording hampers things at all. Again, this recording is different enough – and good enough – to be warmly welcomed to my collection.


    --


    Some of Gulda’s traits that are so pronounced in the Amadeo cycle start to show up in some of the middle works. Most notably, his sense of groove reappears in the Op 26 sonata. The opening two movements both have that rhythmic sureness that I so like, and the final movement sparkles with clear fingerwork, color, and drive. The great funeral march itself is not quite from the same mold. It is slow, somber, and perhaps a touch grandiloquent at times. Gulda plays in stately fashion, with discernible pauses and emphases to add more oomph. All told, it works splendidly, and I’m again having a hard time determining whether I prefer this or the Amadeo version.

    The two Sonatas quasi una fantasia seem to be strengths for Mr Gulda. 27/1 differs from the later recordings in some important respects. The opening movement is slower and more, well, fantastic, if you will, its somewhat amorphous shape and sound creating a commendable sonic world that draws one in. Gulda plays less quickly and less punchy than he does at times in his later recording, but still the concluding movement contains enough energy to excite. Damned if it’s not another toss-up.

    The Mondschein is even more fantastic, but not necessarily better. The opening movement is a hazy, blended sound world, Gulda riding the sustain pedal to accentuate the haziness. The second movement sounds pronouncedly slower and more dreamy than in either the Amadeo recording or the 1964 recording on Orfeo. The concluding movement is swift but more contained than the other two recordings. Of the three, I prefer the live recording, but this one fares well indeed.

    The Pastorale offers a case where the earlier recording is just plain better. Gulda plays a bit slower here, and he also uses a richer, more varied approach with some notable low register playing to add body, buoyancy, and life to the piece. It flows wonderfully, nothing out of place, nothing sounding jagged. It’s not completely smoothed out, either. Gulda spins out the various themes in near-flawless fashion, and throughout he deploys his impeccable rhythmic sensibility to keep it moving forward – but never too quickly. This is one fine recording of this work.

    When I listened to the Op 31 sonatas in the Amadeo set, I was more than pleasantly surprised. Gulda’s take on these three works are one of the highlights of that great set. It’s pretty much the same here, though the playing isn’t exactly the same. The first of the three opens even more quickly than in the later recording, but there’s a twist of sorts: the playing is uniformly lighter. No, Gulda doesn’t make this sound like salon music, but he does play with less drive and strength and more overt lightheartedness. It made me sit at complete attention, voraciously absorbing every fleet note and dashed off chord. The second movement, too is fast – still too fast to be Largo – and it keeps the same general tone. And man, are those long trills something! The final movement perhaps lacks the same degree of heft that the later recording has, but so what?

    The Tempest is not as relatively successful; it’s merely outstanding. The first two movements lack the drama and intensity of the later recording, though Gulda’s take on the closing movement is completely satisfying in these regards. But like the later recording, his playing is remarkably assured, and this earlier recording enjoys a bit more lower register heft as well as color further up the spectrum.

    The last of the Op 31 sonatas shares with the later recording notable swiftness. Again, Gulda plays more lightly and with greater variety. He makes the piece more upbeat and lively than perhaps some might like, and again some things are missed in Gulda’s astonishing playing, but it’s so much fun that I can’t help loving it.

    The two Op 49 sonatas come off as more serious than the later recordings. The opening of the first sonata comes across as surprisingly pensive and weighty and seems quite at home among the middle period works despite its earlier provenance. The second movement is buoyant and sunny, but also forceful. The second sonata is not quite as serious, but still Gulda plays more seriously than some. The second movement with that delightful theme is played in an unusually mechanistic way, that while it takes some getting used to, nonetheless makes for a fun listen.

    Sound on these recordings from 1957 and 1958 is generally good, but it sounds somewhat dim at times, without enough sparkle or bite in some of the high notes. A bit of haze mars the set, too, from time to time. At least that nice tone and some decent weight can be heard as an off-set.


    --


    The Waldstein is outstanding. Basically, take what I wrote about the Amadeo recording – fast, articulate, and none-too-romantic – and it applies here. Add a bit more tonal variation, greater weight, and more flexible rubato, and one has a fine reading. For all that, I must admit that I ever so slightly prefer the later recording, but this one will most assuredly receive more quality time with one or more of my CD players.

    The Op 54 presents another case where the earlier recording surpasses the older one. Whereas in the Amadeo set the Op 54 is something of a letdown (in relative terms, of course), here it ain’t. In the first movement, Gulda opts for just the right tempi: not to fast and not too slow. He’s not especially intense, but he does offer clean playing and richer textures than in the later recording. The second movement is more forceful and intense and downright serious, but he never overdoes anything, always keeps the various musicals strands clear or at least clear enough. Just as it’s hard for to pinpoint exactly why the Amadeo recording is less successful, it’s hard for me to pinpoint why this one is more successful.

    The 1958 Appassionata, too, fares better than in either of the two later recordings. It basically combines the best of both recordings, throws in a dash of youthful ardor, and is let down only by the ending. First of all there is Gulda’s speed and articulation, both traits bringing out the most in the piece, though less pointedly than in the Amadeo recording. A richer sound complete with some low-end heft as in his 1973 recording, and an even greater flexibility in phrasing, with some surging, intense, and yes, passionate playing, particularly in the first movement, coalesce to create a contender. The second movement is more contemplative and restrained, and the final movement bursts forth with passion, and the overall positive impression is reinforced until, well, until the end, when he cuts the third movement repeat. What a pity, because he was on a roll. But I’ll take the truncated take, thank you. Only some less than ideally clear sound hampers this otherwise outstanding recording.

    The Op 78 and 79 sonatas both come off similarly to the later recordings. That is, they are richly, strongly, and quickly dispatched, though perhaps they sound a little more detached at times in these earlier recordings. There’s little reason not to recommend them.

    The Les Adieux, the earliest recording in the set, is somewhat disappointing, but I suppose that should be expected. Gulda was only 20 when he made this, so this is a youth’s take on a mature work. Gulda plays very well technically, with everything under control and at times startlingly precise. But his take is ultimately a bit shallow. Where’s the rumination in the second movement? Where’s the exultant outburst in the finale? They’re there. More precisely, an approximation of them is there. It’s not bad, but it’s no match for the Amadeo recording, which itself doesn’t even scale the heights.

    The Op 90 is relatively better, but it reminds me of the later recording quite a bit. Starting perhaps a bit too heavily, Gulda keeps everything serious and controlled and just shy of probing and interesting enough to make it a contender. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but there’s nothing especially noteworthy either. Neither the 81a or 90 are bad, but they seem to be a relative weakness for the pianist both young and not-quite-so-young. Well, there’s always the last five sonatas . . .


    --


    The Op 101 seems to be a strength of Mr Gulda’s. This earlier recording from 1958 is, if anything, even better than the Amadeo recording. He plays less quickly and with perfect timing, with every passage leading and moving flawlessly to the next, and Gulda’s control and precision are right on. The greater lower register heft adds a nice dimension to the piece, too. In the concluding movement, Gulda plays very strongly, offering wide dynamic range and contrast, and his rhythmic sense keeps the whole thing moving along. I suppose even deeper readings are available, but this one is one of the better ones I’ve heard. Definitely a keeper.

    The Hammerklavier, however, suffers from the same problems that the Les Adieux does. Recorded in 1951, it’s very much a very young man’s take, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing especially right about it either. Gulda’s technique is more than up to the challenge, and he plays everything well, I suppose, and he keeps everything clear and articulate, but it’s missing that important something to make it special. It’s a bit shallow, never delving much below the surface. The first two movements can survive such an approach, I guess, but the Adagio cannot. Nor can the concluding fugue. I admit to growing a bit bored by the reading and sneaking a peek at the clock a few times. Well, more like a half-dozen times during the Adagio. This is a far cry from the stupendous Amadeo recording to be sure.

    The last three sonatas all come off well, though the last two fare better than the first. Gulda plays the 109 more slowly than in the Amadeo cycle, though it is never too slow. Right from the start, he enters that abstract, philosophical, indeed almost spiritual world that characterizes these last three great works. But he also plays a bit too slowly at times. I’m not averse to a pianist altering tempi, but here the occasional slowness is accompanied by some rather heavy-handed playing that detracts from the work a bit. The second movement, in particular, suffers from this. Keep in mind that the short-comings are all relative; this is still a fine recording, it’s just not up to the very best.

    I have no qualms whatever about the 110. Simply put, this is a great recording. Gulda perfectly judges tempi, phrasing, dynamics, and coloring. Them dynamics, they deserve special mention. Gulda demonstrates his remarkable artistry in pretty much every recording, and his ability to play softly while still maintaining a solid rhythmic drive and maintaining the musical line has been demonstrated elsewhere, but not quite at this level. In the first movement he plays at a whisper at times, but even at this barely audible level one detects tonal variation and subtle shifts in emphasis to stagger the imagination. He fully matches any pianist in this regard. In the slow opening and concluding fugue of the final movement, he plays so meticulously and with such perfect clarity that one is forced to sit in complete silence, holding one’s breath, just to take it all in. The mere thought of altering the volume or seat position to make hearing things even easier just will not do. That would mean a lapse in concentration, however brief, and this recording demands complete concentration from start to finish. It is one of the highlights of the set.

    The 111 is another highlight, if not quite at the same level. Gulda allows himself more time to play this sonata than in the later recording, and he is more flexible, too. The opening movement is played with a near perfect mix of virtuosity and depth, the ominous chords never overbearing, the fast portion never too dashing. The second movement opens with a lovely Arietta and proceeds to work through the wonderful variations with clarity, power (when needed), and sensitivity, all while achieving that ethereal feel so important. Some others do play it more profoundly, to be sure, but this is competitive with not only Gulda’s later recording, but with a number of others as well. It certainly is a fine way to end the cycle.

    Now that I’ve finished off both Gulda cycles, I guess the inevitable overall comparison must be made, and a final judgment about their relative quality, too. Well, I find that the Amadeo set is the more consistently satisfying set. It is bolder, more original and unique, and more informed by a coherent vision of the music. But then it was all recorded in the span of less than a year, and Gulda had been playing the music for decades by that point. The Decca cycle is more variable, though Gulda is more flexible. A few of the sonatas in the earlier set trump the later recordings, to boot. Still, the Amadeo set is the way to go for me, or it would be were I forced to choose. But I’m not forced to choose; I can have both! That, surely, is the only suitable situation.

  5. #5
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Stephen Kovacevich

    Why not? Yes, I’ve been binging on Beethoven, adding new CDs of his music at an almost alarming rate. But the local CD hut had a sale on EMI and, well, I just couldn’t pass it up. I’m not a newcomer to Mr Kovacevich’s EMI Beethoven: I’ve had the Op 10 and 28 and Op 31 discs for a number of years, and some fine things are to be heard in those two discs. The Op 31 sonatas seem more in tune with this pianist’s style, but even the Op 10 sound nice, except for a somewhat unfortunate opening to the first sonata. He even manages to pull off a good Pastorale. Surely his complete cycle warrants a listen. So I endeavored to do just that.

    Relentless. That’s the best way to describe the opening of the first sonata. Kovacevich opens (too) fast and (too) hard and plays the entire first movement that way, with little (or nothing, really) in the way of color, variety, or fun. This isn’t even serious playing; this is borderline fierce, angry playing. No one opens as harshly as does this Angelino. The second movement offers more of the same, and it’s not until the third movement that Kovacevich arrives at something more akin to how almost all others play early Beethoven. The finale is fierce but not as strong – or strongly characterized – as some others. The piano tone fortunately never sounds ugly, and Kovacevich never merely bangs away at the keyboard, but he comes uncomfortably close a few times. Kovacevich manages to make both Annie Fischer and Friedrich Gulda sound downright light-hearted and jolly. I must say, this is something of a disappointment.

    The second sonata fares a bit better. While hardly relaxed or jovial, Mr Bishop eases up a bit, to the benefit of the piece to be sure. Come the scherzo, one at last has something with nuance and taste, even if one gets the sense that Kovacevich was not only not smiling when he recorded it, but that he had a scowl. The finale comes off well, with everything appropriately restrained (relative to his earlier manhandling of the music), a few rather pronounced lower register chords notwithstanding.

    The third sonata fares best of all. It’s even lighter in tone than its predecessors, though it’s still not light. The work comes across more amiably, with the slow movement more nuanced and the concluding movement actually informed by a bit of charm. But this doesn’t salvage the opening trio of sonatas. As if to utterly dispel any notion of musicians becoming more relaxed or contemplative with age, Mr Kovacevich comes across as basically too aggressive in these early works – and they were recorded in 2003. While I didn’t buy the set believing that I’d hear a new age take, I was a bit taken aback by the fierceness of these works.

    That continued with the Op 7. Overbearing is the word that comes to mind. It’s not as relentless as the cycle opener, but it doesn’t feel quite right. While different approaches can certainly be taken – say, a more leisurely, pastoral approach (Kempff), a poetic approach (O’Conor), or an heroic approach (Gulda) – Kovacevich opts for an almost angry approach. He never lets up; passage after angry passage pass with withering effect. He lightens up after the opening movement, but the mood is already a bit spoiled, at least for me. I can handle an intense reading, but I prefer one informed by a different set of priorities.

    Perhaps long familiarity with the Op 10 sonatas makes me more accepting of this other early trio, but I think they are more successful than the preceding four works. Kovacevich uses a more flexible approach; he’s not as aggressive; he’s not as uncompromising. One can detect some tenderness – or at least something approximating it – in the slow movements of all the works. One can detect a bit more charm and wit in the concluding movement of the second sonata, though, alas, the repeat is omitted. One can hear foreshadowing of greater things all through the last of the three sonatas. The sort of nonchalant opening to the final movement proves a real treat. And one can hear a more ingratiating tone. Subtle dynamic gradations, appealing piano playing and stylish, subtle pedaling all add to the allure. Yes, this trio of sonatas is altogether more successful.

    Kovacevich’s approach works much better in the Pathetique. Here’s a work I thought he should succeed in, his serious, aggressive approach adding to the intensity of the piece. While it does that, the whole thing is not quite as aggressive as I thought it would be. Oh, sure, he pounds out the opening chord strongly, and he builds tension up, but when he proceeds into the faster portions of the work, it’s not with unrestrained fire. That’s good. There’s still some heat, and if ultimately he doesn’t offer the last word in passion and swiftness, his blend of elements works wonderfully. The slow movement sounds exceptional, Kovacevich drawing some fine sounds from the keyboard while avoiding any hint of bang, and the closing movement satisfies. Again, I thought he would tear up the keyboard during the runs, but he holds back just a bit, to the benefit of the piece. All told, this is the best recording up to this point in the cycle, and is one of the better recordings of the Op 13 made in the past couple decades.

    I hesitantly approached the Op 14 sonatas. These works wilt under the pressure of intense playing. Fortunately, Mr Kovacevich knows just where to stop. His playing in the first sonata is lighter and cheerier than I expected, though it hardly comes across as sunny. Banging and harshness are held in abeyance, and if perhaps pianistic winks and nods go missing, Kovacevich keeps nice, taut tempi throughout, and imbues the work with a sort of serious energy that actually makes the work attractive. He can’t help adding the occasional hard accent – brief, thundering low register chords ring out from time to time to remind the listener that this is serious business. The second sonata is actually more successful. Kovacevich plays, yes, lyrically in the opening movement. Perhaps he lacks that last bit of grace and suppleness that some others bring, but his fleet, tasteful fingerwork and forward momentum really shine. The second movement is lightly punchy and fun to listen to, with a nicely done heavy chord to end it. The closing movement feels just right in the context of this recording. Not too light, not too heavy, Kovacevich blends everything together in just the right mix. I was pleasantly surprised.

    Could Mr Kovacevich keep his streak alive with Op 22? Yes! This is another work that can wilt a bit under intense ivory-tickling, and the pianist seems to understand that. The opening movement is taken at a nice clip, and while a bit of steel can be heard here and there, it is not too brutal. It’s not ideally lyrical, though. In the Adagio, the piano tone and pace of playing satisfy immensely, and both the Menuetto and concluding Rondo keep an appealing sound. Again, some steel can be heard from time to time, and perhaps the playing doesn’t possess that vivacity that animates the best accounts of the piece, but it succeeds. After completing a third of the box, it seems somewhat safe to conclude that Mr Kovacevich hasn’t fully come to terms with the earliest sonatas yet – or at least I haven’t come to terms with his hard playing of them – but as things progress, his always (at least) vigorous, at times hard playing offers a serious, somewhat uncompromising Ludwig van. I can’t say that the recordings offer ideal takes of the works – but then, whose do?


    --


    Starting back up with the Op 26 sonata finds the cycle on strong footing. Kovacevich’s playing in the first two movements is assured, dynamic, alert, and energetic, and he manages to avoid much in the way of steel. His tone sounds more appealing, and everything jells nicely. The funeral march is somber and serious, though not especially funereal, and the concluding movement is filled with more of the same vigor of the first two movements. Overall, it’s very well done, if perhaps a bit unmemorable. Compared to Claude Frank or Friedrich Gulda, it sounds excellent yet pedestrian. I’m not knocking it; it’s just not a contender.

    Moving on to the first of the two Sonatas quasi una fantasia finds this listener in something of a conundrum. Precious little about this interpretation is fantastic, or even quasi-fantastic. This is an intellectualized approach, with every note, every accent, every shift, pedal use, and everything else well planned. Yet it is immensely enjoyable. The opening movement is somewhat amorphous but never indistinct or dreamy. The second and concluding movements are strikingly muscular and vigorous, with grand flourishes and virtuosic artistry. I wouldn’t really consider these traits particularly “fantastic,” but so what. The short little Adagio is subdued and appropriately lovely and offers a nice respite between the keyboard pyrotechnics. All told, I really dig this one. But it’s more Kovacevich than Beethoven.

    The Mondschein similarly doesn’t sound particularly fantastic. Yes, Kovacevich dutifully rides the sustain pedal in the opening movement, but he doesn’t really generate any mystery or hazy melancholy. The second movement is notably more forceful than others offer, thereby creating less of a rest between movements than a build up to the closing movement. And the closing movement is quite something. This is Rock-N-Roll Beethoven, forceful, heavy, and quick, with a rocking rhythm underpinning the whole thing. The whole may be a bit short on nuance, but it’s certainly long on visceral excitement. It’s definitely good, but not great.

    Having heard Kovacevich’s Pastorale for a while, I knew precisely what to expect. Here, in many places, the playing is more lyrical and beautiful, if never quite relaxed. The outer movements, in particular, contain a lot of lovely playing. But steel fingers make their presence known. When Kovacevich plays fortissimo, there’s no mistaking it. He pounds on the keyboard, again coming perilously close to simply banging away. For those more accustomed to the ravishing beauty of Kempff, this is banging. Also, charm is in short supply. The Scherzo should surely sound more charming and fun than here. He doesn’t kill the piece – in fact it’s quite good – but this is definitely one for people who like the steel fingered approach.

    I’m also familiar with and fond of his Op 31 sonatas. Except for the sound. For whatever reason, the sound is harsher and brighter, with decidedly more steely than normal, and that ends up detracting from the works a bit. Which is something of a shame, because Kovacevich shows greater flexibility and range in these works. The first of the bunch is suitably light in mood, bringing out the humor and mischief in the opening movement. Some unattractive clanging in loud passages required me to back off the volume just when things were getting good. He backs off on the volume in the second movement, offering some attractive soft playing and surprisingly delicate trills. Those trills lack a bit of sparkle when compared to my favorites, but they more than do. The final movement revisits the spirit of the opening and makes for a fine conclusion.

    The Tempest sonata gets a fine recording here. Kovacevich revels in the dramatic back and forth of the opening movement, presenting the contrasts in stark terms, and producing some fiery moments. The second movement really backs off and at times he stretches the musical line to its limit, and he presents some of the movement in almost choppy fashion. In some regards, Yukio Yokoyama’s slightly later recording is similar. Kovacevich succeeds in his reading, but there are a few moments where he comes close to botching it. The concluding movement comes off better, but oddly, I found my attention wandering a bit at various times. The intensity seems a bit contrived at times. Minor reservations aside, this is very good.

    The final sonata in the trio comes off very well. Again, Kovacevich lets some lighter elements in, with a bit of humor when appropriate, and some finely articulated fingerwork. His penchant for (nearly) banging out some louder passages remains, and that tendency combined with the sub-par (for the mid-90s) sound grates here and there, but that’s only a minor complaint. The final movement is toe-tappin’ good, thus bringing this critical set to a successful conclusion. But. But my overall opinion of this trio has been diminished. It’s still very good, but after hearing what both Yves Nat and, especially, Friedrich Gulda do with these works, Mr Bishop just doesn’t seem as relatively good. Good, very good, hell, even exceptional recordings just don’t satisfy when truly great recordings linger in the memory.

    Anyway, the concluding works for tonight were the two Op 49 works. Kovacevich does fantastic here. He doesn’t bang – not even once. He plays quickly, but his tone is actually attractive throughout, and his overall conception of these Beethovenian bon-bons adds a bit of heft to these delightful works. Why couldn’t he apply some of this type of playing to some of the other sonatas before this one? Seriousness and intensity are all fine and dandy, but too often Kovacevich comes across as a man hungry to hear steel. That does no one any favors. If he could have tempered down some of his playing, that would have made the cycle even better up this point.


    --


    The Waldstein almost sounds as though it’s played by a different pianist. Color, shading, nuance, subtlety, attractive playing at all levels – this is how more of the works should have been played. The piece opens quickly – but not too quickly – and Kovacevich plays with heroic strength and drive in perfect proportions, and he even allows a few slower, quieter moments to sound that way. The second movement is characterized by wonderful quiet playing tinged with a hint of sorrow. The finale opens in restrained fashion, though when called upon to play loud crescendos, our protagonist holds nothing. A few times the rich, weighty lower registers obscure some things happening higher up the range, but the overall effect is of a pianist playing a piece he loves and wants everyone else to love. This is more like what Kovacevich sounded like when I heard him in recital. Even the sound is better – it’s not as bright and steely and oppressive as some of the other recordings. I noticed that this is one of the earliest recordings of the cycle, and used a different engineer than later on. Perhaps those two things will play a qualitative role as many of the upcoming works were recorded relatively early.

    The Op 54 sounds like the same pianist as from prior nights, though a slightly reformed one. Banging and steel are nowhere to be heard, as Kovacevich patiently and meticulously plays the opener. He still plays loud and in a clearly assertive manner when needed, but he doesn’t make this piece sound especially heavy. That’s almost always a good thing. The closing movement is clear and contained and just weighty enough and fun to hear. No reaching for the volume control this time. That’s four in a row!

    The Appassionata makes it five! Given Kovacevich’s strengths thus far in the set, I figured he’d do exceptionally well here. So it is. Aided by one of the best sounding recordings in the cycle thus far, he simply unloads at times, the massive crescendos enveloping the listener in a wave of passionate pianistic discourse. (I could have done without the moaning accompaniment, though.) The second movement offers a nice respite, looking more inward, and filled with some softer playing. The finale erupts with passionate fury and continues on to the ends pretty much unabated. Anger and steel are nowhere to be heard, or at least they are welcome to the extent they are heard. No, he doesn’t rise to the level of Annie Fischer or Sviatoslav Richter, but he certainly has laid down one of my favorites. (Hmmm? The Op 8, 53, and 57 are all superb recordings in excellent sound. Maybe some far-sighted EMI exec(s) thought to create a sort of best-of compilation-in-waiting. I really need to be less cynical.)

    The Op 78 and 79 sonatas are a mixed bag. The Op 78 sonata, though recorded at the same time as the remarkable Op 53, shows those brittle, hard sonic tendencies that I don’t really like, though the overall tone is never aggressive or heavy; the piece is kept appropriately light. Op 79, though, is a treat. The opening movement is raucous and bubbly and humorous, and just plain good fun, and Kovacevich keeps things moving along nicely enough, never pounding and never trying to make more of the piece than is there. To the Andante he imparts greater gravitas than normal. It’s not heavy or dark, mind you, but it’s more moving than normal. The light little concluding movement brings this definitely better than average recording of this sonata to a close. Sound is excellent. All told, a very good night.


    --


    I started back up with the Les Adieux with mixed feelings. The recent 2002 recording date seems a negative, yet the fact that it’s a late work seemed a positive. The result: a good but bland reading. Yes, bland. Kovacevich plays the entire work well enough, and he avoids harshness and banging, yet he misses the point of the music. Where is the sadness of the opening, the longing of the middle, and the joy of the closing movement? He plays with style, but without much substance. It’s slick but soulless.

    The Op 90 is altogether more successful. This was recorded in 1991, and boy does time make a difference. First of all, the sound is more distant and resonant, but it is totally bang- and steel-free. Second, Kovacevich plays beautifully. He makes this lyrical, short work sound lyrical. He doesn’t resort to extreme tempi or dynamics, instead letting the music stand on its own. He’s sensitive and nuanced and all of those things that go missing in many of his later recordings.

    If anything, the Op 101 is even better. The opening movement is beautiful and gentle. Gentle! There’s no rushing or playing too loudly or overdoing anything. The second movement is much more forceful as it should be, but Kovacevich opts not to turn the march into an overbearing display of aggressiveness. The wonderful Adagio is again slow and lovely, and the concluding fugue is terrific. Kovacevich plays with excellent control and reasonable clarity, and when called for he really explodes, making even the (relatively) distantly-miked piano sound awesome and gigantic. He was apparently really on in ’91. Once again I’m left wondering how much better the cycle could have been had only more of the recordings been like these last two, or at least informed by a similar set of priorities. I’m not saying he should have made the Op 57 easy listening, but he surely could have been kinder to the opening trio of sonatas and a number of others.


    --


    Kovacevich finally does it: he just bangs away at the opening of the Hammerklavier. Subtlety, nuance, clear articulation – all are AWOL – and in their place is merciless, amusical pounding. At times his almost frenzied playing imparts the illusion of swiftness, but at 10’22”, swiftness is nowhere to be had. Unfortunately. The second movement manages to sound worse; heavy, oddly accented playing is added to the mix. It’s just awful. Kovacevich redeems himself nicely in the great Adagio, though. He actually doesn’t bang; he actually plays with some feeling, and some of the playing is attractive. He keeps the playing nicely taut and dramatic and the tension never sags. The closing movement is almost as successful. He opens nicely, with restraint and taste, and as the grand fugue unfolds, he is reasonably clear and keeps everything nicely musical. The opening two movements kill the work though. This is always a hard work to pull off, and of the five “new” versions I’ve heard recently, only Friedrich Gulda in his Amadeo recording really pulls it off. (And delivers one of the greatest versions committed to record, to boot.) Kovacevich’s version, well, let’s just say I won’t be listening to it again anytime soon.

    The 109 is much more to my taste. Sort of. The conception and delivery are fine. Kovacevich opts for a vigorous, muscular approach in the first two movements, and during a few variations in the closer, and here he does play with both clarity and conviction. Perhaps the playing is less contemplative and musically philosophical than some (or many) muster, but so what? The Andante opening to the finale and the slower variations and sections within faster variations all sound wonderful though. Here is some subtlety, nuance, clear articulation and thoughtful as well as though provoking playing. Alas, the 1994 sound is terrible. While the slower, quieter passages are okay, everything mezzo forte and above sounds brittle, shrill, steely, and ice cold. What were the engineers and producers thinking? I’ll listen again, no doubt, but at lower volume.

    More successful yet is the Op 110 sonata. This 1992 recording blends the best of both worlds in this cycle: it’s a late work and an early recording. As with the Op 90 and 101 sonatas, Kovacevich doesn’t play as aggressively and intensely, but rather favors a varied touch and attractive playing. The work opens with both traits on display and the mood of the piece and the playing all remain subdued – or at least subdued for Kovacevich. He definitely plays with enough power when needed – the ending is extremely powerful, for instance – but overall he infuses more personal meaning into the piece. It doesn’t achieve the same transcendental status a few others bring, but it is one of the highlights of the cycle.

    The 111 represents a slight step down. Initially, its 2003 recording date gave me pause. The recordings from the 90s seem to be better overall, but the fact that this is late Beethoven works in the pieces favor. The opening movement is strongly characterized and intense. The ominous chords are ominous, strong, and quick, and darkly dramatic. The second movement opens with a well played Arietta, and proceeds on to a nicely humane voyage to, well, to where? The music seems not to be contemplating anything of earthly concern, and Kovacevich plays in a suitably unromantic, unaffected way. He also allows himself to play delicately – yes delicately – as he does about halfway through. He shows that he can play piano and below and make it work. Once again, a number of pianists play in a more transcendental fashion, but at least the cycle ends on a strong note, as it were.

    Now it’s conclusion time. As should be pretty clear, this cycle more or less defines the phrase “mixed-bag.” At his best (Op 13, 53, 57, 90, 101, 110), Kovacevich is truly remarkable and compares favorably to anyone, though I can think of recordings I prefer in every case. At his worst (all the Op 2 and Op 7), he’s horrible, his vulgar brutality literally destroying the pieces. On balance, there’s enough good music-making to say that this set might be worth exploring. But <u>not</u> at its current price. Had I known last weekend what I know now, I would not have bought this set. It only makes sense at the bargain box price ($6-$8 per disc). This set is a disappointment, even with the good stuff figured in.

  6. #6
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Eric Heidsieck

    I didn’t really need yet another Beethoven piano sonata cycle, and I wasn’t really looking for one, but when I stumbled upon this one for only $28, well, I figured I might as well. You only live once, and so on. Anyhoo, I’m already slightly familiar with Heidsieck’s pianism, having had his recording, with Paul Tortelier, of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas for a while, so I figured hearing his take on the sonatas would allow to more fully appreciate his artistry. Would his Frenchness shine through, I wondered? Would he offer a foil for Mr Kovacevich’s approach, from whose cycle I needed a break? Well . . .

    Quietly impressive. That’s the best way I can concisely sum up Mr Heidsieck’s pianism in the first batch of sonatas. He doesn’t pound on the keys. He doesn’t dazzle with hyper-virtuosic displays. That’s not to say that he’s dull or soporific. He’ll play quick and strong as needed, but he’ll use just enough speed and power to get the job done. No excesses here. And he plays with an involved detachment. That is, he obviously loves (at least some of) these works, yet he doesn’t want to let loose. He sort of seems to be toying with ideas at times, injecting something of particular interest and insight without disturbing the surrounding music. But he must maintain a bit of detachment. It will be interesting to hear if this holds true through more of the works.

    But starting with Sonata Number 1, his approach holds true. As does something else: his playing is individual. That’s apparent from the beginning. Heidsieck is for those who like pianists who apply rubato liberally. Take the opening passage: he very subtly but very noticeably emphasizes the pause between the first couple notes in the phrase and not in those that follow. Innumerable times (well, I suppose you could count them), he’ll deviate ever so slightly from what might be considered normal phrasing, accenting certain notes and tweaking their tempi before moving on. He expertly utilizes short but noticeable pauses, as if to build up tension, and then lets the notes (sort of) flood the listener. It’s all very controlled and eminently tasteful at all times, though. And then he’ll do something unexpected. For instance, the opening of the finale is reasonably strong and quick and is certainly suitably dramatic, but then in the second section, he completely switches gears, playing ebullient music, before switching back. The best part is: it works! His individuality – his idiosyncrasy, I guess you might say – enlivens the work. He never makes it sound too heavy, he certainly doesn’t brutalize it like Stephen Kovacevich does, but nor does he make it seem to light or too quirky. Yes, one could consider his playing a bit quirky. But quirky in a good way.

    That is amply demonstrated in the second sonata, too. The opening movement contains more of the same traits as before, but it is the Largo that really stands out. It starts off very slow, and while it picks up a tad, it always sounds slow. Heidsieck stretches the musical line, but he maintains it, and as the movement unfolds, he keeps all clean, pensive, and attractive. It’s difficult to describe the effect adequately. Anyway, the Scherzo comes off lightly and with good humor and is, well, quietly impressive. The concluding Rondo shows that Heidsieck can and does play with greater energy and power when necessary – but never too much. The whole work stands somewhat apart from the other versions I’ve heard, yet it’s utterly fascinating and completely absorbing!

    The third is even better! Again, Heidsieck uses unique phrasing everywhere, with hardly a 30-second stretch going by without some minor tweak. But it all works. Marvelously. He remembers and lets the listener remember that this work is in sunny C major, and the opening movement is all smiles. Even the slow second movement, while not upbeat, never descends into seriousness or sadness. Perhaps some will want something meatier, but this is early Beethoven, not late. Both the Scherzo and final movements are played briskly and with a bit o’ pep. Heidsieck shows that he can play quick, light, and dazzling if need be, but it’s never showy. He’s not out to prove anything really. He’s just out to make some good music and maybe poke at some people with rigid sensibilities with his tiny alterations. It’s refreshing. This mightily successful opening trio ended up serving two purposes for me. First, it acted as a refreshing foil to the brutish Kovacevich recordings. Second, it proves that a Frenchman can play these works! The other two Frenchies in my collection – Jean-Bernard Pommier and Yves Nat – both play a little too slow ‘n’ heavy for me. Heidsieck, he hits the spot!

    Things just get better with one of the most purely enjoyable recordings of Op 7 I’ve heard. Generally, I prefer a more relaxed, almost pastoral tone to the piece, but Heidsieck succeeds in playing faster than normal and better than normal. The opening movement is a veritable feast of fleet, light, and smooth legato. Fingers glide across the keyboard creating a stream of charming melodies. The second movement, by contrast, is most definitely Largo, con gran espressione. Heidsieck plays the whole thing very slowly, but in a very dramatic though never heavy way. It’s just right. The two concluding movements return to fleet and light, though never slight mode. One can hear that the pianist was either having fun or was really good at pretending he was. The final movement does contain some strong playing when needed, but never does one forget that this is youthful music. All of that unique phrasing and those unorthodox accents just add to the allure.

    The first of the Op 10 sonatas manages a neat trick to start. Heidsieck starts off a bit slower than I usually like, but here I like it. He maintains generally slower than usually ideal tempi throughout, but he plays with such clarity and oddly effective accenting that I just sat enamored. During the final third of the opener, Heidsieck plays with more power and builds up an impressive wall of piano sound before ending in suitably reduced fashion. The Adagio is played in a similar fashion to the Op 7, though it’s a bit quicker and a bit more serious. The concluding Prestissimo is a treat. Once again, fleet and dazzling ivory tickling take center stage when needed, but these little virtuoso outbursts flank slower, more measured playing. It’s such a wonderful mix of playing that I wanted it to go on a bit more.

    Op 10/2 comes off a bit more serious and dramatic than I expected, almost as a sort of miniature preview of what’s to come. It’s not storming-the-heavens dramatic by any means – Heidsieck achieves his outcome playing subtly – but it’s got a bit of oomph. That’s quite alright. The only less than enjoyable thing is the slight (and I mean slight) metallic tinge to the sound.

    The final sonata of the other early trio is probably the most successful of the bunch. Heidsieck plays with a bit more gravitas, a bit more weight – but not too much. Indeed, all those traits that inform the earlier sonatas are here. He combines just right. The outer movements come across as substantial but not overly serious. The Largo second movement shows that Heidsieck really feels at home in slow movements. And the delightful little Minuetto is, well, delightful. Everything comes together.

    Whew! After the assault that is Stephen Kovacevich’s take on the early sonatas, hearing these recordings proved to be useful tonic. I enjoyed these, every minute of every one. (Okay, I like Mr K’s take on the last two of the Op 10, though they’re still rather, um, assertive.) They ain’t earth-shaking; they ain’t so profound that they’ll help you learn the meaning of life. They are, on the whole, light fun, with enough of the heavier stuff to satisfy when more is needed. In some regards, Heidsieck reminds me of Friedrich Gulda in his Amadeo cycle. Both take a lean, pointed approach. Both play with remarkable agility and swiftness, Gulda almost always so, Heidsieck interspersed with more flexible playing. Both play in an intellectual manner; that is, neither use an of-the-moment approach and both have strong, previously worked out ideas. There are substantial differences, though. Gulda is serious and orderly and intense. Heidsieck is more flexible and mercurial and slightly detached. Gulda keeps uniquely individual statements to a minimum, or at least those he displays are more within a straight-shootin’ approach to Beethoven. Heidsieck adds little touches everywhere. It’s almost as though Gulda is Germanic and Heidsieck is Gallic. Hey, that’s it! Gulda’s Amadeo cycle is clearly the better cycle for me up to this point, but it’ll be interesting to hear how things progress.


    --


    Starting back up with the Pathetique, I expected a lean, clean, and not exactly passionate approach. That’s what I got. This is a more “classical” approach, though I don’t think it’s really classical. Once again, Heidsieck deploys his unique rubato and phrasing, though here it’s not always quite as successful. In the opening movement, he’ll cut some chords seemingly short, follow with an ever so brief pause, and then proceed at a quick pace. The second movement is relatively less eventful and the conclusion alternates between some nicely swift playing and some slower, measured playing. The whole thing is a bit detached and not especially emotional, but that’s quite alright. I like it for what it is.

    The two little Op 14 sonatas ought to fare even better, I figured. And they do! The first one is spot-on. Heidsieck plays it basically straight, adding little in the way of his mannerisms, but he still keeps the piece alert, quick, and upbeat, but he also introduces a tinge – just a tinge – of weight into the opening movement; it’s not merely upbeat. The second movement is played with just the right tempi, and the finale is happy and light and just plain fun to hear. But not as much fun as the entire second sonata in the bunch. Heidsieck makes this G major sonata as fun as can be. Oh, sure, he’s not as fast as some in the opening movement, but it’s still a delight. The second movement is basically purely charming from start to finish, and the last movement, while reintroducing more Heidsieckisms, including some comparatively generous pauses, ends the work in delicious fashion. In a group of early sonatas of exceptional quality, these two sonatas are distinguished.

    Almost as distinguished as the Op 22 sonata. This is a winner, easily one of the best of the cycle so far and also easily one of the very best I’ve heard. Heidsieck’s way is light, quick, lean, and forward moving, except in the Adagio. There he plays suitably slowly, with wonderfully articulated right-hand figurations over an almost hypnotic (at least at times) left-hand accompaniment. He plays the repetitive passages in a remarkably metronomic and even manner, yet he never sounds bored, boring, or anything less than humane. But back to the other movements. The opening flies by, with Heidsieckisms present but most useful, and both the Minuetto and concluding Rondo are downright athletic and, at times, jovial. The entire conception not only works, it dusts off a masterpiece and exposes it for what it is. Remarkable.

    The hits just keep on coming. The Op 26 sonata sounds wonderful under Mr Heidsieck’s fingers. The first two movements are sorta groovy, with Heidsieck’s rhythmic sureness coming to light, and he maintains articulate playing throughout. The funeral march is finely rendered, though perhaps not quite funeral enough. Heidsieck plays this very much as a march, and the piece is nicely choppy as a result, but it sounds merely like a somber processional. But that’s a funeral march, you say! Yes, yes, I know, but I still wanted just a little more emotional heft. The finale is in step with the opening movements and brings the piece to a perfect conclusion. Don’t get me wrong – my gripes are minimal and this is a peach of a recording.

    So’s the first of the two Sonatas quasi una fantasia. If Heidsieck doesn’t quite make the work sound like a Fantasy, he makes it sound more like a quasi-Fantasy. Heidsieckisms appear and make a most welcome addition to the music. Perhaps some want a more gracefully flowing sound, but I tell you his approach works here. Light and mercurial where needed, strong and fast when appropriate, and a bit distant in many places, he plays the piece superbly. The final movement was so darned good that I found myself humming along. (Of course, I do that a lot with this work.)

    The Mondschein is perhaps not quite as successful, though it’s still good. The opening movement is hazy and dark, which is good, and the second movement offers a fine, slightly relaxed bridge between the first and last movements. In contrast to Kovacevich’s Rock-N-Roll approach, Heidsieck use more of a Roll only approach – the music rolls along, undulating and kept under control. No unruly outbursts of excess passion here. But that’s quite alright. Not every cycle can be perfect in every sonata. That written, I foresee myself listening to this one again.


    --


    I had high hopes for the Pastorale, and the opening two movements really met my expectations. The opening movement sounds appropriately leisurely, if perhaps it doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as I like. Heidsieck offers more of his unique phrasing, always to the benefit of the piece. The second movement is similarly successful. But the Scherzo suffers from a major miscalculation on the pianist’s part. Heidsieck plays it way too slow, with longer than normal pauses that just don’t work. It’s a big miss. The final movement is on the slightly-too slow side, but here the approach works much better; I can live with (and enjoy) what is done. But man, that Scherzo pretty much ruins it.

    The first of the three great Op 31 sonatas doesn’t open auspiciously. Heidsieck again resorts to almost perilously slow playing at the very beginning, and he pairs it with elongated pauses. Fortunately, this gives way to a more rapid, more exciting, more jovial brand of playing soon thereafter. But then comes the Largo grazioso, er, uh, Adagio grazioso, and one is faced with a question: Can Heidsieck stretch it out to just shy of 14’ and make it work? The answer is yes! He plays almost the whole movement very slowly, a few rapid flourishes aside. Even the long trills are slower than normal. Somehow he manages to maintain tension and musical flow and some of his playing is so disarmingly delicate that one sits in wonder. The final movement is more standard in conception, though it, too, is filled with unique little touches. Overall, this is surprisingly good given the risks taken. It shan’t displace other favorites – Gulda on Amadeo, Frank (who is similarly very slow), Nat, Annie – but it will definitely get repeated spins.

    The Tempest is similarly unique. Heidsieck offers less in the way of stark contrasts in the opening movement, and more in the way of individual phrasing and a lighter yet slower approach, as well as generously deployed pauses. He really likes to try to add a sense of mystery with this device. It works. The second movement gets the slow treatment, too, but not as much as the opening, and the musical line is never in risk of being breached; Heidsieck seems to know when he has used enough of a good thing. As with the first of the trio, the final movement is more standard in conception, though more of those Heidsieckisms get used. Also like the first of the bunch, this doesn’t displace other favorites, but it’s good enough and insightful enough to garner multiple spins in the future.

    Heidsieck hits the third sonata out of the park. He keeps the whole thing tight and lean and quick and buoyant. The second and fourth movements, in particular, have a rhythmic drive and overall brio that’s simply infectious. I found my toes tappin’ just a bit in the last movement. The opening and third movements ain’t no slouches, neither. Heidsieck does leave his mark, so to write, but everything serves to make the piece a corker.

    So today I only got to hear four sonatas, but they are a crucial four. The slight disappointment of the Pastorale is off-set by a fine set of Op 31 works. I can’t say that they are my favorites (though the last one certainly compares favorably to any recording), but Heidsieck has passed a crucial test: he delivers a superb middle trio overall. Without that, a cycle cannot be great or even better than average. Without doubt, what I’ve heard already leads me to say this cycle is better than average, but I still have more to hear to determine if it’s great.


    --


    Every once in a while a recording or two comes along that makes you reconsider the quality of a work. Eric Heidsieck’s recordings of the two Op 49 sonatas are perfect examples. Now I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed these little gems, but let’s face it, Op 111 they ain’t. Most pianists end up doing a good job on these relatively unchallenging works, but the Frenchman takes them to a new level. It’s not that he does anything spectacular, and he certainly doesn’t rely on extreme interpretive devices; he plays both pieces with a direct, serious, yet appropriately light touch. The first one, in particular, takes on a more substantial feel, but even the second one now sounds more Beethovenian. This is an inadequate description, to be sure, but what a treat to have these works be such a highlight.

    The Waldstein ends up being a highlight of sorts, but at the same time it’s not a truly great version. Contrary to the Op 49 sonatas, this one lacks the gravitas needed. Heidsieck is fleet and dashing in the opening movement, and he deploys his now standard tricks with taste, but it’s largely superficial. I mean that more as a description than a criticism. There’s precious little for me to complain about: I loved basking in the playing. The same holds true for the second movement and finale. Everything is propulsive but never in danger of being overdone. At the same time, this rendition isn’t especially heroic or emotional. It also lacks a bit of lower-register heft. But I still enjoyed it immensely.

    The Op 54 sonata fares relatively better. Perhaps in this sonata more than any other, and then in the opening movement, can one hear the influence of Wilhelm Kempff. Heidsieck plays poetically, with a relatively small dynamic range, and if he’s a bit more nimble than the great German, he still evokes a similar response. I still prefer Kempff here, but Heidsieck is extraordinary. The second movement is not quite at the same level, though the work doesn’t suffer one bit. Flexibility rules and the whole thing comes to a satisfying conclusion.

    The Appassionata is something of an enigma. It’s fast, it’s charged, it contains an approximation of emotion, yet Heidsieck never really digs in and belts out any emotional playing. It’s all a bit detached and superficial. In that regard he reminds me of Gieseking. Obviously I’m praising the recording. Yet in spite of any perceived short-comings, I found the reading exciting and dramatic. Heidsieck plays with notable dexterity, and one interesting device he uses comes near the end of the big crescendo at the end of the first movement: he creates ascending legato waves rather than more pointed staccato playing. It’s certainly ear-catching. The finale excludes the repeat, yet this is one version where that works superbly. Were he to play on, I think the piece would lose its superficially dramatic appeal. So, not the greatest of the great, but nonetheless one to hear again.

    Similar to the Op 49 works, Heidsieck really pulls out the stops for the Op 78 and 79 sonatas. The first one, in particular, comes in for stature-enhancement. While I’ve always enjoyed it, and while some pianists give it the weight it deserves (Pollini comes immediately to mind), it seems to sometimes get short-changed. Heidsieck plays it with strength, clarity, and, well, a bit of oomph. Both movements come across as substantive. This is a great recording. The second sonata isn’t quite as successful – it’s merely outstanding. Some of Heidsieck’s tempi and tricks detract here and there, though only momentarily, and if the whole thing starts off somewhat uncertainly, the remainder of the little gem is serious fun.

    The Les Adieux reveals that not even a remarkably consistent pianist like Heidsieck can get all the sonatas right. Like Kovacevich, emotion goes missing. The playing is fine – though some idiosyncrasies mar the recording as a whole – but where is the sorrow and joy? This piece needs the emotional element to come through to succeed. And those idiosyncrasies. At times Heidsieck’s playing takes on an almost harried quality, especially in faster portions of the outer movements. At other times, particularly in the slower portions of the work, it seems as though Heidsieck is reaching to achieve a desired effect. The recording as a whole isn’t awful, but many better takes are out there. Oh well, every pianist can miss a few.

    Now only the late sonatas remain, and I’m eager to hear them. Even if they end up less than stellar, the first 26 sonatas are, as a whole, far beyond what I had expected. Bring them late works on.


    --


    Too slow and too mannered; that’s how the Op 90 sonatas starts. Heidsieck lingers just a tad on a few chords and spaces others out a bit too much. Things improve after less than a minute, but slowness and mannerism definitely maintain their presence. The second movement is much better, with an attractive, light, and intimate sound that really works. Why couldn’t the opener have had more of this? Well, as it is, the work is decently done, but hardly a top choice.

    The 101 is better. Here, Heidsieck keeps the entire work on a relatively small and intimate scale. His playing is clear and deliberate and the opening contains some attractive playing to please one’s ear. Extremes are avoided, so some may find it understated and bland, though I find it introspective and something one is drawn into. The fugue is played with nice clarity, with each point nicely delineated and never hurried. A virtuoso performance this is not. A contemplative exploration it is. Very nice.

    The Hammerklavier again finds Heidsieck in fine form, but I can see this interpretation being disliked by a few. First of all, at 44’, this is not one for speed freaks. The opening movement comes in at 11’33”, and if it doesn’t offer the dazzling display of a Gulda, Heidsieck’s grand, orchestral conception is its own reward. One luxuriates in a nicely paced and fine sounding reading. The second movement is quick ‘n’ jaunty and leads to a fine Adagio. But this Adagio is bound to be troublesome. Not especially deep or driven, Heidsieck rather plays with detachment and coolness, with light, clear textures, and an almost episodic feel at times. The great finale starts a bit slow, and the fugue does as well, but it is cleanly played, even if it’s not a virtuosic reading. (That’s not to say it’s technically weak.) While I can’t say that this rises to challenge the greats, I can say that this is best version after Gulda in my recent explorations.

    Things pick up with 109. Both this and the 110 are detached, but man, so what? Heidsieck plays the opening two movements quickly and with notable strength and even a bit of (manufactured) aggression. (Not Kovacevich-type aggression mind you; Heidsieck is too refined for that.) The dexterity with which some passages are dispatched is quite impressive, and if the dynamic contrasts are not the most pronounced, the playing more than makes up for it. The final movement is quite attractive, each variation dispatched in a most pleasing way. Once again, Heidsieck reminds me of Gieseking in his superficiality. I mean this as praise: while Heidsieck doesn’t probe as deep as some, he also doesn’t strain to make the music work.

    The 110, after a suitably slow opening, is quite similar to 109 in the remarkable dexterity employed. It’s light and quick and detached, and really quite fine. One unique interpretive insight offered by Mr Heidsieck comes in the finale when the build-up of repeated chords: rather than relentlessly increase the volume with each repeat and holding the chords for a long time (listen to Piotr Anderszewski’s recording for an extreme example), Heidsieck cuts each chord short, making a point to break off the bass notes first. It’s definitely unique. Elsewhere, his clean if not virtuosic playing of the fugue reveals the musical beauty contained therein. Another fine recording.

    Fortunately, Heidsieck saves his best of the late sonatas for last. Here there is a greater sense of engagement by the pianist. The opening contains some relatively forceful playing to go with the decidedly quick ‘n’ punchy overall feel. If perhaps the sound isn’t as ominous as I prefer, it will more than do. The second movement starts with a less than perfect Arietta, but the concluding variations are all so well done that imperfections soon slip from one’s mind. And near the end, Heidsieck plays the most remarkable pianissimo trills to underpin the rest of the music that one must wonder how he did it. The set ends on a very strong note.

    My summation: At $28, the word bargain is a profound understatement. This is a steal. For those who have or may purchase it, I must say that you should approach it without sounds of Kempff or Schnabel or Richter or &lt;insert heavy duty pianist here&gt; in your mind. Heidsieck’s playing is lighter and more detached and more deliciously flexible than many. He’s not out to prove how magnificent this music is – he doesn’t need to do that; he’s out to breathe new life into some of the pieces. For the most part he succeeds. There are a few misses in there, as is to be expected, but overall his lean and intellectual and flexible (just to reiterate) approach makes this second only to Friedrich Gulda’s Amadeo cycle in my recent listening. It’s worth noting that it’s a relatively distant second, and Gulda’s best efforts in his Decca cycle are stupefyingly great whereas Heidsieck’s are merely great. The only complaint I can muster about this set is that the sound can be metallic at times, and it is always bass-light. To say that I have been pleasantly surprised is another profound understatement. Is this a great cycle? It’s a tough call. If it’s not, then it’s certainly the greatest non-great cycle I’ve heard.

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

    Alfredo Perl

    Yes, another cycle. I’ve been aware of this long-box for years, but never got around to buying it. It’d be around, I thought. But when I started looking around the web recently, the cheap ($50 for 10 discs) set was impossible to find. It appears that Oehms snagged the rights to the recordings and now sells them at a higher price – about 75 Euros. (Perhaps the Oehms set is a new cycle, too; I don’t know. Anyone?) I remembered seeing the Arte Nova box at the local CD hut, so when last I went shopping I kept my eye out. ‘Twas there. I bought it.

    Remarkably unremarkable. That’s the best way to sum up the first sonatas. Perl offers little to nothing in the way of interpretive idiosyncrasy; he opts to let the music speak for itself. That’s not to say that he plays in a cold, analytical way, but rather that those insights he offers are subtle and at the service of the music. As such, at least with the Op 2 sonatas, there’s precious little to comment on. Slow movements are slow and fast movements are fast. Nothing is exaggerated. Nothing is underscored. Everything is just direct, clean, and refreshing – the musical equivalent of a glass of fresh, cold water. Okay, he does allow himself a bit of leeway in the final movement of the second sonata, playing some of the music with just a tad of (attractive) thickness and slowness, but it’s subtle. His individuality starts to peak through just a bit more in the third sonata, where two things become evident. First, he doesn’t rush the music. He takes his time and lets it unfold. At over 28’, this is a long recording of this work, yet it never sounds sluggish. That’s because of evident item number two: Perl has a spiffy rhythmic sense. Even in the Adagio, which he plays with a bit more heft, richness, and foreshadowing of later Beethoven than may be the norm, he maintains a nicely sprung sound. No, he can’t quite match the nearly peerless Gulda, but Gulda’s the only pianist in my recent listening who bests him here. Perl brings out some more playful elements in the Scherzo and final movement as appropriate, but to an extent, even with his now identifiable traits, his playing is about the music first and the pianist a distant second.

    The Op 7 sonata merely reiterates this. The opening movement is played swiftly, with a great deal of brio, as it should be. Perl’s rhythmic sureness generates a nicely groovy feel, and makes for one finely played opener. The second movement is definitely taken at a Largo pace, and even though Perl doesn’t shy away from spending his time on the movement, his sense of rhythm cannot be hidden. How does he make the movement keep such a nicely rhythmic feel? Dunno. I just like the result. The last two movements show off his strengths well and really animate the piece. Perhaps something else shows up, too: Perl is, by and large, serious. While lighter moments appear, and softer playing is to be heard whenever and wherever appropriate, this is some serious business. I like my Beethoven serious. That just helps out this young pianist’s cause.

    The three Op 10 sonatas more or less continue on as the preceding works. The last of the sonatas highlights Perl’s penchant for occasional slowness, especially in the Largo. A few times he just brings the whole thing to a stop, craftily utilizing pauses. The Adagio to the first of the bunch is slow – but not as slow, as one would hope, though it displays many of the same traits as well as some drama. The lighter, quicker movements all come off very well. One is reminded that not all of the swift music needs be pounded out at high volumes; Perl uses a varying touch, sometimes playing with strength, other times with a supple touch, but the one constant is that it feels right. Whether one considers the delightful little Presto ending the F major or dashing and delightful Prestissimo ending and brisk, athletic opening to the C minor, or, well, anything, everything just seems right. No flash, no undue seriousness, no out of place humor. It’s just solid playing.

    The Pathetique again continues on with the strengths of the earlier works, but adds a bit of flexibility to the mix. If his interpretation is not the most passionate and strongest out there, Perl still delivers a forceful reading with some remarkably alert, nimble playing, and he accomplishes this without a hint of strain or bang. The opening movement flies by with superbly articulate runs and exciting crescendos as does the finale, and the middle movement offers a nice bit of contemplative rest, as it were. Others go deeper, and some are too melodramatic, but Perl plays it as an essentially early piece, which it is; this is not cut from the Eroica cloth. It pre-dates it. I remember this sonata being good, and now I can confirm it.

    The two Op 14 sonatas continue the winning streak to ten straight. The first sonata is fast and sprightly, perhaps just a tad too much so in the Allegretto second movement. But any quibbles are minor. Perl’s playing is light enough and fun enough and really animates the piece. The G major sonata is something else, though; it is a masterly reading, or almost one. From start to finish this recording is all about charm, and Perl brandishes a nicely flexible and rounded tone, and jettisons the seriousness for a bit. No, he’s not nonchalant, and he’s certainly not sloppy, but he plays with controlled tempi and nicely restrained but obvious enthusiasm. The opening is pure delight, and the following Andante is an adroit mix of charm and beauty and winking wit. The concluding Scherzo caps it all off. This is a winner, and perhaps the strongest recording of the set thus far.

    So, another fine cycle is under way. Perl may lack the flash of some, the power of others, or some other traits that people crave; I can think of more poetic readings, more virtuosic reading, more aggressive readings, but I can think of no set of the first ten recordings that are this straight-forward and unaffected. That’s not to say that Perl plays in a boring or pedantic manner, but just that he obviously enjoys the music and has enough trust in Beethoven’s music to let it be the sole focus. Perl has his unique traits, but they’re of secondary importance. As to sound quality, these recording reveal their vintage: they are from the early 90s and on a budget label. They can sound a bit glassy at times, and lack some warmth. They also sound a bit more distant and resonant than I prefer, but overall the sound is much more than acceptable. I certainly hope the rest of the cycle is this good.


    --


    Starting back up with the Op 22 sonata finds Perl in fine form. His no-nonsense approach keeps everything moving along nice and briskly and with just the right amount of enthusiasm. If perhaps he finds a bit less depth than others in this not-so-deep-anyway work, that’s quite alright. In some ways it reminds me of Gulda’s enchanting take, though Perl is not quite so quick and agile. Still, this continues his string of hits.

    The Op 26 sonata fares very well, too, though here his lack of significant insight hampers things just a bit. The first two movements are largely as they should be. Perl plays straight and strong and offers enough dynamic and tonal contrast and excitement to get the job done. The funeral march, though, is a bit pedestrian. It’s not especially moving or funereal, and it doesn’t offer the Heidsieck alternative of a rousing march. So it’s a bit too much on the plain side. The concluding movement is more in line with the opening two movements, and as such the piece closes on a strong note.

    The two Sonatas quasi una fanstasia offer a mixed bag. The first of the two is the less impressive. While Perl’s rhythmic sureness and agile fingerwork bring plenty to the second and fourth movements, the first and third movements are just a bit too slow and don’t really evoke any fantastic or even quasi-fantastic elements. The playing is downright strait-laced. The Mondschein is much better. If Perl doesn’t ride the sustain pedal enough to create a suitably hazy melancholy, he does create a more dreamy sound world – and not one of pure happiness. The second movement is strongly characterized and is a fine bridge to a very strong conclusion. Perl plays with strength and precision and a pronounced and just right rhythmic oomph lacking in the last couple cycles I’ve listened to. Here’s an example of how to bring the conclusion to life without overdoing it, a lesson Kovacevich obviously has not learned. It’s even better than I remember it.

    The Pastorale ends up being three-fourths superb and one-fourth not. To the not as superb part first: the Andante second movement is played just a bit too slowly, sounding more like an Adagio. There’s a somewhat labored and contrived feeling at times that drags. That’s a shame, because the other three movements are all quite good. Perl’s rhythmic sureness again comes through, and he plays the opening movement in a nicely relaxed way and the two concluding movements benefit from all of Perl’s strengths. All told, this is a very good reading, but it cannot compare with the best.

    The critical Op 31 sonatas carry on in pretty much the same fashion, but that means that they also sound a bit too conservative at times. The first of the group is just not playful enough in the outer movements, and the second movement is slightly marred at the outset with some rather coarse sounding trills. Perl keeps everything moving along nicely enough, and plays with enough enthusiasm, but this work demands more individuality and risk taking. The Tempest sounds much better. Perl plays with striking contrast in the tumultuous opening movement, and he shows that he can play with great power and richness. The second movement shows off his ability to play slowly and still maintain both a rhythmic pulse and the musical line. A few pianists stumble here, but not Perl. The conclusion is very strong and basically makes this sonata the highlight of the trio. The final sonata is nearly as good. Perl definitely shines in the delicious Scherzo and the delightful close. Perl never abandons his generally serious approach, but he does lighten up just a tad at the right times here. These are not great recordings, though, so, for me, that precludes this from being a great cycle. But after eighteen sonatas, it’s clear that there is nonetheless a lot to enjoy in this straight-shooting (almost to a fault) set. It will be interesting to hear if such a strait-laced style succeeds as well in the upcoming works.


    --


    A mere handful of sonatas got off to a good, solid, if not quite Heidsieckian start with the Op 49 sonatas. Perl again plays with seriousness throughout, though he never plays in a heavy-handed way. While I can’t say that his recordings really make the works sparkle, they’re still enjoyable.

    The Waldstein is of sufficient stature and quality to be a make or break work. Perl makes it. All of his previously mentioned traits are again present, and if perhaps that makes for a reading that lacks the overt emotionalism or visceral virtuosic excitement of other readings, there are still nice things to hear. The final movement, in particular, has some of the most delectable gentle playing I’ve heard in the piece. Perl is not afraid to be soft ‘n’ gentle, and this contrasts with some powerful crescendos. Another nice feature is how he can build up a massive climax without resorting to unduly speeding up the work; he can and does play powerfully with a measured tempo.

    The Op 54 is a highlight of the cycle. Here Perl adopts an almost Kempffian style (though his delivery is markedly different). He plays lyrically, with measured tempi, and gentle yet clear articulation. He sees no need to rush or play strongly, preferring instead to let the music almost sing. In the second movement, near the end, rather than gradually build-up to a strong conclusion, he restrains himself, playing more softly, though he does end with an impressive flourish. Superb.

    The last sonata for the evening was the Appassionata. Basically, he plays in a style similar to the Waldstein in many regards – powerful passages with measured tempi; nicely soft playing as needed – though with a bit more passion. Granted, when compared to, say, Annie or Richter or Kovacevich, he doesn’t quite muster up a high level intensity, but he makes up for it by always playing in a controlled fashion. The outer movements boast some very strong, rich, deep playing to tickle one’s ears. A good, solid reading, if not quite top notch.

    So, Perl’s is emerging as a good, solid cycle. That is not meant as faint praise. There is no doubt at all that one is listening to music from the master from Bonn. That’s high praise in my book.


    --


    A night of only winners! The Op 78 and 79 sonatas are both played with Perl’s no-nonsense style, and both sound quite fine. Okay, perhaps 78 misses just a tad in the depth department, but 79 benefits from a uniformly brisk and upbeat approach that treats the work as a trifle, albeit a trifle by Beethoven.

    The Les Adieux is, in many respects, a repeat of the Waldstein. The same traits and approach inform the playing, and once again Perl can make the piano swell to near-orchestral proportions, especially in the last movement. He also breaks out some nicely soft playing, too. Perl’s playing isn’t as emotionally demonstrative as some others muster, but the basic pattern of a sorrowful but expectant goodbye, quiet rumination, and exultant joy is basically adhered to. Overall, this is a most satisfying version and one of the highlights of the set.

    Nearly as good is the Op 90. Playing with just the right tempi and dynamics, Perl opens in lyrical yet (slightly) driven style. Though I don’t usually think of this as a virtuosic piece, Perl puts on a rare display of digital dexterity about midway through with some sparkling right hand runs. The second movement continues the strong ‘n’ lyrical approach, and if ultimately a number of other (including the sometimes barbarian Kovacevich) do better, this is still a winner.

    The best work of the night was unquestionably the 101. This is a quite remarkable performance. Here, Perl’s still straight-ahead approach seems to work almost unexpectedly well. Rather than trying to impart some incomprehensible gravitas to the piece, his unaffected reading, though one with some powerful playing in the outer movements, simply serves the music. No idiosyncratic touches are needed to make it work. Perhaps a little more nuance in the slower passages would have been welcome, but this is a rousing version, I tell you. My first taste of Perl’s late Beethoven has been pleasing; I’m hoping for something even better tomorrow.


    --


    Perl faces stiff competition in the late works. Here, only the best will do, and the standard is impossibly high. Perl does pretty well. The Hammerklavier benefits the most from Perl’s approach. Never at any time does the piece become bogged down, too heavy, too melodramatic, too dense, or too long. The two opening movements are vigorous and well articulated, and the opening movement has that quasi-orchestral feel to it. The great Adagio is generally well played, with only one not so well judged pause to mar it, and some less than top-flight, what, philosophical or spiritual playing to make it less than it could be. The concluding movement is generally well played being at least as vigorous as the opening movements, though it is less than ideally clear at times. A world beater it may not be, but it’s worth a few more whirls.

    Both the 109 and 110 are approached in similar overall fashion, though obviously both sound appropriately different. Both suffer from some slightly gruff playing in their respective fast second movements. Both have some nicely done concluding movements, with the variations of 109, in particular coming in for some fine treatment. The concluding movement to 110 is more varied, with a solid fugue but some less impressive playing in the more delicate and slower passages. Perl isn’t bad – not at all – it’s just that the best versions of this work offer more. Overall, both are like much the rest of the cycle: solid, well done, and direct.

    The 111 is much better. Perl injects his normal playing style with a bit more passion and the results are striking. While he still avoids interpretive excess, he plays strongly and with unique accents and little touches. The first movement has some very strong, deep playing, the heavy duty chords sounding that way without ever veering close to being overdone. The second movement is also very good. The Arietta is very nicely done, and if perhaps the passages immediately after it may be a bit slow for some tastes, Perl picks up the pace and offers some more (semi) dazzling playing. A few times toward the end the piece may lose its focus, and if Perl’s playing doesn’t evoke the deepest thoughts or sublime images of Elysian fields, it is still excellent, and one of the better versions of the versions I’ve heard recently.

    With the Diabelli Variations, one gets more of Perl’s Beethoven. Largely direct and firm, his playing suits the quicker variations better. Especially noteworthy are the 10th, 17th, and 18th variations; all are delivered with zeal and enthusiasm. Some of the slower movements do fare well. The Fughetta is nicely done, and the 31st Largo is nicely rendered. Perl certainly outdoes Yokoyama in my book; Perl’s playing is more unified and purposeful and he stays focused throughout. That written, he doesn’t come close to Rudolf Serkin’s masterly reading, which remains my favorite.

    So, another cycle down, and it’s a success. Perl is consistent and plays at the service of Beethoven throughout. I can’t say this is a great cycle, but it is a decidedly enjoyable one. Indeed, if it were still readily available at its Arte Nova price, I’d recommend it to a Beethoven newbie without hesitation. Flash and idiosyncrasy it may lack, but it is not lacking in superb musicianship. Perhaps most promising is the fact that Perl was in his late-20s and early-30s when he recorded this. (Yukio Yokoyama was quite young, too, but I gotta say that Perl is definitely my choice between those two. Of course, Friedrich Gulda’s Decca cycle was recorded when Gulda was young, but Perl is not quite in Gulda’s league.) Maybe he’ll get to record the works again. Until then, I’m definitely happy with this set.

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

    Vladimir Ashkenazy

    What next? Up until now I’ve avoided Ashkenazy for a couple reasons. First, I was warned away from his Beethoven from a couple acquaintances. While not horrible they assured me, better could be had. Well I have better. I just wanna hear it now. Second, I just didn’t feel a compelling need to hear Ashkenazy’s cycle. But surely it couldn’t hurt.

    Imagine my pleasant surprise when I actually enjoyed the very first sonata! Ashkenazy takes a generally romantic view of the piece, and his tempi are all well judged for his conception. He doesn’t speed through the work, nor does he linger. And there’s a certain, almost laid-back quality. This shows up most attractively in the third movement, where he keeps things light and fun. This approach does not prevent the pianist from playing with technical assurance and power when needed. There is no doubt that Ashkenazy can easily play this music, and as such he can do what he wants. Sure, there are a few moments in the slightly slower than I like finale which I felt were less successful than others, but overall he does fine. The second sonata offers more of the same. Ashkenazy is comparatively relaxed and flexible, and injects just the right amount of humor and seriousness where needed. Nothing really jumps out, and nothing strikes one as odd or out of place. The third sonata opens very strongly, Ashkenazy showing his skill. He plays the loud passages with effortless power and dashes off some passages with disarming speed and control. As if to maximally differentiate movements, he opens the Adagio very softly. Alas, the first signs of what may turn out to be a weakness show up. While he plays the movement well, he doesn’t really distinguish himself, and he starts to sound a little on the sleepy side. Things pick up a bit after the sloe movement, and hopefully this is an aberration, but the opening trio is not quite an unqualified success. But it’s leagues ahead of what I just endured. Overall, I enjoyed the opening quite a bit. The only thing that I didn’t care for was the sound. It’s a bit more distant than I like, and it’s too dim, without enough upper register sparkle. The third sonata sounds a bit better than the first two.

    Ashkenazy delivers a fine Op 7. The opening movement definitely sounds Allegro con brio, with Ashkenazy playing quick and with clear articulation. He never rushes the piece and though I generally prefer a more laid-back style here, his approach convinced me that something more driven can work. The Largo again shows some of the same problems as with the Adagio from 2/3. It almost becomes a bit limbering at times, and Ashkenazy’s touch is a bit leaden here and there. It’s not quite enough to ruin the piece; it’s just not a highlight. The last two movements are back in top form. Ashkenazy definitely delivers a winner here, even with reservations. It’s so nice to hear a pianist who can play powerfully without banging and quickly without strain. It sounds, well, natural. Sound is better than in the first batch of sonatas, too.

    Moving to the Op 10 works finds Ashkenazy again doing rather well. He opens the first sonata strongly and quickly, but not too much so. He plays with excellent control, and he presents the work with a slightly dark hue, the second movement especially. The second sonata suffers a bit from Ashkenazy’s slightly heavier, darker playing. The first movement starts too slowly, though things pick up after a few moments. The second movement again goes a little more slowly than I prefer, but then the finale is lively and buoyant – and powerful – enough to end on a strong note. The final sonata more or less follows the same pattern as the prior sonatas; Ashkenazy plays with spirit and power in the quicker movements and a little slower than I like in the slow movements. His slow movements thus far lack the same kind of musical tension that Fischer or Gulda bring. He’s also somewhat conservative. He hasn’t taken any chances up to this point; his playing is “safe.” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the path to a great cycle.

    The Pathethique continues along the same way as before. Yes, Ashkenazy can play powerfully, and he does so without a hint of undue bang. His digital dexterity is impressive in the runs, and he plays everything with nice coherence and a variable touch. Alas, he also plays in too safe a manner. Where’s the risk, the adventure? Where’s the overt emotion? (I prefer this piece to be more emotionally charged than normal.) The recording is a very good one, but so are many others.

    Somewhat surprisingly, I enjoyed both the Op 14 sonatas. The first one surprised me. Here, Ashkenazy is vibrant and robust, playing more quickly than is the norm, and with more heft than many. But he still keeps the tone light enough and revels in some of the charming writing. The second sonata is not quite as successful overall, but is a success nonetheless. Ashkenazy’s tempi are less brisk, but he more or less pulls off the same feat. Ashkenazy manages to turn them into some highlights.

    But those misgivings remain in the back of my mind. There is no question that Ashkenazy is a pianist of the first rank. His technique allows him to do whatever he wants, and his musical judgment is sound. There are certainly no big failures or notable deviations into eccentricity. Everything is solid and well played and mostly very well recorded. But it’s all just a bit too safe. I’m hoping for some more fireworks in some upcoming works.


    --


    Well, I didn’t get fireworks with the Op 22 sonata, but I did get an extremely fine performance in just about every regard. Ashkenazy’s approach and traits fit this work well. He keeps the opening movement taut and buoyant. I was expecting the second movement to be relatively weak, but here Ashkenazy nails the slow movement. Lovely phrasing and an attractive tone combined with perfectly judged tempi render this about the most successful slow movement thus far. The last two movements both show off Ashkenazy’s fine musical judgment and technical excellence. While not the most thrilling version I’ve heard, this is a real high point.

    The Op 26 is not. It’s not bad, but like other recordings it’s nothing special. He plays the first two movements with enough power and control and fine things to hear, but come the ever important funeral march – it is the centerpiece, after all – and Ashkenzy’s offend no one approach really doesn’t work. The movement sound neither funereal or march like, and while it lacks an emotional core, it is well played. The final movement reverts to the same style and success of the opening movements.

    The Op 27/1, though, is absolutely top-notch. It’s one of the best recordings of this work I’ve ever heard. Ashkenazy successfully marries notable power, precise control, dashing speed (where appropriate, of course), and some good old fun in just about perfect proportion. I must comment on the power of Ashkenazy’s playing. Where other’s either don’t play very strongly or veer into music-crushing banging, Ashkenazy maintains exemplary control and never even comes close to just flailing away. The weighty sound can energize a room, and that’s just darned fun. Ashkenazy proves no slouch in the slower portions of the work. Indeed, there’s no weakness throughout. A remarkable recording.

    The Mondschein is almost as good. Ashkenazy does a fine job creating a somewhat solemn and hazy opening movement. The second movement offers an improvement in mood and contrast in tempo. And the finale is strong, fast, powerful and just plain fun to listen to. Interpretively it is, again, very safe, but Ashkenazy knows how to deliver the goods.

    Ashkenazy continues his largely safe and comfortable playing with the great Pastorale. While there’s certainly wrong with that, and while interpretive idiosyncrasy can cause problems here, the recording just doesn’t scale the heights. Ashkenazy opens the work with a nice lilting but never dainty or weak sound – indeed, he’s quite brisk and fun. The slow movement doesn’t induce boredom, and the piece ends well. But it’s all so generic. I can think of a half dozen recordings I prefer, and I can still remember more about those recordings even though it’s been months since I’ve heard them.

    So it is with the first of the Op 31 sonatas. Again, Ashkenazy plays it safe. The opening movement is chipper, well executed, and enjoyable, but it doesn’t break new ground, nor does it shed new light on the piece. The slow movement is interesting, with Ashkenazy adopting some sprightly, upbeat playing in a few sections, but the long trills sound plain, and the more introspective moments sound blank. The final movement is as inoffensive and plain vanilla as the opening. The Tempest is the best sonata of the lot. Ashkenazy does a superb job highlighting the dynamic contrasts of the opening movement, with massively powerful crescendos and whisper quiet pianissimo playing. He also uses silence expertly. The second and third movements more or less fall in line with what has come before, tailored to the needs of the piece. The last sonata is a mixed bag. In the second and fourth movements Ashkenazy plays with total command and does a reasonable job of bringing out middle Beethoven mischief. The first and third movements both have the by now normal drawbacks. Overall, Ashkenazy is good and solid, but in the critical Op 31 sonatas, the pianist must bring something unique and insightful to really warrant repeated listens. After the monumental Gulda, even good and solid is wanting.


    --


    Starting back up with the two little Op 49 sonatas finds Ashkenazy in top form – or as close to it as these works allow. It is charming to hear a pianist of such obviously formidable talent playing so daintily and with such a sense of fun. He doesn’t try to make either piece serious or heavy. Indeed, if anything he treats them as charming little trifles offering a rest before the coming storm.

    Alas, the first part of the storm is comprised not of powerful musical gales but of some mild trade winds. Ashkenazy starts the Waldstein in surprisingly restrained fashion. While he does ratchet up the tension and virtuosity a bit, he never really plays with either abandon or calculated power. It’s rather limp. The second movement ends up being dull. There’s little emotion, no notable beauty, just a slow, well played movement that segues to a reasonably good conclusion. Here Ashkenazy does play with more power and snap, but it’s too late to make this a contender. Given Ashkenazy’s strengths, I was expecting something more.

    Fortunately, Op 54 is better. Ashkenazy adopts a mostly lyrical approach to the first movement, though he still announces his presence with a few powerful outbursts. The second movement is played a bit more vigorously, Ashkenazy savoring the more intricate writing. He never draws undue attention to anything, rather seeming to take pleasure in playing all as cleanly as possible. A few times he plays with just the right amount of oomph (which is needed, otherwise one goes up against the unassailable Kempff in the softer approach), and he pulls it all off nicely.

    I came to the Appassionata expecting Ashkenazy to do very well; his awesome power, formidable digital dexterity, and focus all seem to point to success. He succeeds! The opening movement is played fast ‘n’ furious, with a cutting tone that reminds me of Saint Annie’s recording. Intense, bold, passionate: Yes, it has it all. Perhaps not quite to the same degree as Ms Fischer or Richter – her only credible rival – but more than average. The slow movement again displays Ashkenazy’s tendency to take a safe approach and it rather blights the recording. The final movement, though, is back to fire ‘n’ fury, with massive crescendos and dazzling dexterity. Superb!

    Ashkenazy plays the Op 78 sonata just right; that is, he plays with some heft and drive, but never too much. The first movement is strongly characterized and meaty, the second movement sheer fun. The Op 79 blasts out of the gate. Ashkenazy plays the whole thing fast, yet he still manages to imbue it with the right amount of humor. The second movement is serious and restrained and elevates the stature of the piece, and the final movement more or less ends it as it opens. Very solid.

    Alas, the Les Adieux is not so good. It’s not that Ashkenazy plays poorly – he’s too fine a pianist to do that – it’s just that he doesn’t really bring anything insightful to the piece. There’s little or no emotion, and some devices seem contrived. I sat waiting for it to ignite, but ‘twas not to be. That’s okay, though; he doesn’t have to nail every one. Now that I’m ready for the late sonatas, I can look back and report that Ashkenazy is indeed good in these sonatas, certainly better than I figured he would be, but he’s not great. His largely safe, conservative approach doesn’t bring anything new, and though one can’t fault his technique, I often want more when a given sonata is over. I’m presuming the late sonatas will be similar. That, however, means that he will be relegated to less than exalted status. We shall see.

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

    Andrea Lucchesini

    Who to hear next? That was the dilemma I faced. (Okay, it wasn’t a dilemma, but I surely had to decide.) The most glaring omission in my Beethoven piano sonata cycle was (and still is) Wilhelm Backhaus, but he will be heard in time. No, I hankered for something fresh and unknown. Well, as luck would have it, I stumbled upon a nice budget box of one Andrea Lucchesini playing this august repertoire at my CD hut. The set is but $52. It was on my radar. But then I noticed that Overstock has it for under $40. My mind was made up. But who is, I wondered? Well, he is an Italian pianist of the ripe old age of 40 this year. He’s won some awards and made some recordings, but I could find little about him. I did find an old review of a Beethoven recital disc in Gramophone’s archives where Joan Chissell praised his playing though she tempered her enthusiasm by pointing out Mr Lucchesini’s soft playing. Given the striking and powerful playing of Ashkenazy, I figured Lucchesini would make a nice change of pace.

    My expectations really should have been higher. Much, much higher. Right from the outset of the first sonata I was held enthralled. Lucchesini plays the opening movement very fast, yet he plays very elegantly, and with lovely tone pregnant with subtle variations. He plays the next two movements rather more slowly, yet he maintains musical tension. He’s not “exciting,” but he makes up for a lack of undue flash and bang with glorious playing. His style is a bit cool, extremely refined, very beautiful, a bit on the soft side – but that’s quite alright with me – and consumed with meticulously planned flexibility. This is not of-the-moment Beethoven. This is more intellectually driven Beethoven. In the words of that famous Yello song: Oh Yeah!

    The second sonata is just as successful, but on its own terms. The whole time I listened I was taken in by the beauty of Lucchesini’s playing, of the gentleness and control, of the inwardness and coolness (which is not the same as coldness). Lucchesini again keeps everything flowing along, adopting tempi and dynamics that are indeed softer than what some may want, but so what? He plays articulately and, when needed, with notable power, but his forte chords never sound hard or harsh or brittle. All is warm and glowing. As with the first sonata, spontaneity is in short supply, but ideas are not. Take the scherzo. He plays everything deliberately yet fluidly, emphasizing each note in the delightful little arpeggios and bringing them to life. The finale is more standard in terms of tempi, but Lucchesini seems incapable of playing an ugly note. The live recording is not note-perfect, but the slips are minor and the rewards major. Another gorgeous, thoughtful and thought-provoking sonata.

    The third sonata continues along the same path. The opening two movements are both beautiful and soft and share a lyrical, singing quality. The third movement introduces some really brisk playing, but Lucchesini maintains his poise and wonderful sound throughout. Perhaps he’s not as prankish as some may like, but I’ll take the offset. The final movement finds Lucchesini gliding across the keyboard with remarkable agility and playing with some true strength, but he never loses his touch. Can this man be shaken? I hope not. The opening trio is quite successful, and if Lucchesini doesn’t join the heavyweights in style, he joins them (or nearly so, depending on which heavyweight one considers) in stature. Lucchesini’s style is too well thought out to really revel in the youthfulness of the pieces, but so what?

    The Op 7 sonata keeps up the brisk pace and makes me a believer in the fast opening. Not heroic or brash, the opening here is swift and light and sweet. The wonderful Largo comes off a bit quicker than normal in the first half, and not quite as deep and probing throughout, but again there is that sheer aural beauty to savor. I do confess to having wanted a bit more depth. But beyond this quibble, there’s nothing but praise. The last two movements are played with delicacy and beauty beyond what one often expects with old Ludwig van.

    Moving to the Op 10 trio shows a potential chink in the gilded armor, as it were. While Lucchesini opens the first sonata quickly enough, there’s little in the way of drama or power. Clear articulation and personal yet not bothersome idiosyncrasy follow, but I can definitely understand why some people would want more bite. The slow movement is, predictably, a success. (How nice to go from Ashkenazy who can sound slightly bored and boring at times to a pianist who sounds good in every slow movement.) But the problems, if that’s what they are, reappear in the final movement. The work as a whole should show angst and other Beethovenian qualities? It don’t bother me, but some may not like it. If the first sonata can be accused of sounding too light, then the second sonata suffers the opposite fate. Lucchesini plays the work with a richer, darker hue than is normal, and he succeeds. He keeps the opening movement moving along, but it’s not as buoyant as some may like. The Allegretto second movement at times sounds like a sublime Adagio, with Lucchesini creating an at times almost static sound world. He doesn’t play especially slowly or anything, that’s just the effect he has. The conclusion is light, quick, and technically assured, and I must say that I really wanted the repeat, but I’ll gladly take what he plays. I’ve read several times that the Op 10/3 is Beethoven’s first truly great sonata – a belief I do not share – but Lucchesini almost makes me believe it. He plays the work in a more serious fashion, with all of his strengths (and some may say weaknesses) on display. Everything seems expertly prepared and nary a note is out of place, and everything is so lovely and rich and warm sounding, that this work becomes titanic. He may lack the rhythmic perfection of Gulda, but in this sonata (and the end of 10/2) he shows that he can boogie. More importantly, in the Largo, he proves that he can create a world of luxuriant stasis and gorgeous aural power, even if some emotional weight goes missing. Listen, at about the eight minute mark, when he meticulously and inexorably builds up power and tension and then, then, releases softly. It is magical. The chirpy third movement is a delight, but the final movement – man, where does it come from? As should be clear by now, Lucchesini is the very antithesis of the banging virtuoso, but the irresistible, gorgeous legato cloud he creates at times, with some extremely soft playing to boot, is simply enchanting. More biting, forceful 10/3s are out there, but few are really more enjoyable.

    Moving to the big, intense Pathetique finds Lucchesini delivering a curious success. He’s no heavy hitter, never letting his tone become biting or sharp, and his playing doesn’t undulate wildly, but he succeeds. His fast playing is remarkably fleet and nimble, his slower playing mesmerizing. The second movement, not surprisingly, is much more successful, but even the third movement succeeds beyond my expectations. No, it cannot match up to the best of the best, but it’s not a weak spot.

    The two Op 14 sonatas should be superb, I thought, and so they are. Lucchesini’s warm, gracious tone and light, glittering fingerwork work to perfection. Both pieces come off as fun and relatively light, but not slight. Lucchesini’s particular strengths really work wonders, and if once again I miss that rhythmic prowess others bring, the relaxed sunshine the Italian brings is more than reward enough. I found myself quietly whistling along through most of the second sonata. Another pair of winners.

    So, a surprisingly good set is underway. Hell, it’s better than good. I must emphasize that not everyone will be so fond of Lucchesini’s playing. Some may find it too soft, and not biting and boisterous and rough enough. But I really dig the highly refined, lovely, controlled playing. One must listen to Lucchesini’s Beethoven with utterly focused and unwavering concentration – something I find very easy (too easy) to do – otherwise some of what he accomplishes may slip by. There is some extraordinary pianism to be had here. As I listened I could only be impressed by the unpercussive nature of Lucchesini’s playing. (I would love to hear him in Chopin and Debussy.) To an extent, he reminds of a mix of Michelangeli, Kempff, and Schiff. Even that does not do him justice. For those who like flash ‘n’ fire, stay way. For those who like gorgeous, tasteful playing, dig in. Things are only helped by some of the best sounding LvB sonata recordings I’ve heard. (Only Jean-Bernard Pommier’s early sonatas sound better.) Okay, perhaps the sound is too close sometimes, and too distant sometimes, and perhaps audience and other noise creeps in at inopportune times in this all-live set, but complaints are meaningless quibbles. I love what I’ve heard thus far.


    --


    I was keenly interested in hearing how Lucchesini would handle the Op 22 sonata. This sonata benefits greatly from a brisk, and, as Friedrich Gulda has shown, groovy approach. Lucchesini’s particular set of strengths seemed to guarantee a lovely, smooth sounding ride. And so it mostly is. Lucchesini does play light ‘n’ fast, with his glorious, flowing legato dominating the sound world, and he does groove just a bit, especially in the first and third movements. The finale is pretty much spot-on given his conception, but it is surely the slow movement where Lucchesini best demonstrates the value of his playing. Beautiful, never too soft, and with just the right speed, he nails it. No, his performance is no blockbuster like Gulda’s or even Heidsieck’s, but it’s darned tootin’ nonetheless.

    I approached the Op 26 sonata with both hope and resignation. While I thought Lucchesini’s style would provide for a memorable interpretation, I also thought his relatively soft approach would render it something less than the very best. I was right on both counts, though fortunately he fares relatively better than I thought he would. The opening movement is played with that restrained beauty I expected, with Lucchesini playing in a pensive, detached way. The second and fourth movements, in contrast, are quick ‘n’groovy, Lucchesini’s articulation (a few flubs aside) quite fine, and his smooth, beautiful tone allowing for something more rocking when appropriate. But it is the funeral march that determines the success or failure of the work. Lucchesini can’t really be said to be too funereal, nor is his playing very march-like, but he does play with a serious, considered tone, with everything sculpted just so. This style draws inevitable comparison to his elder countryman Michelangeli. I cannot lie: Michelangeli is more successful in this sonata, and the supreme master of the stylistic similarities the two pianists share, but Lucchesini doesn’t wilt by comparison. It is excellent.

    The same cannot be said for the first of the two Sonatas quasi una fantasia: It is brilliant! This sonata is one of the highlights of Ashkenazy’s cycle, so I didn’t really expect to be wowed, but what Lucchesini does with the piece borders on the miraculous. Looking only at the timings of the movements, one can see that this is a fast recording, but that hides much. Yes, right out of the gate Lucchesini plays briskly, undulating and groovin’ in his best Gulda style, but then he pulls back and floats a wonderfully atmospheric, contemplative, somewhat hazy though always crystal clear sound world. Lucchesini creates an ethereal world, where normal rules of dynamics and tempi melt away when confronted by his conception. Brilliant pedaling married to his glorious tone and nuance create a thing of beauty. Yet when he needs to play very fast and powerfully, as in the second movement, he does so brilliantly. Just listen to how he builds up the piece, carefully building up to an auditorium filling, wall vibrating crescendo (I was listening at very high volume) without sounding hard even once, and listen to how long he holds that last chord that segues attaca to the Adagio. It is perfect. Then listen to his wonder of an Adagio, with normal considerations of flow and time being rendered unimportant. Listen to his transition to the ending, and to the wonderfully alert, darting, groovy playing that so seamlessly transitions to an almost static slow passage right before the corker of an ending. How he manages to move so gracefully between tempi and dynamics and how he manages to infuse such wonderful phrasing is a mystery. This is not an emotional account, it is not a flashy account, and it most certainly is not a rhapsodic, of the moment account – Lucchesini appears to have pondered this piece for a long time and he has definite ideas about how it should sound. One must really focus on it (and I sat at careful attention, making sure to breathe shallower than normal so as to not miss even a note), but the rewards are great. This is a great recording. But only for those susceptible to Lucchesini’s playing.

    After such a fine 27/1, the Mondschein was bound to be less impressive. As far as Mondschein recordings go, this is a good one, indeed. Lucchesini opens the piece in a slow, hazy way, using the sustain pedal and precise fingerwork to create the appropriate atmosphere. The second movement is quicker and more pointed, and though not really upbeat, it offers a nice contrast to the opener. The final movement shows that Lucchesini can play with outright pianistic fireworks if he so chooses. He plays fast and powerfully, but the combination of close-miking and liberal use of the sustain pedal results in an amorphous swirl of notes. There is also something I haven’t heard in modern digital recordings – a bit of breakup in a couple places. It’s barely noticeable, but notable nonetheless. The most vigorous applause thus far in the cycle indicates that this must be something to hear live.

    I came to the Pastorale expecting great things. Lucchesini’s style literally begs for this piece. Or so I thought. Don’t get me wrong, Lucchesini’s take is an excellent one, it just doesn’t reach the summit my mind’s ear thought it would. The opening movement starts fine enough and sounds lovely, as I would expect. But it’s not laid back enough, and it doesn’t have a strong enough rhythmic pulse. Mind you, I’m comparing Lucchesini to the very best when I say this. Too, he infuses the piece with an unusual and reasonably effective anxiety and tension about a third of the way through. It’s not harried or nervous, but that easy-going sound is informed by something a tinge more troubled. The second movement more or less sounds right on, improving things a bit, but then the third movement is relatively too fast. It’s not truly fast, but in the context of the performance and Lucchesini’s style, it’s too fast. The finale is the most conventional and conventionally successful movement of the lot. Overall, this is a strong performance, and one I know I’ll return to again, but it is not really a highlight of the cycle thus far.

    Another batch of sonatas has now served to reinforce my initial impressions. Lucchesini continues to take a soft-ish, aurally enchanting, thoughtful approach. Extremes of tempi and especially dynamics are eschewed in favor of a more controlled and inward looking cycle. Again, I love it!


    --


    It’s time for some critical listenin’. The Op 31 sonatas are critical for the ultimate success of a cycle. A pianist can nail all 29 other sonatas, but if these three ain’t top notch, the cycle ain’t great. That’s just the way it is. As various pianists have shown, there are a number of ways to play these and make them great. Think Kempff, Annie, Gulda, Frank, Heidsieck, or whomever else you desire, and you can see what I mean. Would Lucchesini deliver? Well, the first sonata of the trio certainly seems to point in that direction. As I expected, his approach is his own. The opening movement starts with cleanly articulated, snappy playing. But it doesn’t take long to hear the unique touches. Lucchesini shows that he has mastered the art of the well timed pause and subtle rubato. A number of times he’ll linger just a smidgeon more than one might think appropriate, yet it always works. The little touches are nice, but the conception isn’t too unusual. Then comes a wondrous second movement. First of all, the trills are played with an impossibly feathery lightness throughout. (Even the bass trills at the end are notable more for smooth, tasty legato than for perfectly clear articulation.) A few times the playing isn’t as clean as one may want, but it’s a trade off I accept. When he’s not playing trills, Lucchesini plays with an ethereal, otherworldly touch. Everything is so soft and delicate. It shouldn’t work, I know, but it does. The final movement finds Lucchesini cranking up the heat ‘n’ speed ‘n’ flash just enough to make it rousing and exciting. A few passages contain some minor flubs, but the musical message is right. Our hero just can’t resist adding his minute touches all the way through. The staggered ending is delivered with just enough oomph and impeccable timing. So far, so good.

    The Tempest is even better. Yes, one can think of a number of pianists who make more of the dramatic contrasts in the opening movement, but Lucchesini’s considered, controlled playing and dark-ish hue sets the mood just right. Some of the lower register playing is strong and punctuates the piece as needed. The second movement is where Lucchesini shines. His meticulously thought out, rich sounding playing acts as both a contrast to the opening movement and bridge to the conclusion by staying in the right mood with subdued playing. The final movement has some urgent playing, and once again shows that Lucchesini can, when he chooses, play the virtuoso, though he never goes overboard.

    The final sonata is the strongest of the critical three. Here, Lucchesini revels in bringing out the prankish, boisterous side of Lou. Sort of. He never simply lets loose. Everything is controlled and fits into his over-arching conception. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. The opening movement is just plain fun to listen to, but not as much as the second. Lucchesini cruises along, playing in the groove, and then one of Beethoven’s little musical outbursts arrives and Lucchesini is all over it. He revels in it before proceeding back to the main line. The third movement is a perfect blend of considered playing, beautiful sound, and an approach that doesn’t try to make the work sound too deep. Why would someone want to with the finale that follows? Here, Lucchesini plays fast and strong, and brings out the raucous elements just fine. But something else was cemented in my mind: Lucchesini has the uncanny ability to make even his fast playing – and it is fast – sound relaxed and natural. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have the bite or fury when needed, just that he can spin off notes so well, that nothing ever sounds hurried or fast for the sake of being fast. It’s pretty nifty. Anyhoo, this recording combines all of the elements I adore in this work in just about the perfect proportions. Another highlight of this surprisingly good cycle.

    The two Op 49 sonatas come off well. The first one is played pretty straight forward in the first movement with Lucchesini adopting a faster and stronger than normal second movement. ‘Tis still a delightful little piece. For the second sonata Lucchesini again goes for a straight opener and tweaked second movement. Here, though, he goes the opposite direction, playing the delightful theme from the Septet slower than normal. The music sounds lovely this way, and ends the works well.

    Now it’s on to the Waldstein. In this work Lucchesini relies heavily on his ability to play with remarkable speed. The only downside is that the recorded sound does not allow for a clear enough sound picture. But that’s the only complaint. The opening passage is simply wonderful, and when Lucchesini does slow down, it’s merely a rest before it’s off to the races again. His apparent dynamic range is not titanic, but everything is so well controlled and genuinely exciting that I didn’t care. (A few flubs did not dampen my enthusiasm one bit.) The second movement is played in a slower and not especially contemplative fashion, though truth to tell, I like it that way. It never runs the risk of devolving into sentiment. The final movement is again possessed of nimble fingerwork and adrenalized music-making. Lucchesini shows that he can hammer out a loud crescendo without even a hint of strain or steel, and the whole thing is just plain invigorating. There are deeper, more searching accounts out there, but relatively few are more enjoyable. This is a big hit. I wonder what awaits . . .


    --


    A successful Waldstein raised my expectations for the other great middle sonatas. My expectations have been met. The Op 54 is fantastically successful, and Lucchesini does this while putting his own stamp on the work. I assumed he would be lyrical since he can’t seem to help himself in that regard, and I was right. But he does something unexpected: he plays the opening movement with a bit more force and incisiveness than I expected. He shows that he can move beyond smooth and beautiful legato to clean and beautiful staccato without missing a beat. His left hand foundation for the right hand figurations is superb, and everything moves along nicely. In the second movement he slows things down a bit, relishing both the beauty contained in the piece and the deceptively dense writing. He finishes the piece by speeding up markedly while playing with remarkable accuracy. This is a doozy of a performance.

    But not as much as the Appassionata. Lucchesini keeps his intellectual cool throughout this work, and somewhat like Pollini in his recent live account, he really hammers out the music. That’s not to say he bangs away – far from it. He starts the piece with restraint and taste, but when the first emotive explosion comes, Lucchesini unleashes his playing, so to speak, and plays both dizzyingly fast and with immense strength. The crescendos once again set my walls to vibrating, and his left hand playing is heavy and strong, yet always, always in control. While he never quite succumbs to of-the-moment urges, his approximation is close enough and truly invigorating. In the second movement Lucchesini backs off appropriately, and plays with a satisfyingly forlorn sound that builds up perfectly to the closing movement. Again, it is quick and immensely powerful, with outbursts so well timed and executed that this listener, at least, was leaning forward just a tad in the old La-Z-Boy as Lucchesini raced to the finish. This is one of the best non-Annie versions I’ve heard, and certainly shows that great Beethoven playing is not dead.

    So do the two little sonatas that follow, not that you can call Lucchesini’s conception little. The first movement of the Op 78 sonata is played beautifully from start to finish, Lucchesini bringing his glorious tone and finely graded touch to create something more akin to late Beethoven than a mere trifle. The second movement proceeds along the same path. The Op 79 finds Lucchesini playing the role of virtuoso in a convincing manner. The outer movements are played very fast and with notable articulation and strength, and Lucchesini burns right through the “off-key” passages at the end of the first movement with a sense of fun and energy. The second movement is played with feeling and depth and makes the whole work seem more significant than normal. This is some seriously good stuff.

    One of the best recordings I’ve heard of late of the Les Adieux concluded today’s listening. As in the Op 57, Lucchesini shows that he can play with immense power, easily establishing the pianistic equivalent of an orchestral sound. The piano swells and surges and fills the auditorium with nary a hard sound to be heard. While not the most emotional take I’ve heard, Lucchesini does bring a credible emotional feel to this work. The opening movement is indeed a farewell, but it’s one filled with more cheer than normal, knowing that the return will come. The second movement offers more of a sense of lonely impatience than contemplative sorrow, but it still builds to a massive, ebullient ending that simply grabs the listener and won’t let go. A few moments of lapsed concentration cause no harm in the context of such a finely considered and delivered version.

    Up to this point I definitely prefer Lucchesini to Ashkenazy, and now I’m at the same point in both cycles. Perhaps a head-to-head for the last half-dozen . . .

  10. #10
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Ashkenazy and Lucchesini Play Late Beethoven

    Having reached the same point in both cycles, I decided to do a head-to-head comparison in the late sonatas to determine who I like best and precisely why. I haven’t done head-to-head comparisons of Beethoven’s sonatas for a while, and the last time I did was in an Annie vs Schnabel shoot-out where I determined that Annie is indeed the supreme master of all things Beethoven. (She also smote Kempff and Frank in comparative listening.) So who would emerge my favorite here? These are two distinctive pianists, Ashkenazy the powerful virtuoso playing it safe, and Lucchesini the restrained and soft lyrical pianist playing beautifully. Hmm . . .

    I got underway with the Op 90 of course, and I opted to hear the elder pianist first. Trouble emerged immediately. Ashkenazy opens the piece in a heavy, lumbering way. He soon recovers and moves into a more conventional approach, though his playing and sound is a bit cutting. Things flow relatively smoothly, and a few times he brings his awesome power to the fore. The second movement is more subdued and straight-forward, but Ashkenazy also succumbs to the problem that plagues many of his slow movements: the music making is a little boring and plain sounding. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but he doesn’t bring anything especially valuable, either. And his playing doesn’t sing, and in this lyrical late sonata that is a problem. By contrast, Lucchesini more or less nails it. His more aurally beautiful, smooth, and somewhat soft and lyrical tone all work together to produce a glorious reading. He doesn’t open as strongly as the Russian, and throughout his dynamic range is narrower, but the trade-offs come elsewhere. First of all, if Lucchesini doesn’t play as loudly, he excels at adding more color and nuance further down the dynamic scale. His soft playing is incredibly beautiful and controlled. While some may find the opening movement too smooth and soft, I find it irresistible. The second movement benefits even more. Lucchesini makes the piano sing. His take is so lyrical and beautiful, and he creates such an amazing ethereal sound world, that Lucchesini manages to evoke the same type of transcendental, philosophical feel usually reserved for the last three sonatas and the Adagio from the 106. His timings are only seconds off (longer in the opening, shorter the second movement) from Ashkenazy, yet Ashkenazy seems to take longer and makes the piece sound too long for its content. Lucchesini makes it fly by. Lucchesini triumphs here.

    The Op 101 sonata finds both pianists at something less than their best. Ashkenazy opens the work by playing surprisingly softly. The entire first movement sounds lovely and shows that he can play in whatever fashion he wants. For all that, it’s not compelling. The second movement march is strongly played, Ashkenazy’s strength and focus coming to the fore, but from there on it’s something less than the best. Neither the Adagio nor the concluding movement have much in the way of feeling or philosophical insight; it’s well played but conservative and not exactly exciting. Lucchesini opens the work more strongly than I would have thought, with some sharp, pointed playing (well, at least for him) and some moderately quick tempi in places. The march is too slow, flowing, and soft to be maximally effective. The Adagio comes off fabulously, Lucchesini once again applying his strengths to maximum benefit, and the final movement starts out with promise. As with the preceding sonata, he brings a certain transcendental, philosophical feel usually reserved for the last works, but, alas, this feeling doesn’t stay for the duration. There’s a sense of wandering here and there, and my attention certainly wandered. This is a tough one to pull off, and while both pianists do well, better can be had elsewhere.

    For the Hammerklavier I decided to listen to Lucchesini first. His version is long, taking over 47 minutes, so I wondered how he would maintain the musical tension. Quite well, it turns out. The opening movement is long at over 12 minutes, but the playing never seems slow and the movement never seems long. Lucchesini prefers to let the large-scale writing unfold at a comfortable place, and he plays both strongly and beautifully. The second movement is more conventional in both speed and attack – this movement is delivered with some aggressive playing, though it never tips over into hardness. The great Adagio is very long at over 20 minutes, and Lucchesini is most at home here. His playing is beautiful and clear, his phrasing simultaneously (relatively) subdued and communicative. He achieves a nice late-Beethoven sound. The final movement is played with formidable dexterity and power, though Lucchesini’s playing remains beautiful and smooth. For all of the attractive elements, though, it never really amounts to a great recording; it never jells into something greater than the sum of its movements. This is one of the most difficult of all sonatas to make compelling from start to finish, and Lucchesini does not join the ranks of the greats. Neither does Ashkenazy’s recording. Here his tendency to play it safe is on uninspiring display. As one would expect from this pianist, everything is well played. He has no trouble handling any part of the score, and he plays with decent power and contrast between sections, and so on, but it’s mostly bland. I was really expecting more of a virtuoso show in the opening two movements, but instead got well timed and ultimately bland playing. The Adagio epitomizes Ashkenazy’s playing – perfectly executed but lacking a musical soul or focus of interest. He plays beautifully hear, and introspectively there, and so on, but I just never got into it. Only in the concluding fugue does Ashkenazy really com alive. His playing is meticulous, strong, fast, and downright thrilling at times, but it is too little, too late. Of the two versions, I prefer Lucchesini, but neither recording is a highlight of either cycle.

    Moving to the 109, I again opted to hear Lucchesini first. I had higher hopes for this work, particularly the final movement. I more or less got what I expected. Lucchesini plays the opening movement is a pretty straight-forward manner, with all of his standard tools in use. Perhaps it could have used a bit more kick in places, but it’s solid. The second movement is rather smoothed out with Lucchesini lovely legato and constrained dynamics making it more fluid than is often the case. The final movement, though, is strong. The Andante opening is gorgeous in parts, and Lucchesini’s control and concentration are superb. Most of the movement is taken at a slow tempo, which allows everything to unfold in a most attractive way, but some may find it less appealing. Lucchesini does zip through parts of the middle section with notable assurance before returning to his slow ‘n’ beautiful playing. The final reappearance of the Andante theme is ravishing, and Lucchesini ends the work with two chords played soft and softer, each one timed to perfection. The listener has to be in tune with Lucchesini’s style, otherwise some things may be lost, but I enjoyed it. After a couple uninspired sonatas, Ashkenazy finds his inspiration again in this one. The opening movement is only partially successful, with Ashkenazy playing with that contemplative, meditative quality that marks most successful recordings, but that playing is interspersed with more pedestrian playing. When he’s playing swifter, more complicated passages he seems to lose focus just a tad. The second movement finds Ashkenazy once again playing at his formidable best: the playing has his hallmark power and control, and the whole thing is striking if perhaps a bit shallow. The final movement, though, is excellent. Ashkenazy brings out that late-Beethoven sound world in near perfect form. He doesn’t play too hard, too fast, too slow, too anything, really. There are no one or two things that jump out; the whole thing works. But it still isn’t quite a top contender. Ashkenazy needs to nail every part of the sonata for that to happen. So, another pair of good if not top-notch recordings, this time with Ashkenazy getting the nod.

    For the 110 I started with Ashkenazy. (I was too lazy to get up and change CDs.) Whereas his 109 is pretty strong throughout, his 110 is bland. Once again he’s in play-it-safe territory, with nothing of great interest coming to the fore. He opens more softly than I would have thought, but he manages to make that lovely opening sound quite nice. In contrast to the 109, here he plays the second movement in a soft, tame manner. There are no sparks. As he moves into the final movement (here broken into two movements, though this movement can be carved up a few different ways), he plays with a nicely disconsolate manner at the outset, and then moves into a well played but rather boring fugue. His fingers hit all the notes, but it just doesn’t ignite. In the passage where many pianists build up the repeated chords with increasing power, ending with a fortissimo outburst, Ashkenazy goes for a bland, safe, surprisingly restrained sound. From there to the ending it’s more of the same old safe playing. It’s not a bad recording, but it’s just not very insightful. Lucchesini, on the other hand, delivers a superb rendition of the work. He plays the piece in a style completely consistent with what I’ve described before – it is beautiful, with gorgeous legato, generally soft-ish playing, with power and speed only when needed. The opening movement is taken at a perfect pace; a bit on the slow side, Lucchesini makes it sound perfect. His tender playing is a wonder to hear. The second movement is played more powerfully, with appropriate contrast, and enough forward momentum to satisfy those who prefer a more driven approach. The final movement opens with a slow, ravishing Adagio that segues to a slow-ish, perfectly controlled and reasonably clean fugue. He could be faster in places, with a bit more intensity, but overall it is quite fine. When Lucchesini builds up the chords, it is in a wonderfully controlled and powerful fashion, but when he builds up the tension at the end of the piece, ending in an immense wash of beautiful notes, the effect is remarkable. The listener isn’t really very conscious of the gradual increase in volume until he lets the last chord linger into silence – and he holds it just long enough. This is an extraordinary performance, though it doesn’t quite scale the heights of a few other recordings. Here’s another work where I prefer the young(ish) Italian.

    For the last sonata I decided to go for Lucchesini first. I had some concerns that he may play the opening movement too softly, but my concerns were put to rest quickly. He opens with perfectly judged playing, never letting any note linger too long and never cutting anything short. His staccato playing is pointed and his sforzandi are strong if not too cutting. The ominous chords in the second half of the movement are all delivered with a satisfying heft and darkish hue, though more imposing takes are available. But the opening movement is a success. The second movement starts off very strong, with a predictably beautiful Arietta, and then Lucchesini proceeds to play wonderful, at times miraculous, but also at times less than optimally enthralling music. The weaknesses first. Lucchesini does not create that transcendent, uncentered, ethereal sound world that the best interpreters muster, at least in the first half of the movement. He does a much better job later on. Okay, that’s just one weakness, but that’s about all I can muster. Now to the strengths. The soft playing about midway in is simply a marvel; Lucchesini’s delicate and nuanced playing captivates, each note perfectly delivered. The ending of the movement does invoke that spiritual aspect that I so admire in this work, making for a satisfying end. Elsewhere, Lucchesini plays with admirable strength, restraint, and speed where these traits are most needed. While not as magical as the very, very best, Lucchesini offers up a strong conclusion to a strong cycle. Things are not so rosy with Ashkenazy. I once read his playing reduced to one overriding pejorative: leaden. He’s certainly that at the very beginning. His playing is heavy and ponderous, with little or no life to the notes. As the opening movement unfolds, Ashkenazy predictably plays up the dynamic contrasts with some powerfully playing, with a clear, incisive staccato. The ominous chords thunder, the fast parts whiz by. But it still doesn’t ignite. The second movement offers more of the same. The Arietta is played quite nicely, and the rest is played ably, but Ashkenazy doesn’t really revel in the delicate music, not does he add much interpretive heft to the rest of the movement. It’s all very well played, there’s no doubt of that, but it’s all very safe. In this of all sonatas, that just will not work. I’ve heard worse, but I’ve heard much better.

    Two more cycles down, so it’s overall assessment time. I’ll start with Ashkenazy. His cycle is a straight-forward, safe, middle of the road cycle where the pianist takes few risks. Indeed, is one takes away the huge dynamic range and few flashes of virtuosic playing, there is little to point to this being Ashkenazy’s set. It could be any talented pianist contracted to lay down the works. It is well played, well recorded, but ultimately too safe and undistinguished. Lucchesini, on the other hand, does take risks. But not in the normal sense. He doesn’t adopt unusually fast tempi, he doesn’t resort to flash and overwhelming power, he doesn’t set out to make this the Deepest, Greatest, Most Profound Music Ever. He offers a thought out, smooth, warm, beautiful approach that nearly sings at times. Yes, Beethoven can (and some might say should) have more bite and drive and oomph in places, but Lucchesini plays well enough to make his vision a convincing one. Indeed, of the ten new cycles I’ve heard since the spring, Lucchesini’s joins Gulda’s Amadeo cycle and Heidsieck’s cycle as one of the most compelling and unique experiences I’ve had with this music. Lucchesini does not attain the same truly awesome level of artistry that Gulda does (very few do), and he’s not quite as idiosyncratic as Heidsieck, and it can take some adjustments to get into his style, but the rewards are substantial and worth the minimal effort and outlay. (For those who may wish to hear this set, I must reemphasize that you will not be wowed; you must allow yourself to be drawn into the music.) Perhaps most importantly, when considered along with Alfredo Perl and John O’Conor, Lucchesini’s cycle proves that extraordinary Beethoven is still being played and recorded.

  11. #11
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Seymour Lipkin

    Who next? I’m hoping HMV Japan comes through on the Backhaus mono set, but I needed something else to sate my demand for the 32. Options abound, and Barenboim and Kuerti beckon, but when browsing Overstock again I came across all three volumes of Seymour Lipkin’s recent cycle on Newport Classic. I’ve never heard of the guy, but the set has received some good reviews, so why not? Lipkin is an experienced player to say the least; turns out he’s now in his 70s and has been performing for a long time. His carefully crafted bio, which is almost the only one that pops up on any net searches, and the few other tidbits I found list Szell and Koussevitsky and Bernstein among those with whom he has collaborated; Serkin and Horszowski were both his teachers. His recorded output is pretty slim – he’s a Beethoven specialist with the concertos, sonatas, violin sonatas, and cello sonatas all on disc – but little else is out there. He is on one of the Bernstein Royal Edition discs playing Stravinsky’s Concerto For Piano And Wind Instruments and there are a few others, for those who want to hear him with a big name artist.

    Before venturing into the recordings themselves, I must note that this cycle is different than any other. The potential buyer can choose to buy this cycle in one of two formats: in three 3-disc volumes on conventional CDs, or as MP3 files on one (yes, 1!) CD-ROM with complete sheet music included. At $30, that’s a bargain. I opted for CDs since, in terms of sound quality, MP3 really stands for Manure Pile Cubed. But for those listeners less concerned about sound quality of modern recordings, this may be the way to go. You can order either set directly from Newport Classic (http://www.newport-cd.com) or from your favorite shops, though the CD-ROM seems less easily available.

    My usual practice is to listen to the sonatas in order, but this time circumstances conspired against me. My order of all three volumes was split in two. The early sonatas have not yet arrived, so I was faced with a few choices. Don’t listen until all sets arrive. That’s silly. Write up the reviews chronologically while listening out of order. (I occasionally mix up a sonata or two, but I mostly listen in order.) Nah, too much work. The final option is to write them as I listen to them. Easy and quick. So I started with Volume II.

    So Op 22 became my first exposure to this pianist’s Beethoven. It’s a good place to start. Lipkin starts the piece off with a quick, vital approach, his playing lean, pointed, and clean. His tone isn’t the most ingratiating, and the sound is a bit sharp, but his basically intellectual approach reminds me to an extent of Friedrich Gulda. The Adagio shows where Lipkin’s age and experience come in handy. While not a very emotional piece, Lipkin’s phrasing and touch both hint at something more personal and moving just below the surface. The concluding two movements both sound more like the opener, and wrap up a damn fine start. No, he doesn’t match up to the best, and though he reminds me of Gulda a little, he ain’t Gulda.

    Moving to Op 26 finds more of the same. Sparing use of the pedals and a sharp staccato lead to a choppy sound in parts, though the latter half of the first movement does flow nicely with a nice, rhythmic pulse. The second movement sounds lithe, with a satisfying ebb and flow. The funeral march is cool but dark hued, and if again there is a nice rhythmic pulse to it, it sounds neither funereal nor march like, and the dynamic range is limited. But I really liked it. Go figure. The final movement is quick, pointed, and vital and ends the work on a strong note.

    The first of the Sonatas quasi una fantasia opens in manner that hardly sound fantastic; it’s direct, maybe a bit gruff. It’s provides the musical equivalent of a cold shower. A few missteps hardly detract from the surprisingly effective open. The second movement, while not as quick and definitely not as strong as some, is alert and vital. The third movement is quick – but not too quick – and though cool, reveals a bit of soul. For the finale, Lipkin opts to play quickly, with a rough and boisterous sound that is never overdone. Another successful sonata. The Mondschein again finds Lipkin using pedals in a relatively sparse fashion, so the hazy sound delivered by so many in the opening movement gives way to a more directly somber feel. The second movement is relatively slow, in the context of the recording and Lipkin’s approach, yet its lean, pointed and ultimately contained sound is quite refreshing. For the finale, Lipkin opts for a quick, sharp, staccato-laden approach again. While he doesn’t play the piece with great strength, the taut, rhythmically driven approach works to deliver yet another success.

    Given the traits of Lipkin’s pianism, I was expecting a less than stellar Pastorale. Yet once again he manages to deliver a fine reading. The opening is just fine, if perhaps a bit choppier than I prefer. It also doesn’t really sing, but it is warmer than some of the preceding pieces. Lipkin takes some runs very swiftly, which works very well. The Andante opens with awkward tempi and phrasing, but improves as things progress. It does take some getting used to. The Scherzo is jaunty and rough, but works very well. The final movement is more standard in conception, being gentler and more traditionally beautiful. So, not a first choice, perhaps, but it is very good.

    Crunch time. The critical Op 31 sonatas would help me determine if Lipkin’s got what it takes. Things start off well enough. The first of the bunch again opens with Lipkin’s lean, sharp playing, and the occasionally choppy and broken feel that brings are more than off-set by the rogue wit and charm. Indeed, his sound contributes to the feeling. In the second movement, the long trills are fine enough, but the left hand accompaniment throughout the movement can sound a bit stodgy and stubborn at times. Initially, I was less than enthusiastic, but Lipkin made a believer out of me with his perfectly judged deployment of this approach. The final movement is perhaps not ideally free, but clarity and insistence make it work. The Tempest ends up being a bit maddening. While lean and quick can make a great approach – I’m thinking Gulda here – Lipkin doesn’t deliver the recording I wished he could. His limited dynamics hamper the contrast in the first movement, and he sounds a bit labored in parts, though he no doubt intends this. The second movement sounds terse and cool, with little color. But it works, dammit. The final movement doesn’t swell with emotion and passion, either, but somehow, in ways I cannot fully understand, he makes the whole thing work. That shouldn’t be. But it is. The last sonata of the bunch is the best of the bunch. Lipkin opens the work with meticulous attention to detail, with each note and phrase given its due, but it ends up not being quite fluid or graceful enough. Instead, that roughish charm and with come to the fore. The second movement sounds a bit labored at times, but fortunately things pick up from there. The third movement, while not emotional on the surface, is subliminally touching. The final movement is a raucous good time. So, how to sum up this critical trio? I must confess that there are some things I don’t really like, yet Lipkin somehow manages to pull off something unique: even including the things I don’t like, he manages to make the works work. It’s the damnedest thing.

    The two Op 49 sonatas are both fine. The first sonata is basically a straight run through with nary an unattractive quirk or bothersome device to get in the way. The second sonata is meatier. A solid opening, nice rhythmic drive, varied dynamics, and highlighted melodies all work splendidly. The second movement is just plain fun. Not lovely. Not lyrical. Fun. Cool.

    In contrast to my initial concerns about the Pastorale, I had high hopes for the Waldstein. Right from the start those hopes were fulfilled. His sharp, pointed, lean style is everywhere evident, and he plays quick, quick, quick. No lyrical opening this. Lipkin adds a bit of heft to the mix, too. His playing also adopts an almost hectic feel. He never loses control, but he never sounds settled in. This extra little bit makes for a strong opener. The second movement ends up not sounding very moving, but it is entirely gripping. This leads to another “how does he do it?” moment, or did for this listener. The final movement opens softly and gently, for Lipkin, with expertly judged tempi and dynamics. The piece swells and moves along beautifully for a while, then it’s back to hectic mode. All told, at the end, this ends up being a remarkable recording.

    So too is the final sonata in Volume II. The Op 54 sonata can of course be interpreted in many ways. Lipkin’s particular mix of devices and styles creates a new one. He opens with his Lipkinisms on display, with sharp but not overpowering sforzandi adding some zing. The first movement may not be lyrical, but it flows and invites the listener to pay close attention. The quick trills at just past 4’ in are just delicious. The second movement is gentler than Lipkin’s norm, though it’s still comparatively rough. The deliberate playing is very effective, and it is punctuated by some pretty nifty dynamic swings. Another winner.

    To an extent, I have taken the view that Lipkin offers a nice foil to Andrea Lucchesini. Both players are a bit cool and detached at times, but Lucchesini opts for beautiful legato to deliver his message while Lipkin plays in a leaner, harder, more staccato-heavy style. Lipkin also manages something few pianists do: even if I disagree with some of his specific interpretive choices here and there, I cannot resist the overall result. Lipkin plays with such conviction and assured musical knowledge that it becomes impossible to find fault with performances with faults. That’s impressive indeed.

    The recordings, which may be new or may date from a few years ago when Audiofon issued some of Lipkin’s recordings (anyone know for sure?) are all clear, bright, and close but not too close. Thank goodness I have twenty more to listen to.


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    Volume III opens with a blockbuster recording of the Appassionata. For those who want color, nuance, and subtlety, look elsewhere; for those who like an intense, driven, nearly frenzied approach, look no further. Since I admittedly favor the fast and/or intense approach, this is for me. Lipkin opens the piece fiercely, quickly, and in a decidedly unhappy mood. Nervous and tense, he never lets up, and if his playing sometimes comes close to sacrificing the musical line in favor of moment to moment fevered intensity, he manages to hold it together. The second movement backs off, but still Lipkin maintains a level of tension many don’t even strive for. The final movement opens in a tense and fidgety mood, as though Lipkin is poised to explode. Then he does. He literally blasts through to the end. Think of this recording as the musical equivalent of a boxing match; Lipkin is a wiry middleweight, dodging and maneuvering, then moving in to pummel you with jab after jab before hammering you with a hook and cross combo. This is not for the squeamish.

    After such an intense, riveting recording, the follow-ups were bound to be relatively less interesting. The Op 78 sonata actually carries a bit of the same harried, intense feel, and that makes this work less successful. Lipkin could definitely ease up. Op 79 sounds better, but his uncompromising approach leads to a hectored first movement drained of much humor (rather like Pollini, only slower) and if the second movement is cool but appropriately moving and the third movement more gentle, it just never quite jells as it should. These are good performances, and very much within Lipkin’s style, but better can be had.

    The Les Adieux sees a return to form, albeit with qualifications. Firstly, Lipkin’s is a decidedly pianistic conception of the work; he doesn’t seem to conjure up images of an orchestra the way others do. Second, he uses his Lipkinisms. But that’s okay. The first movement opens softly in a satisfyingly disconsolate mood, and after the piece swells, Lipkin uses some stodgy, stiff phrasing, accentuating every chord – but it works. It shouldn’t. But it does. The second movement is slow and thoughtful if not especially moving, and the third movement is more ebullient, as it should be, with Lipkin again favoring some swift tempi at times. It is very good, but not a top contender.

    Moving on to Op 90, I could foresee some problems. Lipkin’s style and this work don’t seem destined to work together at the very highest level. In the opening movement he fares well; he opens strong, and moves into more measured playing accordingly. The rhythmic pulse and coherent delivery all work just fine. The second movement, though, just is not lyrical enough. Lipkin actually does play lyrically and even occasionally sweetly, but with memories of the ravishing Lucchesini and profound Kovacevich still in mind, this one seems a bit wanting.

    So it was with high but tempered expectations that I approached Op 101. What I got was one of the best recordings I’ve ever heard of this work. It almost seems as though Lipkin is a different pianist. His tone is softer, his tempi slower, his approach more flexible. Poise, control, beauty, nuance, purposive slowness: they’re all there! The work moves gracefully, effortlessly along. The second movement finds Lipkin deploying his normal tricks, but in a freer, more relaxed way; there are oomph and drive aplenty, but everything sounds more, well, certain. The Adagio is a thing of contemplative beauty, varied in tone and touch, and introspective in nature. The final movement is filled with enough power to drive home Lipkin’s point, but the depth and beauty are extraordinary. Perhaps Lipkin is more “earthbound” than some pianists in this work, but in a piece that is hard to pull off – or at least hard to pull of to my taste – Lipkin delivers a marvel.

    And the hits just keep coming with the Hammerklavier. Lipkin opens the first movement with speed and power, though not too much of the former and just enough of the latter. He adopts perfect, flowing tempi, and his phrasing, if a tad choppy in a spot or two, lends a remarkable clarity to the proceedings. It is viscerally exciting and (perhaps over-) stimulating! The little second movement is a model of vigor and vitality and is infused with just the right amount of bite. Then the great Adagio arrives. Lipkin once again shows that he can play softly, with articulate and telling delicateness when needed, and with probing depth heretofore not always on display. Indeed, his reading more than many others goes straight to the heart of the matter: anguish and hope, dispiritedness and desire all blend together perfectly in a moving yet distant reading. The Largo that opens the great finale is perfectly paced and played with an attractive tone, and Lipkin imbues the fugue with the same degree of clarity as the opening movement. Clarity, control, vigor, depth; Lipkin’s recording has all of the hallmarks of a great recording. This is something special.

    After two such remarkable recordings, I guess it was inevitable that the rest might not be as good. Op 109 opens with slightly idiosyncratic phrasing, and Likpin’s leaner sound reappears – to the good – and the playing is generally alert and lyrical enough, but it’s almost too straight. Vigor and forcefulness characterize the second movement. The third movement opens with that wonderful Andante theme delivered with clarity and focus, and then Lipkin moves on to some clear and lean variations, all delivered with unflagging forward momentum. This is once again more earthbound late Beethoven, but unlike the 101, it just doesn’t quite work as well. It’s still superb, but compared to the two previous works, it’s more standard.

    The 110 falls into the same category. The opening movement is warm and humane and beautiful, and even better, it is unfussy and simple and direct. Everything is contained – no undue haste or power disturb the proceedings. The second movement is faster and more incisive and acts as a perfect bridge to the final movement. Lipkin opens in beautiful and somewhat forlorn fashion and then moves into the first part of the fugue with great clarity and simplicity. The return of the Arioso is poignant and played with feeling, and the return of the fugue returns to the same traits as before. One interesting touch here is that Lipkin doesn’t do much with the repeated chords. Many pianists build them up relentlessly, but Lipkin zooms right through them without multiplying the volume very much. Usually I like the build-up, but I like this, too. But for all its attractive traits, this sonata just doesn’t scale the dizzying heights others achieve.

    That leaves the Op 111. Here Lipkin reverts to the ways of the Waldstein and Appassionata: incisive, hectic, cutting, he moves through the opening movement in a most exciting way. It’s not as intense as Op 57, but it is faster, more vigorous, and just plain more exciting than many. Perhaps his playing ends up being more fierce than ominous, but it’s still good. The second movement opens with a poignant Arietta which then transitions seamlessly to the variations. Lipkin is not quite as, well, metaphysical as some, but he’s not as earthbound as before. Perhaps he’s a lone thinker, pondering the nature of things, perhaps an artist dwelling on the meaning of his art. Whatever you want to attach to it, it works. The fast variations are very fast, and his overall approach reminds of Gieseking’s 1947 recording in some regards: by eschewing the more standard extra-deep approach, and by emphasizing speed, he creates his own meaning. Lipkin doesn’t possess Gieseking’s touch (who does?), but it still works.

    So, the last ten sonatas have been devoured. My initial positive impressions of Lipkin have been reinforced. Direct, committed, a bit quick and brittle at times, but always compelling, he leaves his mark. No, he’s not competitive with the very best in some works, but make no mistake, at his best he matches up to anyone, and even at his “worst” in these works he is superb. This is turning out to be one hell of a cycle. Now if those early sonatas would just get here!


    --


    The last volume, or rather, Volume I, finally arrived a couple days ago, and I did the only proper thing: I immediately began listening. I anticipated and largely got good things. With some reservations.

    Starting with the first of the Op 2 sonata, I was actually a bit surprised to hear Lipkin open a bit slower than I expected, and certainly a bit slower than I generally prefer. At the same time Lipkin sounds more relaxed than in many of the later sonatas, so I guess it could be considered a trade-off. Anyway, despite some slight slowness, Lipkin does infuse some energy and bite into some of the first movement, but not too much, and after hearing the second movement I sort of know why: the second movement is attractively lyrical. Perhaps this was his plan, I thought, but then the third movement comes along and it’s a bit stiff and more in line with other recordings. The final movement is the most successful of the work: the tempi are perfectly judged, there’s some bite, and if it may sound a bit terse at times, the overall effect is successful. It’s not a great cycle opener, but it is Lipkin good. (That is, very good.)

    The second sonata is substantially similar to the first; there’s no mistaking this is Lipkin playing, but that’s all to the good. The pianist once again adopts perfectly judged tempi in the opening movement, and his playing is sharp, tense, and quick-ish. The second movement is perhaps too quick for a Largo, and the mood lighter than some may favor, but it works. The last two movements are similar to the first. Perhaps Lipkin seems to cut some things short and underplay some ideas, and again his pedal-light playing produces a lean, clean tone, but overall, as is usual for this pianist, it works.

    Lipkin concludes the opening trio in fine form. The opening movement is bright, cheerful, and very quick. The second movement finds Lipkin playing at just about the right speed; this is an Adagio that sounds like an Adagio, and if perhaps it is not as deep as some, it sounds effectively moving. (Of course, this is early Beethoven, not late.) The third movement is quick and scrappy, with some rough edges not smoothed away. The final movement is once again quick, but it also has a light, flitting sound that really works. About midway through Lipkin plays with some serious power – something he does rarely in the cycle – and it just adds to the overall effect. So, the opening trio ends up being quite good, though it seems to me that Lipkin is ultimately more at home in the later works.

    The Op 7 sonata reinforces that feeling. I’ve stated before that I generally prefer a more relaxed take to this work, though a few people have convinced me that a fast approach works. Lipkin really doesn’t. The first movement is just too harried and hurried. Some of the louder passages are pounded out, and they are also accompanied by some ringing from the piano that doesn’t help. The great Largo is taken at a nice pace, but it just doesn’t seem to work, and it lacks true tonal attractiveness. The Allegro is pretty much straightforward, and the final movement is too, with some sharp playing in Lipkin’s normal style. This sonata is perhaps the least successful of the cycle. But that’s okay: it ain’t bad, and no pianist gets every single one right.

    Moving to the second triptych finds an overall improvement from the first four sonatas. The first sonata has a well-paced opening – it’s neither too fast nor too slow – and Lipkin’s clear, vigorous approach really works. The Adagio is less successful, though. First off, it’s slow – slower than the preceding Largo movements – and some of the playing comes off as too stiff and a bit grating. It just doesn’t flow the way I like. But the concluding movement is back to fine form. The second of the batch is just plain good. Again, Lipkin adopts well-considered tempi, and he plays with enough brio to bring the piece to life. Only some slightly harsh and smudged playing in some of the louder passages mars the proceedings. The second movement is plain and direct and effective. The final movement is fast, fast, fast, and includes the repeat. It’s just plain fun to listen to. When it comes to the last of the trio, Lipkin opens at breakneck speed, and he maintains a fast pace throughout. He never sounds out of control, but he sounds as though he’s pushing things. Sounds good to me. In this work the Largo sounds like a Largo. About three-quarters of the way in, Lipkin does a truly masterly job of building up tension just to release it in splendid fashion. Again, others go deeper, but Lipkin’s playing is quite effective. The last two movements get the straightforward treatment, and if they can sound a bit inflexible at times, they still work.

    The first of the big name works ends up being something of a letdown. Given Lipkin’s amazing Appassionata, I was hoping for a spectacular Pathethique. What I got was a curiously soft interpretation. The very first chord gives away what is to come: it’s soft, rather attractive as far as Op 13 openers go, and more surface playing than deep, probing playing. And so it is through the work. Lipkin again maintains a brisk pace, but it all sounds a bit shallow and uncharacteristically light. I really wanted more here.

    The two delightful Op 14 sonatas finish off the first volume. Lipkin plays the first sonata in a generally light, cheery, and acceptably fluid way. The second movement is a bit somber, and the final movement does enjoy some hefty playing, but overall the whole thing is played as it should be. The second sonata is more successful. Lipkin opens quickly and softly and really rather attractively. The second movement is a delight, with a fine, ingratiating tone and not unsubstantial charm, and the final movement simply acts to cap off the whole thing. It’s really one of the best recordings in the first volume.

    Overall assessment time. Lipkin is definitely someone worth hearing. His approach is lean and pointed and a bit gruff, but his directness and clarity and general avoidance of selfish indulgence and annoying idiosyncrasy makes for an invigorating listen. Some may desire a more mellifluous sound, and that’s understandable. But Lipkin offers something that few do: he’s so thorough in his preparation and so convincing in his delivery, that even when he makes interpretive decisions that seem wrong, the whole thing seems right. He’s not out to rework these works, if you will; he’s out to play Beethoven in a direct if rough-hewn style. (It’s easy to imagine Beethoven doing something similar.) Lipkin is not equally successful in all of the sonatas – no one is – and he certainly seems more at home in the later works (and I would recommend Volume III to those who want just a taste before splurging), but the entire cycle makes a very welcome addition to my collection. As I wrote in my first review, Lipkin makes a nice foil to Andrea Lucchesini. Their styles are very different and yet both bring important insights to these great works. Ultimately, I would say that Lucchesini offers just that little bit more and benefits from glorious tone and sound, but Lipkin shows that some things seem only to come with age and long experience with the music. I’ll definitely be spinning these recordings again, and for those who hanker for something perhaps out of the ordinary in this repertoire, I say go for it!

  12. #12
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Wilhelm Backhaus

    To my mind the biggest hole in my Beethoven sonata collection has been the absence of Wilhelm Backhaus. I’ve had a solitary disc of his stereo cycle for a while, and the recordings on that disc all compare very favorably to anyone. Indeed, until hearing Friedrich Gulda’s monumental Amadeo recording of the Tempest sonata, I more or less found Backhaus the best in that sonata. Clearly I had to hear what the old German master had to say, as it were, in this most august solo piano repertoire. Determined to hear his take on the 32, I then had to decide which of the two cycles, the mono cycle or the stereo cycle. Since Backhaus was already in his late 60s by the time of his mono set, I figured I should go for that one. While he certainly displays a more than adequate technique in the stereo disc I own, I figured he’d be closer to his prime in the mono recordings. So I found it and bought it and have started listening to it.

    Getting things underway with the first sonata finds a curious recording. Backhaus is somewhat slow to start, and is extremely serious, with little in the way of charm. Gradually he picks up the pace, but he never shakes a slightly mannered, unsmiling sound. The Adagio is deliberate, but now a bit of feeling is infused into the playing, bringing it to life. Backhaus varies dynamics and color nicely, though he never adopts extremes, and he never sounds especially beautiful. The third movement is even more varied and buoyant and almost irresistible. The final movement starts as the first one did – a bit slow and mannered; it sounds consciously carved and not freely flowing. It’s never heavy, never ponderous, but never really nice and fiery. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the recording.

    The second sonata opens in a more jovial mood, though it’s still not free. It sounds very deliberately planned and played. The Largo is relatively fast and shows a greater degree of flexibility, but only within a well-defined range, and it displays a fine tone. All of this combines to create an insistent, march-like sound. The Scherzo is light and fast, articulate and infectious. One just sits spellbound by the playing. The concluding movement is light and varied, but it maintains an underlying seriousness. Backhaus may be smiling, but it’s a forced smile.

    As I started the third sonata I thought I had Backhaus pegged: he’s deadly serious – much like Gulda – and plays within a defined, limited range, but plays as well as can be. But then he throws a curve ball. The work opens in more or less standard fashion, but then Backhaus just tears into the work, spinning off notes in a dazzling, dizzying way, just to slow way down for a bit to highlight a passage, and then returning to a high-speed, high-impact style. He plays almost recklessly fast at times. His rubato, his whole style betrays his heritage; he was born in the 1880s, after all. Why should he just stick to a specific approach? Anyway, the Adagio is generally quite fast, and is filled with subtle coloring and rubato to bring it to life. It’s not the most moving reading I’ve heard, but it is very effective. The Scherzo continues the quick playing that Backhaus adopts through the work, but despite the speed, or perhaps because of it, everything just flows together beautifully. So of course it should not be surprising to learn that the final movement is fast, but Backhaus keeps it all under control.

    Okay, so now I had him pegged, I thought: he’s serious and allows himself generous leeway in tempi, though he tends to play fast. The Op 7 sonata had other things in store. The opening movement is actually played relatively slow, and while I like that, I also prefer a more relaxed sound, which this does not have. Yet I like it. A lot. Backhaus basically allows himself the flexibility to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. His playing takes on an almost erratic feel. The Largo just reinforces this. It is a bit stiff throughout and a bit graceless in spots, and Backhaus’ tone varies a lot, too. For a while it’s lean and stripped down, then it’s richer and softer, then bright and hard. These changes can last for mere seconds or for entire passages. It all depends. The Allegro continues along this unpredictable path by being extremely well-paced and quite lovely in parts. The final movement is something of a marvel. Backhaus starts off fast and plays most of the work quickly, but he’ll slow down to savor a beautiful passage when he deems it appropriate. But he’s a bit inconsistent. You think you know when he’ll do it, but he doesn’t. After repeated listens (which I’m absolutely confident this work will get) I’ll know what to expect, but the first run through is filled with surprises.

    The first of the Op 10 sonatas displays Backhaus’ traits well. The opening movement is just a tad on the slow, rich side – he certainly doesn’t rush the opener like his contemporary Schnabel – yet it all works splendidly. The piece moves along with an irresistible flow that just sounds right. The Adagio is beautiful and moving, yet even here he can’t seem to leave well enough alone. He cuts some chords short, seemingly for no reason, slightly dampening the overall effect. But fortunately not much. The final movement opens very slowly then builds up speed, and then alternates tempi through to the end. Backhaus’ delivery is different than anyone else I’ve heard, yet it all works so well I can’t offer a single serious complaint.

    The second sonata again begins slowly – I think I detect a pattern – but then, out of the blue, Backhaus speeds up not a little, but a lot. He repeats this pattern a few times, and each time it sounds a bit frazzled though always under control. The second movement is quick, articulate, and possesses a serious, contemplative sound. The third movement, shorn of its repeat, sounds amazingly light and carefree. All these disjointed elements work to create a slightly off-kilter feel, but one that jells and works exceedingly well.

    The final sonata of the group offers playing that almost turns the work into a miniature drama. The first movement sounds natural. Nothing is rushed, nothing is out of place; everything is free and flexible and sounds very attractive. The second movement starts in a flowing, attractive, yet serious manner, only to be transformed by some urgent, unsettled playing, changing the whole mood. Why? One wonders, but as Backhaus reverts to a more conventional take, it just seems to make sense, even though it cannot be properly described. The third movement is more upbeat and vital, though even it has some unique moments. The final movement opens with some surprisingly tender playing, then moves to a free, open sound, but then it, too, shifts again, to a more serious, contemplative sound, before shifting yet again. What is Backhaus getting at? I for one must listen again to try to figure it out. It is a remarkable recording.

    So now comes the Pathetique. I figured Backhaus would go for fast, vital, and pointed approach. Nope. The piece actually opens softly, with some weaker than expected chords and slower than expected runs. But an anticipatory, subdued nervous feeling makes itself known and persists. Backhaus slowly and carefully builds up tension, but he never releases it, rather choosing to let it abate but never disappear. The cumulative effect is engrossing. One waits to hear what happens next. The second movement never really goes to slow or too deep, but rather focuses on maintaining that subdued and unreleased tension. The finale offers more of the same, and Backhaus just never lets loose like he obviously can. It’s a bit maddening, really, and Backhaus is obviously playing it a bit safe, a bit comfortable. But for the life of me, it works! Indeed, I can think of few recordings I like a lot more.

    I came upon the Op 14 sonatas ready for glossed over recordings acting as a bridge to the bigger works to come. Backhaus style seems better suited to bigger, more serious works. Or so I thought. These recordings are quite possibly the greatest I’ve heard of these two works. The first sonata opens familiarly: it’s just a smidgeon slower than I usually prefer, but then turns fast, then slow, then fast again, then slow again, all seamlessly and effortlessly. It’s relaxed. It’s cheery. It’s spiffy. The second movement is just about perfect: it’s perfectly paced with perfect dynamics and perfect tone. It’s light and refreshing and amazing. The final movement is, well, it’s friggin’ perfect. Marvelous, articulate fingerwork and perfect weight (not too much) combined with a free and flexible style out of a past age all combine to make it perfect. The second sonata isn’t quite played to the same level of perfection, but it’s close. The slightly cutting sound cannot mask the marvelously light and flexible playing of the first movement. Despite a bit of brittleness, the second movement is just peachy: light, charming, and tender, it captivates with each wonderful note. To finish off the work is a plucky ‘n’ ducky and effortless final movement, with Backhaus deploying his rubato subtly and discreetly and most effectively. These two recordings offer some serious fun. Amazing.

    Even in the first ten sonatas it is clear that this is Beethoven playing on an altogether higher level than most pianists ever achieve. When I consider the two excellent cycles I just finished, Lucchesini and Lipkin, they merely serve to underscore just how good Backhaus is. I said of Lipkin that even when I disagree with his choices, he still makes the piece work. With Backhaus, while some playing here and there may not sound “ideal” at first, he makes me realize that he is right and I a knave for even questioning his judgment. His Beethoven sounds right and sounds, as much as I dislike this description, natural. This is how Beethoven should sound. Finally, Friedrich Gulda has been matched. Maybe even Annie. I must hear more to know for sure.

    Some quick words on sound. The recordings show their age. Some distortion and breakup can be heard in places, and some upper register notes have an unpleasant ring to them (it’s definitely the recording and not the playing), but overall the sound is more than acceptable given the age of the recordings.


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    Would Backhaus sound as impressive in the next batch? I wondered. It took almost no time at all to hear the answer: Yes! The Op 22 sonata can be a difficult one to pull off successfully, and there are a number of ways to do it. Backhaus finds his own way. The opening movement is taken at a nice clip, alert and flexible, but not too quick. The second movement is quite marvelous. There’s a relaxed feel about it, but also a sort of less-is-more approach. It seems stripped down, with little in the way of showiness or excess anything. The third movement finds Backhaus really digging in, hammering out the notes with notable strength and force, but he never devolves into mere banging; there is sense of control and ultimate restraint. It’s quite nice. The final movement is tense and not ideally flowing, but, in Backhaus’ conception, caps off yet another fine recording.

    The Op 26 sonata opens in glorious fashion. Backhaus’ playing of the Andante theme is the epitome of direct, unaffected Beethoven playing, with everything sounding so right that complaints are frivolous. As the variations begin, the playing changes to a more austere, almost hard sound, but even that works. The Scherzo is driven, and rather charmless, but still, particularly in this work, effective. The funeral march is very solemn and very serious, but it’s not “big” or grand or especially funereal, nor is it effective as a march. Yet the solemnity makes the movement. Backhaus chooses to end this serious, almost dour interpretation with a final movement that is harder and more serious than is usually ideal, but not here.

    Time for the first of the Sonatas quasi una fantasia. Would Backhaus be “fantastic” or something else, something sterner? Something sterner is the answer, at least initially. The piece opens in a serious, almost heavy way, hardly creating a fantastic or partially fantastic sound world, yet it sounds appealing. Then Backhaus transitions to an almost blistering fast Allegro section. The return to the initial theme is lighter than before and is quite effective. The second movement starts slowly and quietly and doesn’t really break out until the end; Backhaus almost treats the movement as one long crescendo. The Adagio is slow and somber and if it’s not especially moving, it still sounds fine to me. The final part of the work is taken as a hard, fast gallop, and though it eases up a bit before the end, the coda is also quite fast. Backhaus plays this work in mercurial fashion to say the least, and if it doesn’t quite scale the heights, it’s quite good.

    The same can’t be written about the Mondschein sonata. No, this is one of the greatest recordings this work has ever received! The opening movement sounds exactly like it should, exactly like I have always hoped it would. It is dark, somber, with a sense of melancholy, and Backhaus uses the sustain pedal just so, creating the perfect degree of haze and blur. It sets the mood perfectly. Perfectly! The second movement sounds brighter, and more upbeat – at least compared to the opening movement – and Backhaus refrains from too much of anything: speed, volume, expressiveness. It’s all perfectly realized. The third movement is almost perfect. Only some slightly unclear passages and wobbly, insecure playing (as at 1’39” and a few other spots) mar an otherwise ideal realization of the movement. Backhaus’ desynchronized left hand offers a rocking, solid underpinning to the right, and if he never completely lets loose, he plays with enough of all the right elements to make this one to hear again and again.

    The Pastorale is not quite as successful. The opening has odd, stilted left hand playing that seems out of place, though Backhaus quickly gains a more solid footing, as it were. Even so, the opening movement never really flows. Between the 2’ and 3’ or so mark, the piece takes on an unusually tense sound, though it reverts back to a more standard conception. The Andante sounds relatively standard in conception, and is delivered extremely well, though even here there are tense, terse moments that seem a bit out of place. The Scherzo, though, is quick and bubbly and eminently enjoyable. The final movement is quick and charming, with Backhaus happily dashing off the notes. To an extent it reminds me of Gieseking’s approach to Beethoven, though the tone and style is still uniquely Backhaus’. Overall, this is a good reading, but it’s not one of the highlights of the cycle.

    So now it’s time for the critical Op 31 sonatas. I’ve had his stereo take of the Tempest for a while, and I love that one, so I had very high hopes for that one going in, but what about the others? Well, the first sonata satisfies, that’s for sure. The quick, alert, and generally light playing of the opening more than offsets the occasional opacity and stiffness of the playing. The mood is right, and that’s what matters most. The second movement is playful, with Backhaus injecting unique little touches everywhere. He opens most of the trills at a moderate pace only to speed up to just the right tempo in a smooth, effortless way. Backhaus’ agility and clarity here are really superb, as is amply demonstrated in the remarkably fast middle section. Perhaps some may find it a bit rushed, but damn, it’s fun! The concluding Rondo offers more of the same, and even if it’s not technically the most secure recording I’ve heard, the unyielding forward momentum makes it one of the most enjoyable. So, one winner out of one.

    The Tempest makes it two. The work opens in slow, dark, and mysterious fashion, and maintains these qualities pretty much throughout. As a result, this becomes an almost grim reading, with Backhaus opting to not play the dynamic contrasts in a flashy way, but rather in a downtrodden, moody way, making the piece alter between despair and agony. Uplifting it may not be, but it is quite effective. The Adagio is a bit mannered and overly controlled, but in the context of this recording it sounds right. The final movement is sharp, pointed, urgent, and a bit unyielding. Yes, this is a dark conception of the work, and if I still prefer his stereo remake a bit more, this is unquestionably a fine reading.

    The final sonata of the trio makes it three! Fast, vital, and a bit rough at times, Backhaus just burns right through the opener. Gruff humor abounds, and it sounds just peachy. The Scherzo keeps up this feeling. Maybe the Menuetto is a bit stiff, but Backhaus uses perfect tempi, a perfect tone, and creates the perfect feeling. The same holds true for the conclusion. Overall, the forward momentum interrupted by basically cheery and rough outbursts evokes just the feeling I like.

    So, Backhaus nails the critical three, and otherwise does an admirable or (far) better job on every other sonata in the eight sonatas in this batch. As with the opening group of ten sonatas, everything sounds so right, so natural that I can’t resist. This is indeed Beethoven playing of the highest order.


    --


    Moving along to the Op 49 sonatas finds Backhaus in fine form, and shows that he can do extremely well in small, less grand fare. The first of the sonatas is just fine: it’s not too heavy, and though Backhaus definitely favors quick tempi, he still displays a nicely variable touch and never ticks over into overbearing intensity. Better is the second sonata. The opening movement is superb, and continues along the same lines as the first sonata. But the reason to hear this recording is unquestionably the second movement. Light ‘n’ tight ‘n’ fun, Backhaus revels in the music and plays with a tender touch. He does better than most – perhaps all – in evoking the wonderful Septet. Superb.

    Now it’s time for some weightier fare. Counter to my expectations, Backhaus doesn’t open the Waldstein especially fast. He’s not slow, mind you, he just doesn’t rip through it. He does manage to establish a unique and uniquely appealing brusque yet touching feel to the opener. The second movement comes across as somber, searching, and brooding with only some sharp, biting playing to add variability. It’s not a feel-good sound (and that’s good for me). Given the somewhat hard and dark preceding movements, Backhaus does something nearly magical with the third: he opens in gentle, tender fashion, then builds up the movement with physically strong and emotionally moving playing. Indeed, the whole work seems to build up to the end; any minor reservations I may have had here and there in the first part of the work are washed away by the cumulative power of the recording. I don’t know, the cutting sound may even have helped things out.

    For the Op 54 sonata, Backhaus opts for a fast and intense approach, or at least notably more so than many interpreters. The opening movement is largely fast and punchy, though Backhaus does back off in a few spots for some softer playing. The second movement, though, is almost all fast and furious. Sometimes Backhaus threatens to tip over into outright reckless playing, with no regard for accuracy, but he never quite does. It creates an air of excitement. Throw in some greater than normal low register heft, and what one has here is some high intensity middle Beethoven. ‘Tis pretty good.

    I admit to liking Backhaus’ stereo Appassionata and assumed I would like this one, too. I do. But not as much. Backhaus opens up with a hard, intense, and metallic sound, though he also sounds a bit short of completely assured. He just wallops out the piece, though even he can’t maintain the highest level of intensity throughout. The piano sound is colorless and cold, and that actually works here. The Andante is well played but a bit cool, and it maintains the same colorless, cold sound. Backhaus turns up the heat in the second half, and things improve a bit, though the very end of the movement ends a bit strangely. It seems more contained than a lead in to the final movement. The final movement is intense throughout, though the lack of the repeat detracts from the success of the work, as is invariably the case. So, while this is an intense reading, there is quite a bit missing, and while still good, I still prefer the stereo remake as well as a number of others.

    Now it’s time for a trio of sonatas where Backhaus is among the very best interpreters, and perhaps even the best. The Op 78 and 79 and Les Adieux from his stereo set have ranked among my very favorites since I first heard them, so I had very high expectations here. They were more than met. Backhaus has the Op 78 down cold. Everything about it is perfect: it’s perfectly weighted (not too heavy or ponderous) and perfectly paced (fast, but not too fast), with a perfectly variable touch and discreet rubato and pedaling. It’s simultaneously light and serious. The same can pretty much be said about the Op 79 sonata. Backhaus opens in ideal fashion – fast, strong, and articulate but never cutting. The forward momentum he generates means that Backhaus may burn through the humorous off-key portion near the end, but any complaints are so minor as to be piffle. The second movement is surprisingly somber and weighty and attractive, serving to add heft to the piece. ‘Tis sublime. And in the final movement, Backhaus again pulls off the trick of being simultaneously serious and light. He is amazing in these works.

    Ditto the 81a. The work opens in a nicely disconsolate, contemplative fashion. To heighten this effect, Backhaus chooses to hold back on the first crescendo – he doesn’t want to give away anything too early. The restraint adds a nice bittersweet feel to the movement. The second movement starts off in a sad, ruminative, and surprisingly aloof and cold way. The end of the movement builds up with expectation for the friend’s return, and when it happens, the third movement is exultant and thrilling, with more of Backhaus’ fast and strong playing and what sounds to be genuine happiness. He knocks this one out of the park.

    Another eight sonatas down, and, if anything, my opinion of Mr Backhaus has only improved. What will the late sonatas bring?


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    Time for the late sonatas. Surely, given the quality of the cycle thus far, Backhaus should be irreproachable in the late works. It ain’t so. That doesn’t seem evident with the Op 90 sonata, though. This one shows those Backhaus traits that so often inform the earlier sonatas: he prefers swift tempi overall; he plays in a less than ideally lyrical way; he plays with fine articulation and strength; he makes the music exciting. Yep, that’s some good stuff. The second movement does sound more lyrical and offers a more variegated color palette, though even here Backhaus brings some incisive playing in a few places where many don’t. While not one of my top choices, this is excellent.

    The same holds true for the Op 101 sonata. The opening is again fast and a bit ungraceful. It doesn’t really stir one’s soul or imagination, though; it’s not especially “deep.” The second movement continues in the very good but not ideal vein with a nice if clunky march. The third movement, though, shows the first hints of what plagues some of the later sonatas – there is an ascetic, stripped down, rather cold feeling to the music making. It’s neither intellectually or emotionally enriching enough; Backhaus gives the impression of merely spinning notes at times. The work improves with a quick, peculiarly upbeat final movement possessing the energy of some earlier sonatas, the slow coda notwithstanding. This is a good rendition of the work, but there’s something missing.

    That isn’t as much a problem with the Hammerklavier. I came to this recording with extremely high expectations. I’ve read and heard praise for this, with claims that it is among the best recordings of this work – perhaps even the best. I can’t say that I’m that enthusiastic about it. The problem comes in the first two movements. Backhaus takes tempi slower than I tend to favor. (He don’t use no whipcrack, Gulda-like approach.) And while he’s not a slouch technically, he lacks the ideal degree of mastery of the piece. He’s certainly no Pollini. But even ignoring other pianists – something essentially impossible to do – it seems too stiff and contrived at times. Yes, he does imbue the movements with some genuine excitement at times, and he speeds up appreciably in some sections, but it’s not quite what I’d hoped for. The Adagio, on the other hand, is quite simply one of the greatest I’ve heard. Even I’ll admit that this movement can sound a bit too long in some recordings, but Backhaus nearly suspends time and plays with a desolate and searching feeling and creates a sense of inevitability, if you will; everything that he plays can sound that way and only that way. It is amazing. Scarcely less impressive is the finale. The Largo is nice if perhaps a bit impatient – Backhaus evidently wants at that fugue. When he gets there he delivers. It is relentlessly driven and possessed of a, well, possessed intensity and seriousness that not even patches of less than perfect clarity can mar. Yessir, this here’s a good final movement. But, as with all of Ludwig van’s sonatas, one must consider the whole, and there Backhaus does fall short of the very best.

    The real problems with the late sonatas are to be found in the last three. The Op 109 encompasses most of what is wrong with them. He plays too quickly and the work sounds downright disjointed at times. His phrasing can be odd. At times he plays with seeming disdain for what’s written. Very little if anything can be called beautiful. (In this work, only the first variation in the final movement falls into that category.) There is not much if anything that can be called transcendent or spiritual or philosophical here. In the Op 110 a feeling that Backhaus just doesn’t connect with the piece enters into the picture. In the last sonata he adds a glossed over feeling. Everything is basically too fast and not strongly characterized; the opening never sounds ominous or especially dark, the Arietta is ascetic and almost unpleasant. Yet. Yet these sonatas aren’t disasters. There’s no doubt that they aren’t top contenders, but they do work as dismissive, almost disdainful alternative approaches. I just can’t see myself spinning them too often.

    Even with the relatively disappointing late sonatas – especially the last three – Backhaus’ mono cycle must be considered one of the greats. So much of what he does sounds so right that it’s hard to find serious fault with his playing. Gripes are mostly minor; praise is largely unnecessary. This is a monumental cycle and one that wish I would have heard earlier. Better late than never, I guess.

  13. #13
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    John O’Conor

    Since I’m taking a brief hiatus from buying new Beethoven sonata cycles, I figured I should go back and reconsider some of the cycles I’ve owned for a while. But which one? Well, I figured I should just start where I started. John O’Conor’s cycle is the first complete sonata cycle I purchased many moons ago. I bought it early into my two corresponding hobbies: high-end audio and classical music collecting. Telarc had a supposedly magical reputation among the high-end cognoscenti, and I was already familiar with some of the Cleveland Quartet’s excellent Beethoven string quartet recordings, so it seemed a natural choice. I’m no longer concerned with purist audio concerns – thankfully – but at least Telarc ended up recording some fine musicians. O’Conor is certainly no exception. Now I know there are some out there who believe that first recordings hold special sway over a person’s taste. That’s not the case with me. I’ve dumped off a number of first recordings in favor of more satisfying second, third, or n recordings. Yet I’ve held on to O’Conor. Indeed, his cycle survived a brush with the Questionable Pile. After buying Schnabel and Annie and Kempff, I figured I didn’t need a no-name pianist like O’Conor anymore; he’s not a heavyweight pianist; he’s not a legend. It’s not that I disliked his playing, it’s just that I didn’t need so many recordings. (Yes, I went through that phase, too.) But I did the only acceptable thing: I listened to the set again before selling. After listening, I knew I couldn’t sell it. It’s just too good. So it would be good to revisit now, I figured. This is actually the second time this year I’ve listened to it. Early this year I was going to do comparative listening to O’Conor and Schnabel. After about five sonatas it changed into an all O’Conor pursuit. But that was a dozen new cycles ago; how would the cycle sound now? Well . . .

    Right from the outset, O’Conor’s traits become evident. While he opens the first sonata at a brisk pace and plays with fine articulation, it’s his tone that is most striking. It’s light, colorful, and a bit soft-edged; O’Conor never plays an ugly note, and he can and does vary dynamics and tempi and color with subtle ease. He’s not flashy. He’s not showy. He’s fluid and graceful and, well, poetic. This is reinforced in the lovely Adagio: O’Conor’s relatively unpercussive playing and gentleness invite the listener to savor each note and phrase, to relish the nuance the Irishman brings. The third movement perhaps lacks the bite necessary to make it a top contender, but O’Conor’s remarkably smooth playing and the relatively distant recording make for a wash of colors and sounds that’s attractive in its own right. The final movement comes off as a bit too reticent and controlled at times, but within the broader interpretation, it fits right in.

    The same traits are to be heard in the second sonata. But there’s also a sense of comfort, if you will, a sense that O’Conor is enjoying himself, and if he never lets loose, he never, ever struggles, either. It’s the musical equivalent of a leisurely stroll. If that reads like damning praise, it is most certainly not meant to. To an extent, his playing is similar to Lucchesini, though the Italian uses an even smoother legato to O’Conor’s restrained staccato. (But even his staccato has rounded edges.) The final movement sounds similar overall. The Largo is gorgeous: languid, lazy, definitely low-impact, it still maintains enough feeling to satisfy, and the Scherzo is a tad jaunty and more pointed, though O’Conor plays not one unpleasant note.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that the third sonata is much the same. Some may want more heft, more gruffness in parts, but I don’t. In the lovely, fluid opener, one gets to hear something quite impressive. O’Conor does build up the volume to quite satisfying levels, but there is still a soft-ish, rounded sound to the tone, and the softened initial attack fades away quickly into wonderful sounding decay. No other pianist I’ve heard achieves quite the same effect. The Adagio is simply gorgeous, though here O’Conor manages to impart a very slightly ominous tone to some of the lower register playing. The Scherzo is a bit darker in tone and boasts some articulate playing. The final movement displays O’Conor’s tendency to play the opening bars slowly only to build up to a more standard basic tempo shortly thereafter. And again there is a lightness, and gentleness to much of the playing. Some – many – will want more, um, assertiveness, but me, I like it quite a bit.

    O’Conor’s Op 7 sonata is a highlight of his cycle and remains one of my favorite versions. In the opening movement he manages to play both quickly and with a sort of laid-back, pastoral feel. That and he keeps the whole thing upbeat and joyful; more assertive, heroic readings of the opener are out there, but none are really more satisfying. (Well, maybe Michelangeli and Kempff are.) The great Largo is here delivered with such gorgeous sound and such deft use of pauses and tempi variations as to be almost hypnotic. Really, the entire work is so wonderfully played that I can’t come up with a single substantive criticism of it. Add to that some really amazing sound (this 1993 recording was the final installment of the cycle) and this is not only a winner, but one of the very best out there.

    But perhaps among the early sonatas the Op 10 works best show off the benefits of O’Conor’s style. The first sonata displays all of the traits described before, but includes a bit more bite when needed. The opening of the first sonata is quick and strong, the opening explosions notable for their power, but also contains immediate shifts in dynamics, tone, and volume that offer most satisfying contrasts. The Adagio is just lovely. O’Conor takes his time and lavishes perfect tonal and dynamic gradations on each note. The final movement once again opens a bit slowly, but then picks up from there. The shifts in volume and tone and, to a lesser extent, mood seem to presage the upcoming Op 13. It’s quite effective. So, too, is the second of the batch. O’Conor adopts a flowing, slower than normal basic tempo for the opener, and plays with some nice but never overwhelming heft, and his tone is rich ‘n’ ripe. (And his soft playing is a wonder, as at just before 4’30”.) The rest of the work has the same, deliberate but gorgeous sound, and if perhaps the final movement is heftier and more serious than ideal, any complaints are minimal. The third sonata continues the same basic approach, though he throws in some variation. The opening movement is somewhat heavy and serious, though always beautiful, and the Largo gorgeous (O’Conor seems to particularly enjoy Beethoven’s Largos). But the Menuetto is disarmingly sweet, and the concluding Rondo is outright fun. This sonata encompasses a broad range of moods and devices, and O’Conor plays them all superbly.

    Let me be clear: O’Conor doesn’t play at the same level as the very best out there. He’s certainly not of Annie-Gulda-Kempff-Backhaus quality, but he’s far from a slouch. Indeed, his beauty and restraint and glorious tone and variable touch all combine to make for a most satisfying musical experience. Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that O’Conor studied briefly with Kempff, because in some regards his playing is reminiscent of Kempff’s: O’Conor is, for lack of a better word, poetic, much like Kempff. But his playing is freer and more technically assured. (And besides, he apparently studied only briefly with Kempff, and I think too much is made of artists’ teachers anyway.) Perhaps the best contemporary comparison for O’Conor is Andrea Lucchesini. Both produce streams of beautiful sound and considered interpretations. Lucchesini is the more architectural and intellectual pianist, O’Conor the more rhapsodic and gently romantic one. I prefer Lucchesini’s overall approach a bit more, but O’Conor is unquestionably satisfying. But as with the Italian, I must emphasize that O’Conor demands more patience and care when listening; those wanting to be wowed and dazzled should certainly listen elsewhere. But I’m definitely hanging on to this cycle. Going forward I only find it appropriate that I should take a more leisurely approach in listening to this cycle; O’Conor is in no real hurry, nor am I.


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    The Pathetique can, of course, flounder if played too softly. Mr O’Conor’s overall style thus far can hardly be called hard-hitting, so it would seem this work would not succeed. But there is more to O’Conor’s playing than has been described. The opening chord and pages are perhaps a bit softer than ideal, O’Conor using restraint to create an anticipatory effect. If you like it hard out of the gate, this won’t satisfy. But then he speeds up quite a bit after the open, displaying admirable digital dexterity, and never sounding rough or gruff. If he’s not intense enough, he also never sounds ugly or strained and he creates a nice sense of drama. The second movement benefits from Mr O’Conor’s approach; his playing is beautiful and touching, and almost tender at times. The final movement is reasonably fast and definitely clear; O’Conor never sounds rushed, allowing himself some breathing room to let the music flow. It’s perhaps not ideally fiery, but the cumulative effect is very positive. The 20-year-old sound is remarkably good, if a little resonant, no doubt thanks to Tony Faulkner’s “assistance.” (Jack Renner ain’t no slouch as an engineer, though.)

    The delightful Op 14 sonatas both come up well under Mr O’Conor’s fingers. The first sonata opens on the slow side, but O’Conor plays with such a light, graceful, flexible, and poetic ease that one cannot resist being charmed. The second movement is firmer, but even here a pervasive aural beauty charms. The final movement is decidedly upbeat, a bit quicker, and occasionally weighty, but this movement and indeed the entire work is basically perfectly judged. It sounds, well, natural. The second sonata doesn’t quite sound so natural; it sounds more refined. The opening movement is taken at a leisurely overall tempo, but the delicate, limpid playing of the main theme is so captivating that one can do little else but praise O’Conor’s choices. The second movement is more brisk, possessed of a more pronounced (but never intrusive or abrasive!) staccato, but it’s still more about charm than anything. As the variations unfold, this overall feeling is only reinforced. The final movement starts slowly, which in this take only serves to heighten contrast with the faster passages. Overall, these two little gems come off extremely well. The works may be smaller in scale and ambition, but they’re a joy to hear.

    The Op 22 sonata is a work where I’ve grown to appreciate faster speeds and a lighter touch. While O’Conor definitely displays the latter in abundance, he can tend to slower speeds. So it is here in the opener. It’s certainly beautiful and energetic, but it’s just a bit slow, and sounds a bit blocked or clunky at times. It just don’t flow. The second movement is tauter and tenser, and though quite beautiful, seems a bit quick for an Adagio. The Menueto is superb. There’s a bit of fire and prankishness. The concluding Rondo is a bit curious. It’s lovely and lively, but on the smallish side. It’s as though O’Conor is channeling Mozart. That works here, but it doesn’t have that oomph that makes this piece really work. It’s still an excellent take on this sonata, but my preferences have changed.

    The Op 26 sonata is one where a bit more drama is needed to pull it off, especially in the funeral march. Drama hasn’t been O’Conor’s strong suit up this point, though the Op 13 sonata shows he can do it. And here he does. The opening Andante theme is perfectly paced and played with admirable dynamic control. He doesn’t go for a breakneck pace, and he doesn’t try to hammer anything out. It just seems to fit. The variations are all superbly done. He can and does play quick when needed, and he adds some heft where appropriate. But he also remembers to play beautifully at lower volumes. The Scherzo is direct and relatively forceful and acts as a perfect lead into the march. Here Mr O’Conor imparts not inconsiderable drama to the proceedings: while never quite funereal or march-like, his playing is pointed and strong, and the rather abstracted presentation of the music – as opposed to an overtly emotional approach – makes the whole thing all the more successful. The final movement is strong and motoric, but some may find it just a bit too upbeat. Overall, any reservations are minor quibbles at best; this is a fine reading.

    The two sonatas quasi una fantasia find O’Conor playing at a very high level – but not the very highest. The first of the two works finds Mr O’Conor clearly relishing the delightful and simple opening theme; he’s light, smooth, graceful, and jolly. The middle section builds up to a nice, reasonably powerful, but never hard and overly percussive crescendo. The Scherzo is quick, strong, and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, rich. The sound is dense and meaty, but never thick or opaque. He ends the movement with a perfectly judged chord: he holds it just long enough, letting it fade some but not all the way, before moving into the Adagio. O’Conor is basically at home here, his now familiar strengths deployed wonderfully. The final movement opens in a slightly restrained manner, but the irresistible forward momentum of the movement is clear from the start. If O’Conor lacks that last degree of pianistic abandon and is less than ideally clear (including some almost completely inaudible notes at abut 56” in), he still builds the piece up and ends on a strong note, as it were. The Mondschein is fairly standard in conception and excellent in execution. The opening movement is hazy – the sustain pedal sees some heavy use – but it’s not very dark or sad. The second movement offers little relief, which is welcome. A sunny second movement is out of place. The final movement is dispatched reasonably quickly and with nice weight, and a notably rocking bass underpinning.

    Now, the Pastorale should be an unqualified success. O’Conor’s overall style and specific strong points all seem a perfect fit. But he does something a bit unexpected. He’s not as laid-back as one might assume. This especially holds true in the first two movements. The opening movement definitely sounds beautiful, but there is an urgency, a nervous tension in his swift-ish tempi. One doesn’t get to just wallow in glorious playing. The second movement is pretty much the same, though the middle section is more jovial. The last two movements are more in line with expectations. The third movement is more leisurely and fun. And the final movement is gorgeous and warm and rounded. It’s nicely laid back. I’ll say that this works overall, but it can’t quite scale the heights.

    So another batch down and my prior impressions of Mr O’Conor have been largely reinforced.


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    The current batch is a wee one in number of sonatas, but big in importance. The Op 31 sonatas are a proving ground. Would O’Conor prove himself? Obviously I already knew the answer: Yes. With some minor reservations. And almost all of those come in the first sonata. O’Conor certainly brings his finesse to the work, with some lovely, soft playing that manages to remain just vivacious enough, and in the opener he maintains a nice, raucous if not too ribald sense of humor, but he lacks just that last little bit of energy and enthusiasm. It’s not a big problem, but it’s there. The second movement, though, is a hit. The long trills sound absolutely delicious under O’Conor’s fingers. Each note gets just enough weight and duration, and each has that wonderful tone and lightness to make them breeze by. So there’s no sense at all of any angst; this is a pretty much upbeat take. It works. The final movement also suffers from just a little too little energy. Again, it ain’t much of an issue, but it’s there. Even so, this is a fine recording.

    Perhaps surprisingly given O’Conor’s style, I not only have no misgivings about the Tempest, but find it a highlight of the cycle. The opening movement has a dark-ish, rich sound, though the mood never becomes too dark. But O’Conor shows that he can with a wonderful sense of drama and a broad dynamic range, both when considered overall and in the wide contrasts in the first movement. Indeed, O’Conor highlights those contrasts wonderfully, and he never sounds strained or hard when playing loud nor weak when playing soft. His tempi are well-judged, too; he never plays too fast, rather choosing to let things unfold naturally, and he never sags. The Adagio is of course slower and softer, but it, too, avoids excess darkness or grimness. It’s somewhat aloof and resigned. And it’s effective. The final movement is relatively quick and full of forward drive and energy – and a sense of urgency. Perhaps he risks making the Allegretto sound more Allegro in a few places, but it’s all to the good. Throw in some more high quality early digital sound from Messrs Renner and Faulkner, and this here’s a winner.

    But even it’s not as good as the last of three. Start to finish this one is upbeat. Sure, a few moments of Menuetto sound more reserved, but otherwise this is a good time translated to the ivories. The opening movement is quick and high spirited, with a bit of (faux-) drama thrown in for good measure. Even more than in the preceding sonata, O’Conor’s wide range comes to the fore, especially in the opener: he can and does play with some heft, but he never sounds hard or ugly. The Scherzo is lively, but sounds a bit softer than the open, but it only offers a nice contrast. (It also sounds more distant. Different recording date, perhaps.) Moving past the previously mentioned Menuetto finds a concluding Presto that’s all about a good time. While some better versions are definitely out there, I not only have no complaints about this one, I can thing of very few that are really a whole lot better.

    I finished off with the little Op 49 sonatas. O’Conor doesn’t bring anything new to the works, but he does play them splendidly. His light approach actually sounds very appealing, and the conclusion to the second sonata is charming.

    So, another batch down, and O’Conor’s proving to be every bit as good as I remembered. And there are some doozies still to come.


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    I love O’Conor’s recording of the Waldstein. It’s been one of my favorites since I first heard it, and it remains so today. Everything fits together perfectly. He opens the work swiftly and with a light touch, his fingers gliding across the keyboard. When O’Conor’s wonderful tone and coloring combine with the slightly reverberant recording, the effect is a wash of color and sound that is most enticing. When this combines with a wide dynamic range and feeling of constant forward motion, well, the whole opening movement becomes irresistible. The second movement slows way down, and takes on a darker sound, with a tinge of sadness that contrasts nicely with the more rambunctious opener. All of O’Conor’s strengths coalesce into near perfection: tasteful restraint, beautiful tone, perfectly controlled and nuanced dynamics, and a slightly aloof feel – Oh Yeah! The final movement is a glorious outpouring of beautiful sound, meticulous playing, and expectant restraint until the eruption of joy just a ways in. Fortunately, O’Conor never plays in a mushy or syrupy way, and he resists all temptations to play the conclusion too fast. The movement – the work – becomes pure poetry in his hands.

    The Op 54 sonata seems perfectly suited to O’Conor, and in many ways it is. The opening movement benefits immensely from O’Conor’s poetic, lyrical touch. He judges tempi well, and he plays forcefully when needed, but never – not once, not even close – does anything hard or unpleasant enter into the (sound) picture. It sounds the perfect mix between unrestrained lyrical beauty and fitful outbursts. The second movement is more directly forceful, of course, and O’Conor doesn’t shy away from that, yet his lovely tone keeps everything sounding attractive. A few times the playing takes on a blocky or bunched sound, though that hardly matters, and the ending is rousing, quick, and strong – perhaps more so than some of the preceding playing would seem to warrant – but ultimately complaints are minor. No, this recording doesn’t match with the very best, but really, very few versions sound much better to me.

    The Appassionata, by its very nature, seems to be a work that O’Conor isn’t meant to play at the very highest level. Outright intensity and passion aren’t his strongest points. But he does do a quite admirable job. Sure, the opening is a bit tentative, creating a nice sense of suspense, and the crescendos have solid weight and velocity, but that last bit of intensity is missing. No matter, or at least little matter – it still sounds fine. The second movement predictably fares better. O’Conor’s beautiful playing does lack the bite and tension that generally are heard in my favorite versions. And of course, the third movement is quite similar to the first; filled with passion and tension, O’Conor does his best to deliver the goods, and while he again does an admirable job, he falls just a bit short. The ending of the movement does catch fire, though. This is a good, solid reading, though it does fall short of the best. No one bats a thousand, so that’s hardly a problem.

    The Op 78 and 79 sonatas both end up sounding good if not quite great. The first of the two opens with a big, rich sound, though it still manages to sound a bit slight. The second movement is perky and energetic, and benefits from O’Conor’s fine tone. The second little late work opens in staggered, blocky fashion that doesn’t flow well enough , and it’s taken at a somewhat relaxed overall tempo. But it does have a singing, playful quality to it. The Andante is downright gorgeous even if it sounds a bit superficial. The piece ends in decent if not great fashion. Perhaps coming after Backhaus doomed these recordings to sounding like works recorded just to complete the cycle, but they’re still pretty good.

    The Les Adieux, however, is quite good. Really, there’s not too much to write about it. O’Conor’s conception is appropriately big and quasi-orchestral in conception, and the appropriate emotions are displayed in each of the three movements, and all is delivered with a finely judged mix of beauty, power, and well judged tempi. It’s excellent.

    The Op 90 sonata is even better. Here’s a “late” work (or, more properly, a hard to classify work) which seems to demand O’Conor’s style of playing. The opening movement boasts strong, sharp chords blended with nearly flawless (and seamlessly quick) diminuendo playing of remarkable beauty. In other words, the piece contains extremely well played and highlighted contrasts and an appealingly wide dynamic range. The second movement finds O’Conor even more at home. Pure poetry and lyricism again become the hallmarks of the recording. O’Conor plays the right hand figures and melodies with disarming grace, and he plays the continuous left hand accompaniment in perfect fashion. This is one of the highlights of the cycle and immensely enjoyable and definitely a contender.

    Now to the late sonatas proper. Or at least the first one. The Op 101 sonata has always been a relatively tough one for me to get into. The quirky nature of the work proves a challenge to many pianists, and only a few really make me eagerly want to spin this. (This doesn’t mean I don’t like the work – I love it. When played a certain way.) O’Conor does a good job here. The opening movement has a singing quality to it that really ingratiates the piece to this listener. The second movement is a strongly characterized march, and O’Conor does a fine job playing with strength and contrast. He’s not as strong or incisive as some, and he maintains a certain lyricism throughout. The Adagio is a thing of beauty, if perhaps not as deep as some. And the finale is nicely motoric and rhythmically satisfying. (I found myself tapping my toes a bit.) Still, this recording doesn’t quite scale the heights. But it’s better than some (or many, I guess).

    So another healthy batch of sonatas shows that O’Conor, at his best, can really deliver the goods, but that he, like everyone else, can’t nail every one.


    --


    Time to finish this one up. I’ve known for a while that O’Conor’s Hammerklavier is not among the elite recordings of this work. It’s not bad; it’s just not great. The same strengths that serve the pianist so well in some other sonatas don’t perform magic here. The biggest short-coming, in the first two movements, is the relative lack of power. It’s not that O’Conor can’t play with the power I usually prefer, it’s just that he chooses not to. The opening movement is actually taken at a nice pace – it’s definitely not too slow, but nor does he rush it. But the lack of real drive and the somewhat muted contrasts overpower the obviously meticulous and attractive playing. Same with the second movement. Moving to the Adagio finds O’Conor in more friendly territory, but then he does something different. This isn’t merely a beautifully played Adagio; it’s tense, agitated, quicker than most, and possessed of a searching, forlorn sound. Indeed, I hesitate to call it “beautiful” in the standard sense. O’Conor plays with a tone that never grates, but the unabashed beauty he brings elsewhere is absent. And it works. Then O’Conor turns to the finale. The opening Largo actually maintains the tension of the Adagio, and then he plays in a manner that would have worked better in the opening two movements: there’s some bite, some heft, some power. On top of that, he keeps the contrapuntal lines clear. Yep, this is a vigorous closer. So, some fine things are to be heard here – in the Adagio especially – but this isn’t one of the greats.

    Moving on to the first of the last three finds O’Conor relying on his more predictable style of playing. The piece opens with a somewhat laid-back feel, though he manages to infuse enough oomph while always providing ample beauty. Even in this dense, compact open, O’Conor manages to muster a nicely, well, transcendental sound. Or at least one capable of transporting the listener. The second movement is of course played more quickly, but it maintains the relatively light, easy-going feel of the opening movement. The real good stuff comes in the long ending movement. It’s tender. It’s beautiful. Hell, it’s gorgeous. Yes, he revs things up here and there as needed, but that’s not the focus. The upshot? The best I can describe it is that O’Conor somehow manages to fashion an unmistakably alluring but strangely static sound world. As he progresses through the variations on the opening theme, it feels less like he’s exploring the logical musical outgrowths of the music, and more likes he’s expounding one continuous, glorious, ultimately indescribably brilliant and moving idea. The idea – impossible to put into puny, frail words – requires everything, every note, every silence. It requires Beethoven’s pen. Yep, it’s a good ‘un. And the highlight of the last sonatas in this cycle.

    The 110 is successful, but ultimately not quite as successful as its predecessor. The opening is predictably beautiful, and here O’Conor has no trouble spicing up the quick arpeggios with an attractive mix of verve ‘n’ clean articulation. A constant forward motion is audible, but rather than going deep, O’Conor keeps things relatively jovial. The second movement, it’s nimble and strong, boisterous and funny – sort of a nifty, nearly transcendental joke. Well, I guess it is a late Beethoven Scherzo. Go figure. The final movement offers significant contrast: it opens with a disconsolate feel, and that’s maintained without let up until the fugue, which O’Conor plays with fine clarity, speed, and, on occasion, power. He alternates the two styles again with just enough difference in style to make it even more interesting than it already is (that is, extraordinarily interesting), and when O’Conor plays the massive chords building up to the return of the fugue, it is extremely strong. No, this doesn’t match up with the best of the best out there, but it’s still a fine recording of this masterful late sonata.

    The last sonata is unfortunately the weakest of the bunch. The opening movement is taken too slowly at the outset, though the pace quickens a bit later on. The dark, rich sound is nice, and O’Conor wallops out them ominous chords when appropriate, and his approach makes the quasi-fugal writing more apparent than some. Of course, O’Conor plays exceptionally well in the softer passages, offering nice contrast to the opener. It’s reasonably successful overall. The second movement falls into the reasonably successful category, as well. The Arietta is predictably beautiful, and the variations begin with a sumptuous, gorgeous first one harking back to his approach to 109. As the variations progress, though, the relative lack of depth becomes more apparent. Surely this movement of this sonata must assume an almost (or perhaps even definitely) philosophical feel, and O’Conor never quite does that. A bit of technical uncertainty at around 13’ in doesn’t help, either. This is another case where O’Conor does well, but he just doesn’t scale the heights. And a successful 111 means a lot, at least to me.

    Anyway, conclusion time. I rather fancy John O’Conor’s cycle. As I stated in my review of Andrea Lucchesini’s cycle, this set (with Alfredo Perl’s the third) proves that some exceptional Beethoven playing is still to be heard from living, breathing pianists. Oh, sure, Andras Schiff’s cycle gets underway later this month (!!!), and Murray Perahia has promised to start his, but one needn’t wait for the big names; some lesser known pianists have a lot to offer. Okay, forced to choose just one for the intrepid listener wanting to move beyond dead pianists, I’d say Lucchesini is the way to go, but for those out there who want even more options – and certainly everyone should want more – I say this is a fine set. It can usually be had for a decent price, and it yields some musical riches. I’m glad it never worked its way out of my collection; this is a superb set.

  14. #14
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Anton Kuerti

    Too slow. That’s been a criticism I’ve seen attributed to Anton Kuerti’s cycle by several people. The criticism is well founded, at least on the evidence of the first batch of sonatas. Until now, Kuerti is a name I’d only seen in passing. The Austrian-born, American-raised, and now Canadian-domiciled pianist has apparently had a rather healthy career as performer and teacher and recording artist, though it appears he’s done little for the majors. (This cycle, now on Analekta, was originally issued in the US on CBS/Odyssey, though.) Is this by his choice, by happenstance, or is there another reason? Or a blend of all three (or more) reasons? Don’t know. Don’t care, really. I’m just interested in his Beethoven. Well, possibly his Schubert cycle, too, if I can find it. So, other than a well deserved reputation for slowness, what does Kuerti have to offer? Well . . .

    Plinky, metallic sound is a good place to start. The first sonata opens too slow and suffers from a plinky, metallic sound, and both of these attributes show up time and again. But it’s not all bad. First of all, Kuerti’s general slowness allows for greater apparent flexibility and fluidity – since he’s not rushing through, he can speed up and slow down as he wants. And this leads to a trait that I generally like a lot: Kuerti is more interesting playing diminuendo rather than crescendo. Pianissimo comes up with more shades than fortissimo under his fingers. But what seems to be missing? Ah, yes, the music. For, you see, another overarching trait of the first seven sonatas is a fascination with the details at the expense of the whole. So back to the music: after a slow start, Kuerti does pick up the basic tempo a bit in the first sonata, but it doesn’t really have the drive I want. Nor does the Adagio. Alright, the Adagio doesn’t really need it, but it shouldn’t be this slow. And it should certainly flow, which this one does not. Kuerti delves into the details. Each phrase, each chord, hell, each single note has meaning. As a result, the playing is completely lacking in emotion; it is precious and contrived. The Menuetto? Same. The finale? Wait! There’s some speed and strength! Kuerti shows he can mix it up; he can spin off notes with heat and dexterity. He can also maintain a wildly variable touch, with subtle variations between notes in an arpeggio and minute dynamic variations. But, again, the music, it’s missing.

    What about the second sonata. Here Kuerti opts to open the piece swiftly. He darts across the keyboard, dodging in and out, deploying subtle rubato and color and dynamic shifts, sometimes each one at a time, sometimes in combination. It rather reminds me of Eric Heidsieck, but it lacks the Frenchman’s fluidity and grace. The Largo? S L O W. Soft. Tender. Variegated. But detached and cool. The Scherzo, well, it’s slow, too, but it benefits from very clean fingerwork and variable tone. The concluding Rondo is the most conventional movement thus far, played in a most grazioso manner, though it seems more an idealization of feeling rather than feeling.

    The third sonata starts off energetically and at a slightly fast speed, which is fine, but it is also glassy, precious, and metallic. The Adagio, well, it sounds more like a Largo. Kuerti’s tendency to play slow gets exaggerated. The movement begins to sound a bit silly; a sort of faux seriousness or ominous “feeling” creeps in, the left-hand chords pounded out slowly and with heft. The Scherzo, as if to offer maximum contrast, is fast and light. To finish off the sonata, Kuerti starts out with a nice, brisk tempo and plenty o’ verve, but then he plays in an oddly – and oddly appealing – distant, detached way. It’s back to details and individual effects rather than the big picture, as it were. Indeed, I find it difficult to adequately convey what Kuerti does. He throws in so many devices, and most of them are either subtle or lightning fast (or both), that it becomes hard to stay grounded. He’s moving. He’s moving around the sonatas. He’s not moving within them. He’s highlighting some points and downplaying others – as all pianists do – but he delivers his message in a sometimes bizarre way. Make no mistake, his slow playing can be slow – distractingly so – but he also has enough ideas of his own to make one listen intently. Sometimes it succeeds more than others.

    An example of the latter would be the Op 7 sonata. What to make of this? The opening movement is brilliant! It’s quick and strong and athletic and heroic, and even thought I generally prefer a softer take, I really like this. Sure, some of his effects are too blatant and quirky, but it’s still good. But man, when he plays the Largo, it’s a chore to sit through it. It is just way too slow. Kuerti plays with a sensitive touch and actually keeps the tension in places, but he really, really emphasizes the pauses. When he plays louder chords along with those pauses, the whole thing sounds too contrived, as though he’s saying: “Look how serious I can make this.” It don’t flow people, it don’t flow. But dammit, his soft playing displays exquisite versatility. It’s maddening. The Allegro is maddening, too. Stiff, slow, and choppy for a while, and more flexible for a while, it makes one want to either crank it up or turn it off, depending on where one is in the movement. The concluding Rondo, well, it starts and ends too slow, but in between it’s quite nice. At the end of this jumbled recording one is left nonplussed.

    That effect does not happen with the opening of the first of the Op 10 sonatas; it’s awful. It’s awkward, blocky, choppy, slow, distorted, and willful. Perhaps it’s meant to be more dramatic as a result, but it’s definitely not. During the slower passages Kuerti once again puts on a fine show, but it’s not enough. The Adagio has a faux seriousness to it, like the third sonata, and even the fine slow and/or soft playing can’t compensate. But then along comes a fast, strong, and intense Prestissimo conclusion that just grabs one’s attention. Grrrr.

    Finally, with the sixth sonata, one arrives at something that can be called successful from start to finish. The piece opens with “[a] hop with mysterious charm” in Kuerti’s words, and everywhere Kuerti deploys his idiosyncratic touches to highlight that “mysterious” charm. Perpetually variable rubato, off-beat emphases, odd phrases – this compact opener has it all. But it still “works.” The Allegretto here is serious and heavy and dark, with plenty of low register heft, and it works! The Presto works, too! That’s a whole sonata! It’s fast ‘n’ strong, clear ‘n’ upbeat, and includes that repeat that is so often overlooked. This isn’t a great recording of this sonata – I cannot emphasize that enough – but despite its quirks, or perhaps partially because of them, it all coheres into a nice work for solo piano.

    The seventh sonata makes two successful sonatas in a row. The opening is taken at a nice clip, and is, for Kuerti, pretty straight-forward. For about fifteen seconds. Then it’s back to Kuerti’s, um, unique way. Some of the fast passages almost seem satirical, they’re taken so fast. He’s mocking the very notion of virtuosity. The slow portions conform to Kuerti’s normal tics. But it works, even if just barely. The Largo is slow, slow, slow, but includes such fine dynamic and tonal variation and elicits such a nice (if contrived) sorrowful feel that it just works. Even the near static feel in some places helps. The Menuetto, too, is slow, but somehow Kuerti makes it work. To finish off, and to create a sort of hypercontrast to what came before, Kuerti plays the concluding Rondo in a largely conventional manner, though one informed by some ferocity here and there.

    This is one of the most baffling cycles I’ve heard. I simply cannot recommend it to most people. This is an alternative take for people who already prefer alternative takes. I have no doubt at all that Beethoven would never have envisioned his music sounding like this – I can’t think of a composer who would. So often Kuerti plays for momentary effect, and he almost never plays for architectural cohesion. It’s sort of moment-to-moment playing, but it is devoid of romance and passion. This is contrived playing; this is Beethoven viewed through an intellectual prism devoid of feeling; this is weird. I’ve peeked at what’s coming up, and what do I see but a 52’ Hammerklavier with a 25’ Adagio. Is that more puzzling than an 11’+ Largo in the Op 10/3 sonata? I’ll know when I get there. This is gonna take some work.


    --


    I don’t think I’ve encountered a more comprehensive set of notes about the sonatas performed than those by Anton Kuerti. (Paul Badura-Skoda offers detailed notes, too, though no direct translation from German is offered.) These notes offer a glimpse into his thinking and his approach. And it is here where one can find some hints of why his playing sounds the way it does. For instance, in writing about the Op 22 sonata, he writes the following, telling line: “[A]nd in any case conventionality is not necessarily beauty’s enemy.” The italics are his. (Yes, this is a snippet, but for those who have not read his notes, this statement can be taken as it stands without much dilution of meaning. Think of the (r)evolutionary nature of Op 22 and one can get an idea of what he’s getting at.) Of course, a corollary remains unwritten: Eccentricity is not necessarily beauty’s friend. No italics needed. With a better understanding of what he’s all about, it’s time to describe the second batch of sonatas.

    The Pathetique opens well enough, though I’m not sure the chords need to be held quite as long as they are. (Would truncating them a second or two harm the intention that much?) Even with the slowness, tension is maintained. Mostly. Between 1’50” and 2’, the tempo is just too slow. The faster portions that follow all fare better. Kuerti’s articulation is superb, his tonal and dynamic (micro-) variations everything one might expect and then some, and, again, tension is maintained. True, the proceedings have a slightly detached sense to them, but no biggie. But the over 11’ intro ends up sapping the intensity of the opening movement. This isn’t one of my favorite sonatas, so I like it compact and intense. Moving to the Adagio finds a beautifully played but again too slow approach. Here, Kuerti’s amazing abilities at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum really pay dividends, but only in a details-rule kind of way. The finale more or less continues what came before. The result is a less than compelling Op 13.

    I approached the two Op 14 sonatas believing they would suck. Sluggishness in these light works kills everything. Fortunately, Kuerti has enough up his sleeve to avoid total disaster. The opening Allegro is indeed stifled by a, yes, slow overall tempo, but once again the minute variations in the tricks of the pianist’s trade yield some interesting insights. Before the opening movement is done, the overall effect grows a bit tiresome. The Allegretto is more conventional in approach, but perhaps because of Kuerti’s antipathy to such an approach, sounds lifeless and dull. The concluding Rondo is better, but it gets a bit bogged down in too-serious playing. It’s not a disaster, but it don’t top my list.

    Decidedly more successful is the second of these works. It opens in a positively delightful fashion, and Kuerti’s playing brings out myriad nuances without sounding all about the details. Further, the faster playing really brings the piece to life, and only an abrupt transition to the more intense music (played with real bite) at about 4’10” mars the opener. The Andante is presented more slowly than normal, but each of the variations sounds nicely different and well played, and the rhythmic drive hangs together nicely even at the slower speed. The concluding Scherzo comes off especially well, with the light, breezy character defining most of the music nicely juxtaposed against the strikingly powerful middle section. Complaints are quibbles: this is damn good.

    Since Kuerti likes groundbreaking music and views the Op 22 sonata as a groundbreaking work, it isn’t surprising that the work comes off better than most thus far. Kuerti plays the opening movement with notable rhythmic drive and clear articulation and focus. Only some slightly stiff playing just before 6’ and some unusual low register phrasing show Kuerti’s other traits. The fine tonal variation and dynamic changes all add to the allure of this opener. The Adagio, as one might imagine, gets the slow treatment – very slow; it’s ten minutes long! Throughout Kuerti maintains tension and never sounds other than attractive, but he just stretches it out a bit too long. The Menuetto sounds a bit choppy and not very flowing, but it still comes off reasonably well. The concluding Rondo is played in a largely conventional (&lt;gasp!&gt way, and is nicely vivacious and entertaining. Overall, this sonata comes off much better than most others in the set thus far, but it’s still only an also-ran.

    No doubt some of my criticisms sound repetitive, but that’s only because the problems with this cycle are repetitive. Case in point: the Op 26 sonata. The opening movement starts out with the Andante theme played in a most captivating fashion, and Kuerti adds some nice touches to the variations, but the overall tempo is, yes, too slow. The Scherzo is a success, somewhat bucking the trend – it’s got biting and strong playing alternating with more nuanced playing – but the Funeral March doesn’t. It’s certainly funereal and march-like, which is good, but it also sounds contrived. The concluding Allegro is a bit clunky, though again there’s that touch.

    But this repetitiveness really got to me when listening to the first of the two sonatas quasi una fantasia. I’ve written it before and will write it again: I prefer the first of these two works, and by an increasing margin. It’s more “unpredictable,” more variable, and more adventurous. Given Kuerti’s apparent preference for such a work, I was hoping for the best. That ain’t what I got. The piece opens too slowly (whoda thunk it?), though with nice tonal variety (another surprise!), and when the Andante gives way to the Allegro section, Kuerti overemphasizes the contrast by playing really fast and really strong (shocker!). Playing with such massive shifts is not the only way to bring out the contrasts; such an interpretive approach is really rather banal. The next Allegro again suffers from excessive contrast, though not as simplistically extreme as the opening movement. The Adagio comes off as very similar to the opening movement, and it’s – wait for it – slow. Didn’t see that coming, did you? I had to give up for a while before proceeding.

    In contrast (ha!) to the 27/1, I’m finding myself less interested in the Mondschein sonata as time passes. Yes, it’s full of invention and new ideas, but the whole approach – dramatic / less dramatic / dramatic – strikes me as a bit uninteresting in all but the very best recordings. So I didn’t really care what Kuerti did. Perusing the notes finds Kuerti criticizing standard approaches, too, and coming to this conclusion: the “performer who plays it authentically risks being accused of understatement.” Authentically? Hmmm. Musicological issues aside, this indicates that Kuerti thinks the piece is often overcooked, so you know what that means: S L O W speeds. Bet get this – it works! The opening movement is slow and morose, played down, and positively blurs one’s senses it’s so hazy. ‘Tis a long lamentation. Yes, it’s a bit contrived, but I’ll take it. The Allegretto is delicate and soft, with more of that amazing p to pp variability that Kuerti can deliver, and a few choppy moments and sluggishness don’t really hurt. The concluding Presto is fast, fast, fast, with some chords brutally cut short for emphasis and to create an artificial intensity. No, it’s not the greatest, but it definitely sounds better than its poor predecessor.

    This batch of sonatas ends with one of my favorites, the Op 28 Pastorale. Unfortunately, Mr Kuerti doesn’t feel the same way. Sayeth he: “It would be hard to deny a certain disappointment in Op 28.” I steadfastly deny it! Anyway, not content to bludgeon the listener with the devices already at his disposal, Kuerti introduces a new interpretive device: Plodding. The opening movement suffers from this new device. All lyricism is basically sapped from the music. Throw in the details x-ray, especially after 4’, and there’s some rough listening to endure. The Andante is not as distorted as the opening movement, but the oddities are still there, as is some more faux-seriousness between about 6’ and 6’30”. The Scherzo actually works! It’s upbeat, witty, charming and mostly direct. But one movement does not make this sonata. Especially with a plodding Rondo to end it. On top of it all, Kuerti manages a trick I’ve rarely heard; he manages to sound both texturally clear and rhythmically thick at the same time. But at least he ends the piece in blazing fast fashion. Wow, hyper-contrast, how thoughtful.

    A couple bright spots aside, this batch was harder to endure than the first. I sincerely hope this trend doesn’t continue.

  15. #15
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle Journal

    Paul Badura-Skoda

    Ah, serendipity – it can be downright serendipitous! Earlier this week, whilst picking up András Schiff’s disappointing first installment of his LvB sonata cycle, I happened upon a used copy of Austrian pianist Paul Badura-Skoda’s first complete sonata cycle. This cycle was recorded by the Austrian label Gramola in 1969 and 1970 to commemorate Beethoven’s bicentenary. To keep with an all-Austrian theme, a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand was used for the recordings. The set was remastered and reissued in 2002. But how is this particularly serendipitous, you may be wondering? Well, on the evidence of the first seven sonatas, PBS’ playing is largely the antithesis of Anton Kuerti’s; that is, while certainly far from being devoid of personality and insight, it lacks the eccentricities that that other Austrian (or at least Austrian-born) pianist brings to his playing. So now I get to listen to two experienced pianists play the same music at the same, and as an added bonus, the two cycle were recorded relatively close together (the Kuerti is from ’74-’75), so I get to hear to roughly contemporaneous views on the music. How will the sets differ, how will they be similar, and which will I prefer overall? All these questions – and more! – shall be answered forthwith.

    From the opening bars of the first sonata, it is abundantly clear that PBS plays in a much more direct fashion. It’s also clear that he favors swifter tempi overall. The energetic open to the Op 2/1 sonata is brisk, lively, clear, clean, and unfettered by mannerism; it’s fluid and rhythmically snappy and fun. As an added bonus, the Bösendorfer low-register adds a bit more heft than normal. The Adagio sounds appropriately gentler, though it’s not soft, per se. I could have done with a bit more tonal beauty, but the playing is undeniably involving, with each note and chord there to savor. The Menuetto here comes off as perhaps a bit more serious than one may want – and seriousness permeates the first seven sonatas – but it all sounds so proper and right. PBS plays the concluding Prestissimo in fiery, driven, and exciting fashion right through to the end. Nope, none of Kuerti’s idiosyncratic rubato and phrasing is to be found anywhere.

    The same holds true in the second sonata. The opening Allegro is spirited and light, but also quite earnest. PBS announces his individuality with some uniquely accented notes and phrases, but he never makes the interpretive devices the center of attention. Some of the playing is not ideally tight, though, but one wonders is part of that is due to the sound of the Bösendorfer. (More to follow soon.) The Largo opens somewhat somberly and with a rich, “big” sound; this ain’t no dainty late-18th Century sonata! The not-too-slow overall tempo is interrupted in the middle section by some rhythmically sprung, lively playing. The Scherzo opens with a pithily dispatched ostinato figure (with some nice Bösendorfer low register sound!) that eventually leads into a middle section of some urgency and bite. Is it a Scherzo, or something more serious? The concluding Rondo is taken at a nice, somewhat relaxed overall tempo and flows quite nicely.

    Moving to the third sonata, one finds PBS opening the work in quick, fiery, and youthful fashion; the piece sounds a bit uncouth at times. Maybe even reckless. This is emphatically not deep, profound late Beethoven. But it’s definitely fun. The sound of the Bösendorfer begins to become something of an item to consider in itself. In addition to the welcome extra low register weight, the piano sounds a bit pingy and metallic – at all volumes – but when the playing moves into forte and above, the sound acquires something of an amorphous, slightly unclear and undifferentiated sound. It’s as though there’s a great mass of sound is coming at the listener. It’s not unpleasant in itself, but it detracts a bit because of the lack of ideal clarity. Anyway, back to the music. The Adagio opens in suitably lovely fashion, with a gently rocking second section punctuated by weighty fortissimo crashes. The Scherzo is meaty and weighty, though the seriousness does stomp out some of the humor in the music. The concluding movement is lighter and more playful – and youthful – and has some nice rhythmic snap to it. Overall, the opening trio fares quite well.

    I’ve noted before how I tend to favor a more “pastoral” approach to the Op 7 sonata, though a bigger, more heroic conception can be fabulously successful when played just right. I was wondering which of these approaches PBS might take. Neither, it turns out. Instead, he forges a new path, and one different from any version I’ve heard. His take is lighter and more youthful, if you will; he doesn’t present this Grande Sonata as especially grand. The opening movement is shorn of heft and heroism and seriousness and becomes quick and playful, with nice articulation. The Largo, taken perhaps at an Adagio pace, is played slightly more seriously, but PBS does not go as deep as some others, and the pauses aren’t given metaphysical meaning. Some may find the playing a bit too exuberant for the material, but within the overall conception, it works. That written, the middle section is more intense. The Menuetto starts and ends with charming, light and quite lovely playing, but the middle section brings something else to the movement: it’s a bit unsettled and darker than the surrounding music. It’s quite an effective contrast. The concluding Rondo – a stormy middle section aside – is elegant, and, not surprisingly, graceful and flows beautifully. Any complaints I may have about this sonata become mere quibbles; PBS’ take is a fresh one, and one I will definitely be returning to again in the future. It’s the highlight of the opening seven.

    Moving to the Op 10 sonatas finds a mostly successful trio of works. The first sonata opens with moderate speed and intensity, with the second reappearance being a bit weightier, and the intermediate material being played in a more lyrical fashion. The whole movement alternates thusly, and that Bösendorfer weight just adds to the interest. The Adagio is lovely and a bit restrained, though the ascending runs are wonderfully light and clear and buoyant. The concluding Prestissimo is quick, strong, and upbeat, but here the slightly congested, amorphous sound of the piano does get in the way a couple times. It’s nothing major, though.

    The second sonata of the bunch is basically presented as light from start to finish. The fun and simple opening movement, with its eminently enjoyable melody, is played with fine style. Perhaps it’s not as elegant as it could be, but then again, this is youthful Beethoven. The Allegretto is a bit cooler and darker, but it never exactly becomes stormy. The Presto conclusion is played at a nice, relaxed pace (no rushed Prestissimo this), and a few spots of slightly clunky and stiff playing are more than off-set by the inclusion of the repeat.

    The seventh sonata offers the nearest thing to a dud in this opening batch. While this sonata is perhaps the most significant and well developed of the first seven sonatas, PBS plays it in a more serious manner than seems warranted. The piece opens with a thick, serious sound, with the thematic material emphatically presented. (I don’t think listeners would miss it, so why the emphasis?) It becomes a bit too serious and stiff at times as a result. The Largo assumes a serious, dark, and notably tragic air, which is fine, but it just seems a bit too much at times. The Menuetto, while nicely played, maintains a too-serious mood. The Rondo, while well played, comes across as something of an afterthought, because it cannot really support such a serious approach. So, while well played, this one didn’t really do it for me.

    Finding this cycle proved to be a blessing. Now I can compare two widely different approaches to the same music, and that may help me appreciate each artist’s take a bit more. Of the two cycles, I definitely prefer Paul Badura-Skoda’s thus far. His style and approach are more direct and lighter. To an extent, he reminds me of his fellow countryman and contemporary, Friedrich Gulda. The latter’s style and approach is definitely leaner and more comprehensive and, ultimately, more compelling, but both pianists approach the music in a serious, devoted fashion, and neither one really focuses on stylized interpretive devices in quite the same way Keurti does. Early impressions lead me to conclude that PBS’ cycle is not one of the greats (though I won’t know for sure until all 32 are done), but it’s one I want to hear more of, and soon. Since I’ve already completed the next batch of Kuerti’s recordings, I plan on listening to the same sonatas by PBS and then, after completing my summaries of each pianist’s take individually, I think I’ll do direct comparative listening. It should prove enlightening.


    --


    Having listened to Anton Kuerti’s variable take – from good to awful – of eight sonatas, including some of my favorites, it was now Paul Badura-Skoda’s turn. His overall style seems more at home in many of these works, and without question his playing is more to my taste than Mr Kuerti’s, and this batch just reinforces that impression.

    Opening with the Pathetique finds a more successful recording, albeit one that doesn’t come close to the best. The relatively closely-miked recording allows the Bösendorfer’s extra low-end weight to come to the fore and add a bit of drama. Even with a beefier sound, the sound world never becomes really dark or stormy, though it does assume a nicely romantic feel. More intensity would have been welcome. The Adagio comes across as lyrical and even tender in parts and really sounds refreshing after listening to Kuerti’s take. The concluding Rondo displays fine dexterity and has an almost singing quality, but it’s too light to really hammer home the work. So, a decent recording but not a great one.

    The two Op 14 sonatas seemed like good matches for PBS’ style before hearing them, and listening only confirmed my hunch. The first of the two is simply a treat to listen to. PBS opens lightly, using graceful charm to lure the listener in all the way. About three minutes in, the playing assumes a richer, more dissonant tone, but it never bites, and when the charming music returns, everything sounds just right. ‘Tis smiling but committed. The Allegretto is perfectly poised, played with a nicely variable touch (though it’s no match for Kuerti’s), and if it sounds just a tad downtrodden, it does so while keeping its chin up, if you will. The concluding Rondo is a pure delight, with exquisitely variegated tone and dynamics, and with an irresistibly sunny feeling. I like it so much I listened twice.

    The second sonata is just as good. PBS opens the Allegro in a most songful, serene, and sunny manner, with a lightly textured touch. Between about four and five minutes, PBS plays with more intensity, but then it’s back to a gleeful style. The Andante opens with a nifty march with just enough staccato, and PBS plays each variation to near perfection, and he adds a nice little touch by lending the last one a distinctly dreamy feel. The Scherzo is, as the Rondo in the preceding work, pure delight, and delivered in light, agile manner that ingratiates itself to the listener.

    Moving on to the meatier piece that is the Op 22 finds PBS opening in a decidedly quick and agile manner, with an unusually clear distinction between the left and right hand parts (aided no doubt by the Bösendorfer’s sound). Just a bit of stiff playing can be heard at around 1’15”, but overall this is a forward-moving opener of notable energy. The Adagio opens in a sumptuous, songful manner, with the richer Bösendorfer underpinning really paying off and the slightly resonant recording adding to the atmosphere. The deep, resonant second section darkens and enriches the sound palate of the piece making it denser and more complex. When the original theme returns, it is of course slightly transformed, but the overall mood is the same, and the somewhat laid-back sound really fits. The Menuetto is lilting and laid-back, and, dare I write it, whistleable, the slightly biting (and pleasingly so) trio notwithstanding. The Rondo offers more of the same, though a few rough patches detract from the proceedings a bit.

    The Op 26 sounds markedly better under PBS’ fingers than Kuerti’s, though I’m not sure I’d call it a world beater. The opening Andante theme is lyrical and flowing, with gentle staccato playing. The first two variations fly by in a most pleasing manner, the first flowing and graceful, the second punchy and wry. The third cools things down a bit, and while it could possibly be a bit more somber, it still works quite well. The fourth variation sounds a bit choppy and pointed, and the fifth is graceful and colorful. So far, so good. For the Scherzo, PBS adopts a playful and vigorous style that works especially well, and the hints of gruffness only help. The funeral march, well, it’s a bit abstract sounding, the firm and taut playing emphasizing the march more than the funereal aspect, though it’s certainly somber. A bit of a metallic tinge detracts from the recording just a bit. The finale is straight-forward and rocking, with especially strong playing in the middle section. This one’s definitely worth hearing again, even if it can’t match up to the grand power of, say, Claude Frank.

    As I got ready to spin the Op 27/1 sonata, I was really hoping for something to make up for Kuerti’s unfortunate recording. I pretty much got it. Right from the start it’s clear that this is more my speed. The music is beautiful and a bit hazy, and almost songful, and, happily, a bit aimless. Where’s it headed? The Allegro section appears with its pounding power and cascading notes to dazzle, but still, what’s the point? The Andante’s return, at a swifter tempo, merely sounds superb. The following Allegro sounds a bit gruff and suffers a bit from the congested sound that hampers the recordings from time to time, but the succeeding Adagio is gorgeous and tender. The concluding Allegro is sunny and energetic and suitably big, but it, too, suffers a bit of congestion, and some of the playing isn’t ideally assured. The recording is more successful overall than what I heard from Kuerti, but it’s not quite fantastic enough for me.

    I figured I’d get a pretty straight reading of the Mondschein sonata, and PBS doesn’t disappoint. The Bösendorfer adds a nice weight to the hazy, solemn opening movement, and little to nothing in the way of idiosyncratic touches can be heard. The Allegretto is a bit light if not really happy, and the finale is energetic, rhythmically charged and bass-heavy. It’s a serviceable reading if you will, but not one of the contenders.

    But where PBS really makes up for what I had to endure listening to Kuerti is in the Pastorale. This recording is very much what I’m listening for. The opening Allegro is wonderfully and gracefully flowing, with beautiful music following beautiful music, even if the sound ain’t the best. The more animated passages are never overdone, and PBS plays with a nicely variable touch. PBS ratchets up the tension in the middle section quite nicely, delivering a powerful, weighty crescendo that never tips over into excess, and then he gracefully falls back into the initial mood of the piece. The Andante is here played in a nicely restrained and definitely attractive manner, and once again the Bösendorfer sound helps things out a bit. The left hand playing is naturally pronounced, so PBS seems freer to focus on the right hand melodies and figures. All blends together nicely while remaining attractively distinct. The Scherzo opens quite softly, but the alternating dynamics are deftly played and the cheerful trio and laid-back return all combine to make this quite pleasing. The concluding Rondo starts off with a lovely, gentle rocking rhythm that imparts a genial mood, and basically that describes the rest of the piece except for a strong but not harsh middle section crescendo. The whole work just flows together in a most attractive manner. This isn’t deep, late Beethoven, and it’s not revolutionary Beethoven, but it is a happier, sunnier, more beautiful Beethoven. Surely that side should receive its due.

    This most recent batch definitely yields some magnificent gems – the Op 14 sonatas and the lovely Pastorale – but it also demonstrates some of the short-comings of PBS’ cycle. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely like it, but some of the playing doesn’t achieve the same levels of perfection that some other artists muster. Also, now that I’m at the same place in both the Kuerti and PBS cycles I can begin direct comparisons. I wonder what those will reveal.

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