When I read last year that Kun-Woo Paik would record all of the Beethoven piano sonatas, I was interested though not exactly spurred to rush out and buy it the day it was released. My exposure to this pianist is limited to his very good Prokofiev Piano Concertos on Naxos, his (relatively) light and nuanced touch bringing something appealing to the works that some others miss. But Beethoven? Now, I’m not one to ask that silly question “Aren’t there enough cycles already?” (Answer: Obviously not!), but given the various pianists working today who have not recorded any or much Beethoven, Kun-Woo Paik didn’t jump to the top of my list of must-hear contemporary artists in this most august repertoire. (After hearing him in the Diabellis, the Op 110, and the C Major Concerto, Anderszewski is the one I want to hear more from, and Andsnes could be interesting, too, as well as Zimerman, were he ever so inclined.) Combine the lack of intense interest and the premium price, and I opted to wait for a bargain. It didn’t take too long for that to happen.

Anyway, this three disc set covers eleven sonatas from the critical Op 31 sonatas through the Les Adieux. That’s a pretty sizeable chunk, and one that should reveal this pianist’s LvB creds. Good, bad, indifferent? Well . . .

The set opens with the Waldstein, and the Waldstein opens with some quick, nicely articulated playing, with Paik (or is it Kun-Woo?) adding his own individual emphases to specific notes or chords. The playing is kept within a relatively narrow band dynamically; that is, there are no titanic swells of sound or impossibly hushed pianissimos (or approximations thereof). It’s both direct and somewhat personalized. It’s also a bit impersonal. I can’t really sense an emotional attachment to the music. ‘Tis played nicely enough, though. The Adagio, in turn, sounds absolutely lovely, Paik offering a gentle, nicely variegated touch throughout its brief, well-judged length. But again, overt emotionalism goes missing. When the final movement opens, it is with a bit of detachment, a feeling that lasts until the end. It’s worth noting that the tone Paik extracts from his instrument is ravishing and never, ever harsh, even during the more tumultuous playing either side of 4’. Paik also plays in bigger fashion, as it were, adding some nice quasi-orchestral scale to the work, though others sound bigger. So the opener comes off as an idealized, well executed, but somewhat aloof and less than hugely scaled work. It ain’t too shabby, though.

The second sonata in the set is that little charmer, Op 49/2. A trifle it may be, but I just love that little Septet theme in the second movement, and I find it can be more than a trifle in the right hands. Paik almost manages that. The opening movement comes off well enough, with a rich, somewhat grand sound, though the playing never sounds too heavy for the music. The second movement, though, is too slow, and much of the charm gets sapped away. Darn.

The first disc concludes with the wonderful G major sonata, Op 31/1. How I enjoy this work, with all its Beethovenian humor and quirkiness, and the wonderful contrasts between outer movements and inner movement. This is a critical work. How would Paik do? I had to know. Crisp and quick, chipper and clear, that’s how Paik opens the work. He also adds a bit o’ muscle to some of the playing, but only discreetly. Oh, sure, there’s more of that relative detachment, but here it matters not at all. No, the opening movement is just dandy! (While a few more listens allowed me to appreciate Paul Lewis’ more reserved take, this opening movement is more immediately satisfying, no doubt ‘bout it.) The Adagio, on the other hand, is not quite so successful. At 12’58”, it resides at the very long end of the spectrum. Such an approach can succeed fabulously, as Claude Frank demonstrates, but Paik does something a bit different. I’ll start with the long trills. They’re a bit soft, a bit fuzzy; Paik uses a hazy, almost syrupy legato, and some notes blur together to the point of sounding more like a tremolo on a stringed instrument than a trill on piano. Paik also opts to play gently, with a gorgeously soft tone and microdynamic shading to match the best out there. So, some good and some not so good ideas coexist. The bigger problem is that the slow, soft playing comes perilously close to breaking the musical line, especially in the middle section, which should surely be more vigorous and testy. (Right?) At the very end of the movement, Paik stretches the music to nearly Kuertian length, though, fortunately, he’s better than Kuerti usually is (though, ironically, not in this sonata). The final movement opens in a similarly soft ‘n’ slow manner, though Paik gradually builds up tension and strength, and he maintains his extremely attractive tone throughout. (Really, the man seems incapable of ugly playing.) So, this sonata offers something of a mixed bag. A superb opener, followed by an interesting but flawed middle, and ending with an interesting if hardly utterly compelling finale. Overall, Paik does a fine job, and one that I’ll return to again, but it’s not a first choice.

The second disc opens with another little charmer, the Op 79 sonata. Paik comes out swinging, as it were. His playing is strong and clear and simultaneously serious and fun, and benefits from an extremely well judged overall tempo – fast-ish but not too fast. The Andante, too, benefits from an extremely well judged overall tempo, and sounds both beautiful and substantive. The concluding Vivace opens in a rather unvivacious way, and it never really picks up. About mid-way through, Paik does play with more energy, but his is a more relaxed though surprisingly beefy take.

Next up: Op 78. (Why not just go in order here?) The opening chords sound almost Les Adieux-ian, and the entire opening movement possesses a broad, large, moving sound, and the pianist seems more emotionally engaged, or at least his playing creates that illusion. Paik digs in in the second movement, playing with nice weight, energy, and articulation. This here’s evidence that even in the smaller works, something moving and major can be found. An unqualified success!

The 31/3 sonata follows, and it’s one of the best recordings in the set. The piece opens with some nicely hazy chords followed by some of Paik’s finely articulated playing. Paik also revels in the humorous and upbeat aspects of the playing, with some cheery playing throughout and some nicely punchy playing here and there to punctuate a point. The second movement comes across as a jolly good time. Paik plays quick and sure, his left hand laying down a meaty bass line for the right hand to spin out tunes over. Paik also plays parts of it very fast. Some may find that this actually makes it sound relatively serious, but I relish it. The little rough outbursts where Beethoven brings the meandering (though hurriedly and pointedly here!) music back into line are just delicious. A scherzo indeed! The Menuetto sounds grazioso, and Paik again deploys his beautiful tone wonderfully, and when he plays loudly it never grates. The concluding Presto con fuoco returns to the same spirit as the Scherzo, though here Paik’s playing sounds even beefier, more muscular. Does a tinge of hardness creep in? Does he push the tempo just a bit too hard, threatening (if that’s the right word) to tip over into an aggressive Prestissimo? Perhaps so (to both questions) but the forward momentum and energy level make it matter not a whit. The last movement – indeed the entire sonata – engrosses and enthralls.

The disc concludes with the Les Adieux sonata, and here Paik’s strengths and weakness are both on display, and right from the get-go. The piece opens beautifully, but in an aloof manner. When the first crescendo arrives, Paik maintains his poise while belting out the music, but it never makes one feel as though something personal or emotional is happening. Contrast this with, say, Paul Badura-Skoda’s intimate take or Wilhelm Backhaus’ recordings, and one can hear what’s missing. Even when one compares it to the comparatively cool Andrea Lucchesini one can divine that emotion goes missing. But the playing still manages to sound compelling. The second movement continues on in a similar fashion. Well judged technically, it lacks that spark of emotion, though I must say the lead-in to the finale is well done. The finale opens attractively enough, and the crescendos compel one to listen attentively, but it’s all just a bit cool. That’s not to say I don’t like this recording – it’s good for what it is – but I cannot say that it’s a world-beater.

The final disc opens with the Tempest, one of my three favorite Op 31 sonatas. A gentle yet slightly disquieting opening Largo sets the mood for the tumultuous opening movement; fine dynamic and tonal gradation with a hint of tension can be heard. When the stormier music arrives, it’s not ideally stormy or dark, but it definitely has a nicely rich, dark-ish texture. The return of quieter music is welcome, but all is not serene. Then the movement alternates nicely back and forth. Where is that ultimate bite, that barely concealed ferocity that characterizes some of my favorite accounts? It ain’t there, much like in Lewis’ account. (I’ll bet Andras Schiff takes a less than fearsome approach, too.) That’s quite all right, because what is there is quite appealing, and the contrasting material is contrasty enough for me. The Adagio ends up, in some ways, sounding like a continuation of the opener. That slightly cool feel reappears, and the overall tone is similar to the less than superheated opener. Note that I like the Adagio, and that I’m merely making an observation. One does get to hear some tonally attractive and nuanced playing, and Paik does a fine job of maintaining just the right amount of musical tension. The concluding Allegretto ends up being the most successful movement of the sonata, with a nice rhythmic drive and more of Paik’s clear, clean, nicely varied playing. I wouldn’t mind having the same degree of (or at least something closer to the) low-end growl that Lewis brings, though that’s more a function of the recording than the playing. Overall, ‘tis good – very good in parts – but not great, staggeringly or otherwise.

The second, or rather first, of the delightful Op 49 sonatas comes next. Paik chooses to open the work with a slightly melancholy air. The playing is quite lovely and the piece doesn’t suffer at all for it. The second movement sounds pluckier and funner, and Paik injects a decent amount of both rhythmic drive and sly wit where needed. A fine trifle, then.

Paik’s first installment of the Big Kahuna of piano sonata cycles ends with two unique readings, one of the potentially enigmatic Op 54, and one of the perennially popular Appassionata. The Op 54 first: Nothing seems particularly out of sorts in the first movement. It’s quite lyrical and Paik’s tone sounds quite at home. Sure, the faster, louder passages are notably fast and, well, muscular – Paik ain’t no dainty ivory tickler – but not more so than some other accounts. (And how delicious those trills near the end are!) The second movement Allegretto, though, is something else entirely. Indeed, Paik completely ignores the Allegretto indication and plays it as a fast ‘n’ furious Prestissimo with a pointed yet (necessarily?) light staccato unlike in any other version I’ve yet heard. Does that make it good? Well, it doesn’t make it bad. It does make it different. I like it, but this definitely falls into the “alternative” interpretation category.

Now to the last work. I admit to liking my Appassionata-s played either fast or intense, or both. As such, Annie Fischer (on Hungaroton) has long reigned supreme, with only Richter (on RCA) and, much more recently, Lipkin to offer serious competition. This lead-in is necessary because Paik offers an at times blazingly fast reading, one bordering on the manic, yet it’s not an unqualified success. The piece starts plainly enough; by that I mean that the opening is controlled and contained, yet contains hints of what is to come. Maybe the first bass figures are a bit light, and the first flourishes contain nothing to give away what is to come. As the movement unfolds, Paik begins to slowly ratchet up the tension and the speed, as he should, and the several fevered outbursts sound appropriately feverish and outbursty. Sure, the three pianists I mentioned outdo Paik in one or more areas, but Paik’s ain’t no mean reading, and his fast and articulate playing is more than worth the time needed to listen. The well-played second movement Andante offers a nice rest from the speeding tumult of the opening movement, and while always aurally pleasing, it lacks emotional gravitas. No biggie, because really, isn’t this movement merely a bridge to the finale? And what a finale Paik serves up! A first glance at the timing – 7’25” – made me think that he omitted the repeat and played slower than normal. Nope, he includes the repeat and plays it faster than normal. Much faster. Right from the first note, this movement is all about high-octane, high-speed playing. As a consequence, Paik occasionally seems to near the edge of his technical ability, and the playing, while undeniably very exciting, lacks that ultimate intensity and stinging bite that I prefer. But, Damn! This here’s an entertaining listen, no doubt.

Taken as a whole, Paik’s first entry in his complete cycle epitomizes a mixed-bag recording. At its formidable best – Op 31/3, 57, 78, and possibly Op 54 – Paik has much to offer. His technical ability is more than up to the challenge, and he brings both an attractive tone (several moments of hardness notwithstanding) and unique ideas to the music. Not all of the sonatas benefit equally. Sometimes his playing sounds pedestrian; sometimes he misses the mark. There is more than enough here for me to look forward to the upcoming installments of the cycle. My hunch is that he will sound better in the early sonatas than the late sonatas. (I eagerly look forward to hearing him in the Op 14 and 22 sonatas.) When compared against other recent first installments I’ve heard – Schiff, Lewis, and Nakamichi – I’d have to say that Paik comes out on top. Of course, that’s not an entirely fair comparison as those three pianists served up only three or four sonatas in their first installments. Life ain’t fair, though. Still, I think this set is probably better suited to someone like me, who can’t get enough Beethoven, as opposed to someone looking for one or two sets.

Mostly SOTA sound.