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Aug-29-2005, 05:58
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!


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.

Aug-30-2005, 05:00
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.

Aug-31-2005, 06:07
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.

Aug-31-2005, 21:07
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.

Sep-01-2005, 22:20
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.

Sep-06-2005, 04:28
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.

Sep-06-2005, 04:29
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.

Sep-10-2005, 22:39
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.

Sep-10-2005, 22:41
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 . . .

Sep-10-2005, 22:42
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.

Sep-12-2005, 05:48
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.


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!

Sep-12-2005, 05:50
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.


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?


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.

Sep-18-2005, 01:32
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.


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.


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.


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.

Nov-23-2005, 23:07
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.

Nov-23-2005, 23:10
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.

Nov-23-2005, 23:13
Anton Kuerti and Paul Badura-Skoda Play Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec-01-2005, 16:56
I just picked up the Daniel Barenboim set.....should be a good listen I hope

Feb-11-2006, 21:38
Daniel Barenboim (EMI, 1960s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb-12-2006, 01:07
Ok I don't know when or how I am going to read that...I will just leave you to learn his Sonatas then!!!

Feb-23-2006, 23:00
Dino Ciani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb-24-2006, 11:49
Hi todd,

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

Giovanni https://www.magle.dk/ubbthreads/images/graemlins/tiphat.gif

Feb-24-2006, 19:07
Is this a CD review or a live performance review?

All are CD reviews.

Feb-26-2006, 06:41
Andrea Lucchesini – Addendum

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

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

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

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

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

Mar-07-2006, 04:55
Alfred Brendel (Philips, 1970s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May-11-2006, 17:55
Georges Pludermacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cont'd . . .

May-11-2006, 17:59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May-17-2006, 19:13
Craig Sheppard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cont'd . . .

May-17-2006, 19:18
. . . cont'd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May-19-2006, 22:37
Robert Silverman

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

This cycle was engineered by John Atkinson, the Editor-In-Chief of Stereophile, so sound quality is in the forefront this time around. I wanted to see, or rather hear if his idea of good sound matches mine. But I had to make some allowances. First of all, the concert grand was confined to a two-story, 20' by 50' room in Mr Mendelsohn’s home, not exactly the ideal size venue for such a large piano. But that didn’t seem to matter. In stark contrast to the closely recorded cycles by Georges Pludermacher and (especially) Craig Sheppard, this set actually allows one to hear the surrounding space. Truth to tell, it’s actually a little more spacious than I usually prefer, but the quality of the sound is superb. Mr Atkinson’s credo here seems to be truth in reporting. This sounds very much like a big piano being played in a relatively small space. The sound is tonally and timbrally accurate, and never hard. Of course, this is a recording of a Bösendorfer, so the sound is different from a Steinway. The lower registers are weighty and bold, and the upper registers are tangy ‘n’ tart, bright (but not Fazioli bright) and somewhat bell-like. Even though the microphones were close to the piano, the sense of space one hears means that one does not always experience aural X-ray clarity; sometimes in louder passages the sound becomes blended, just like in recital. Again, truth in reporting. Mr Atkinson most definitely would not be a good engineer for an American Idol reject to use, much to his delight, I’m sure. More information is available at the Stereophile website (http://www.stereophile.com/musicrecordings/298/index.html) for those who are interested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

cont’d . . .

May-19-2006, 22:41
. . . cont’d

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May-21-2006, 20:15
Anton Kuerti – Addendum

One of the bigger disappointments in my exploration of Beethoven piano sonata cycles is Anton Kuerti’s mid-70s cycle. While Kuerti definitely has the chops to play what he wants the way he wants, what he wants is often unpleasant and occasionally perverse. Generally slow tempi and an obsessive focus on detail do not add up to a maximally satisfying – or even partially satisfying – listening experience. About a month or two ago I revisited the cycle, and my initial impressions were largely reinforced. To be sure, my unfavorable opinion regarding a few of the sonatas softened just a bit, but in other instances my opinion hardened – the Pastorale is just plain awful. Anyway, this cycle was recorded long ago and Mr Kuerti has seen fit to record LvB again, so I figured I might as well try a newer recording. Rather than lay down the long green for his most recent traversal of the last five sonatas, I opted to ante up little money to sample his 1989 live recordings of the Mondschein and Hammerklavier sonatas.

Kuerti morphed into a different pianist in the intervening years. His superb control of every aspect of playing remains intact in these recordings, and his focus on details is still obvious, but gone are his annoying mannerisms. Instead one gets to enjoy more spontaneous music making and more interesting insights. The disc opens with the Mondschein, and a fine one it is. Kuerti plays the opening Adagio sostenuto faster than in his earlier recording, yet the playing is still appropriately slow, tastefully restrained, and decidedly dark and solemn, to the point of almost being downright grim. Kuerti manages the neat trick of obviously riding the sustain pedal while still making the attack of the notes sound deliciously piquant, particularly in the treble. The Allegretto is refreshingly direct and has a nice rhythmic drive, but it also sounds hesitant and unsettling. No easy listening this. Gone is the almost inhuman microdynamic gradation at the low end of the scale, but the overall effect is even more interesting. As in his first recording, Kuerti takes the Presto at a fast pace, though it’s a smidgeon slower here. One superb touch is when he builds up the rolling lower register playing to end in terse, sharp chords. This being a live recording, some slips can be heard, but the overall effect is more invigorating and tense and satisfying than the earlier recording.

Next up is the mighty 106. Kuerti trims about six minutes or so off the earlier recording, with the Adagio about four minutes shorter. Still, I came to this recording with some trepidation. How happy I am to report that my concerns were unfounded. The recorded sound makes Kuerti sound “small,” but that cannot smother the obviously grand conception of his interpretation. The opening Allegro is taken at a moderately quick pace, but benefits from unyielding forward momentum and clean articulation. More bungled passages can be heard, but they matter not one bit; the dramatic forward thrust of the playing sweeps away any concerns. The Scherzo is largely like the opening movement, with the exception of a fast, pointed middle section. Now to the 21 minute Adagio. Here’s where Kuerti really stumbled in his first recording. Like the earlier recording, the opening section is remarkable. Here, Kuerti plays in a slow, despondent, and tragic manner, with unresolved tension. After just over three minutes Kuerti moves into the second section which here succeeds fabulously. The sense of tragedy pervades Kuerti’s playing as he creates a great pianistic dirge. It’s more personal, more stinging, more spontaneous. As the movement continues, it does seem to be just a bit too long in places, but it doesn’t seem to go on forever. To end the work, Kuerti opens the final movement with a delicate, gently colored, (quasi-) mysterious Largo that builds up to a brief, frenzied end, with both hands undulating wildly, before moving into a precise, teasingly controlled fugue. Kuerti’s playing is not as clear as in the earlier studio effort, but it’s tauter and more energetic. More slips show up, but as before are of limited significance. Overall, this 106 is much better than the earlier one.

Indeed, Kuerti’s playing is much better overall than before. He still dazzles with superb control of every aspect of his playing, but he’s freer and more spontaneous than before. The earlier recordings sound more deliberate, slower, more purposely “serious,” while the later recordings sound more concerned with the music than extra-musical effects. Kuerti’s playing is thus elevated from annoying, self-conscious manipulation of the music to musically satisfying playing of a much higher order. While I can’t say that either recording ranks among my favorites, I can say that I’m much more interested in hearing his most recent Beethoven recordings. I’m also more interested in hearing how he handles other music. Brahms perhaps.

Sep-24-2006, 21:48
graciasss beethoven eres lo maximoo

May-05-2007, 19:30
Russell Sherman

Domo arigato, Mr Rubato.

Russell Sherman’s cycle is one I equivocated over for a few years. On the one hand, I wanted to hear it; on the other hand, I was unsure whether to proceed given the set’s reputation. For me at least, few cycles have more baggage to prejudice one’s listening. Some people love the playing and some hate it – and I’ve seen relatively few in the middle – but every comment I’ve ever seen, pro or con, acknowledges that the set is downright willful and as about unorthodox as is possible. That can lead to near tragic results (Anton Kuerti) or it can render something wonderful (Eric Heidsieck). Where would Mr Sherman fall in the crappy-to-brilliant spectrum I wondered? He ain’t crappy, that’s for sure.

One can pretty much hear a microcosm of Sherman’s style in the first sonata. But that doesn’t mean his playing all sounds the same. More on that later. Anyway, the rather nifty F minor cycle opener begins with an Allegro that starts at a nice clip, but also sounds, rather obviously, just a bit restrained. Sherman builds on this by picking up the pace and tension as he progresses, and he does something that he does with either delightful or maddening regularity for the rest of the cycle – he toys with tempo. All the time. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always unique. He’ll dash off a figure or arpeggio, seemingly for no immediately apparent reason, then he might slow up – or he might not. He often goes for relative extremes. Why go slow when one can go really slow? Same applies to going fast. Sorta makes sense if you want to stand out. Another trait that is readily apparent is Sherman’s enormous dynamic range. He’ll play wonderfully at the lower end of the spectrum and then positively erupt in forte passages. His tone is always attractive, if perhaps a smidgeon of hardness creeps in during the most deafening portions of his playing. The splendid recording, with lotsa Audiophile® Raumklang (I just love that word), makes the most of Sherman’s dynamic tendencies. Anyway, moving on to the Adagio, one hears some really slow playing – them extremes again – enlivened by the boundless nuance Sherman throws in. One also hears a bass line that is both steady and flexible, as well as dark and richly sonorous, underlying a searching right hand. The Menuetto displays much in the way of Sherman’s rubato and (not so) heavy-handed intervention. The long pauses can be considered contrived, yet they are affective. Sherman’s phrasing is notably accented, and usually front-loaded, if you will, and some may not find as much to like. The work closes with a decidedly flexible (or manhandled) Prestissimo, where nary a bar goes by without some type of fidgeting, and where Sherman makes the lower registers growl nicely, save for a surprisingly tender middle section. He’s all over the map – and it’s a new map – and it works!

So, too, does the second sonata. Sherman again sees fit to push a pull the music to and fro. He starts off ever so slightly slowly, then he accelerates noticeably. He lengthens and shortens passages and pauses to fit his purposive style. He’s thoroughly examined everything and wants it to show. Again, Sherman’s dynamic range is very much in evidence, which, in some ways, off-sets the minuses of his style. If minuses they be. The Largo sounds a bit un-Largo-esque. It’s just a bit too sprightly in manner, a bit too plucky in the bass. Heavy and dark it’s not; rich and vibrant it is. Yet, somehow, it works, and Sherman does see fit to add a bit of dark intensity to his playing between around 5’10” and 5’40”. His overall tempo stays pretty solid for the movement, which isn’t the case for the Scherzo. He notably rushes some arpeggios early on, then he slows things down – with minor delays and pauses embedded within other delays and pauses – in the middle section, before returning to his style at the outset. Yet it all works very well. The Rondo brings the overall quality of the recording down just a bit. At times Sherman just rushes straight through some music where other pianists make sure to add tonal and dynamic variation. (Is Sherman merely being antithetical to be antithetical?) Things really pick up in the middle section. Too much so, in fact. It sounds too pressed to be maximally effective. Then Sherman plays in a most idiosyncratic manner as the end approaches. But, for what it is, it works.

The final sonata of the opening trio often takes things too far. This was the last sonata recorded for the cycle, so maybe Sherman wanted to impart even more of his ideas than earlier on, who knows? What I do know is that aside from a rather conventional (and good) opening 20-25 seconds, Sherman’s copiously deployed devices detract more than delight. Surely the music should swell and flow more smoothly than here. Some flashes of brilliance appear, but more often Sherman opts to play even standard passages like the ascending and descending runs in overly interventionist fashion. The Adagio is more successful. At times, especially after 1’20,” Sherman seems to strip away all his stylistic artifice and play in a purposely unfocused yet engrossing style. He’s wandering the wilderness, if you will, despondent and alone, but then menacing bass interrupts the progress, and forces the pianist back on the more standard musical path. It’s rather nifty. The Scherzo, like the opening Allegro con brio, starts in more or less standard fashion, and maintains a nicely constant overall tempo, with clear part playing, exemplified by the obvious scampering of the left hand. So far, nothing too out of the ordinary. The middle section sounds both hazy and sharply punctuated, which creates a few nice effects, even if they seem more novel than profound. To close the work, Sherman plays the opening ascending runs with great energy and clarity, but then he reverts to his overly mannered style thereafter. At times he sounds like he’s emulating a freer style. It’s sort of faux improvisation if you will. The description reads a little fuzzy, doesn’t it? Imagine how it sounds.

So a mixed if good opening trio left me a bit concerned about what to expect for the fourth. Worries weren’t necessary. Sherman opens the Allegro molto e con brio with a light, brisk touch, then he punctures that soundworld with some loud middle register playing of not a little power before returning to playing of nearly cloudy softness. The fortissimo blasts can seem like overkill at times, but they’re really not. Then one becomes aware of something wonderful. Despite (or perhaps even because of) his little tempi changes (and here they’re less intrusive than elsewhere), the whole movement possesses a most attractive rhythmic underpinning. The Largo is grand and very weighty, with sharply truncated chords to end phrases and well timed pauses – here sounding shorter than average and lending a more urgent, propulsive feel to the music. Overall it’s a bit somber, which is good, and it’s also, well, theatrical. A mini, piano-only opera, if you will. The Allegro manages something unique in my listening experience: it sounds deliberate and lyrical and flowing at the same time. Sherman can’t resist throwing in nice touches beyond even that, like the rich rolling bass punctuated by strong ending chords in the middle section, and manages to end the movement with a hint of, well, mystery. The Rondo again manages to marry seemingly opposite styles: the surprisingly direct and upbeat sound seems to be aloof and abstract, too. The middle section is contradictory, too; it sounds both smooth and almost biting. How, and why, does Sherman do all these things? Dunno. But I like it. A lot. It may even be among my favorites.

Things continue on nicely with the first of the Op 10 trio. Sherman opens the first sonata with an Allegro molto e con brio characterized by strong and reasonably swift ascending arpeggios. A bit more bite would not have been unwelcome, but Sherman follows with a slow second theme that mixes downright beautiful passages with more vigorous ones. It’s sort of a sophisticated He-Man approach. In achieving this, Sherman inserts many Shermanisms, but not only do they not matter, they help. The Adagio molto is perhaps a bit too slow for some, but that is caused by unusually long sustains rather than general sluggishness. Sherman again offers some beautiful playing as well as broad dynamic and textural contrasts. As happens with some regularity in this cycle, these contrasts create more of an intellectually rather than emotionally satisfying experience. The work ends with a Prestissimo that sounds more Presto than is ideal, but the sheer scale of the playing and the beefy, growling bass and slightly edgy upper registers make it a wholly satisfying experience. Good stuff.

The second of the trio is also good stuff. The Allegro is brisk and surprisingly upbeat (I expected something different), and contains only minor Shermanisms. The most pronounced mannerism is Sherman’s tendency to really hammer out the loud music. It almost sounds overdone at times, the nearly oppressively loud left hand especially. The Allegretto is more imbued with individual touches, and they mostly work. One thing is sure: many of the interpretive tools are more subtly deployed than elsewhere in the cycle. The repeat-included Presto (always a plus for me) is bouncy and fun, and also a bit on the muscular side.

The great Op 10/3 sonata can be turned into a veritable pianistic meal, and Sherman does just that. The Presto is rich and warm to open, yet it also contains plenty o’ pep and, especially, weight. Extraordinarily clear part playing adds to the sense of Big Idea pianism, and all of the tempo fluctuations seem to work. The great Largo opens in a gloomy, dark and thick ‘n’ slow (in the best sense of that phrase) way. At 1’12”, the tragedy sets in. Sherman accents sharp treble notes ever so noticeably before bending the tempo to his will to achieve a soundworld of exasperated desperation, and near savage inner turmoil. Perhaps now I’m overdoing it, but I don’t think so. Sherman proceeds to make repeated chords sound almost thrummed as he tosses in a sense of utter emotional exhaustion into the mix. It’s melodramatic; it’s excessive; it’s compelling. Next, Sherman plays the Menuetto with surface relaxation that never quite masks the tension below the surface. His rubato is more intrusive here than in the first two movements, but it still works. Perilously close to not working is the Trio, which here sounds almost like a bitter parody of sorts, with Sherman tossing it off with disdain. The Rondo is quite something, filled to the brim with musical chicanery. Sherman likes to play the fast portions fast, but he’ll also play ‘em soft – quite soft – only to then slow way down, to a lazy yet pranksterish tempo (like between 3’10” and 3’20”) seemingly to throw the listener off. Sherman really pulls out all the stops, but something is ultimately missing: Sherman never makes the conception jell. The individual parts are far more than the sum of the parts. That’s fine, but that limits just how highly one can rate this recording.

How does a pianist approach the Pathetique nowadays? It’s so played, so recorded. Of course, anyone undertaking a cycle must figure out some way to play the work, and so Sherman does his (presumably) best. The Grave has his imprint. First, the opening is huge, explosive, and fortissimo, with the decay is cut short. It’s interesting, unique even. But is it proper? It is dramatic in a theatrical sort of way, but it lacks emotional depth. The following Allegro molto e con brio is a bit on the slow side of Allegro and a bit on the heavy side of con brio, but it works for the most part. Sherman does play around with tempi quite a bit, though, so anyone wanting a straight-shot approach will cringe. The Adagio cantabile sounds warm and rich, with a nice, enveloping, grand sound. Any sense or urgency goes missing, as does true cohesion. In place of those, one gets incredible clarity with respect to the left and right hands. Each musical strand is complete in its own right. It seems a fair tradeoff. The Rondo is afflicted with ubiquitous shifts in tempo and wavering and undulating accents, but it has the same massive, crashing chords as the opening movement, and as the end approaches, Sherman plays with crushing intensity. So, how do you like your Pathetique? This is a unique one, for sure, but . . .

The little Op 14 sonatas, fine little piano divertimenti if ever there were any, don’t really stand up so well to Sherman’s approach. The first, in particular. Sure, the Allegro is quick and light to open, but it doesn’t take long for Sherman to build up the power to a point where the music starts to wilt a bit. Offsetting this is clear part playing, and, as a wild card, the left hand playing is amazingly insistent and “pokey,” by which I mean played staccato with Shermanesque accenting. The Allegretto is just too: it’s too slow, too serious, too obvious an attempt at individuality. The Rondo finds Sherman laying his rubato on thick – too thick. No two notes seem to flow ideally, and a clumpy sound develops. It’s not awful, but it’s not great or even especially good. The second sonata fares a bit better, not that one could guess that right off. The Allegro here finds Sherman resolutely refusing to just let the simple, beautiful melody flow. Them little tricks of his, they do obtrude. The sound Sherman extracts from his instrument is quite fine, though, and the runs are quick and light, and the clarity superb. The Andante, in contrast, is just plain good. Sherman takes it with a slightly broad tempo, but he maintains an upbeat, perky, and delightfully quirky mien. In the Scherzo some phrases are too rushed, some too loud, but by this time it doesn’t matter. It’s a fine, fun recording, but not a monumental one. (And who really wants that?)

Over time the Op 22 has really grown on me. I’ve always liked it – is it possible not to? – but now I really like it. So, apparently, does Sherman. The opening Allegro con brio is right on target: it’s well paced, clear, with comparatively little in the way of tempo tomfoolery. Most of said tomfoolery occurs in slower passages, where Sherman can sound a bit stiff and hardened (between 6’ and 6’08,” for instance), but otherwise he’s spot on. The Adagio con molto espressione sounds lovely. Sherman’s playing is rich and warm, and he plays it straight, throwing in only minor (indeed micro) touches. The Menuetto pulls off the same trick from the same labeled movement from 10/3 – the surface sounds relaxed, but tension exists below the surface, which manifests itself every time Sherman interjects a bit of power into the playing. The middle section is fast and intense and well articulated. The closing Rondo is mostly sunny, with Shermanisms largely reserved for the bass at the beginning and the harder hitting middle section. Something nice happens with this sonata: while clearly possessed of all of Sherman’s thought-provoking, “intellectual” traits, one can actually just sit back and (really) enjoy this one. A whole lot.

Alas, that’s not really possible with the Op 26 sonata. Sherman opens the work with a lovely Andante that flows nicely enough, but he can’t resist indulging himself in the variations. Stilted rhythm, off-beat accents, (sort of) wild man rubato, attention grabbing stiffness (though only in short, um, bursts), blocky phrases: all show up at least once. The effect sounds far from awful, but it also sounds far from normal or truly compelling. The Scherzo ends up notable for relatively pronounced tempo tinkering, though mostly with the right hand. Sherman plays too fast, then too slow, almost creating an even whole, all while maintaining a reasonably solid left hand base. The more forceful music shows off Sherman’s power to nice effect, so not all is lost. The Funeral March, well, where to begin? It has a decidedly march-like cadence, though not of the martial sort. It’s more beatnik in nature. Sherman starts off somewhat softly only to increase the volume of his playing to offer dynamic contrast, almost to the point of excess. The middle section sounds odd, more like a parody of serious music than serious music itself. To close a unique take on this work, Sherman decides to close uniquely, opening the Allegro with a brilliant, blurry, undernourished flurry, only to pick up both strength and clarity as he proceeds. There’s a whole lot of interesting parts, but they make for a somewhat baffling whole.

Now to the great first sonata quasi una fantasia. The first bar or two are solid and straight forward, but then it’s back to Shermanisms. First things first: he adds lengthy pauses. Don’t know why, and it don’t really work, but for some reason he front loads this device; as the music proceeds such oddities become less pronounced. (Or I got used to them.) The Allegro announces its arrival with a crashing chord and some nimble fingerwork, but extended pauses also reappear, muting the beneficial effect. Something about the playing sounds forced. The music becomes episodic rather than flowing. Things finally seem to click with the Adagio con espressione, which sounds like a richer, more ruminative version of the wonderful Andante theme largely shorn of the peskier points of contention. Sherman does make the lower register act like something akin to a musical poke in the eye a few times, and while I’m not sure why he does it, it doesn’t detract from the proceedings. Sherman wraps up the work with an Allegro vivace that sounds scarily straight, complete with drive and mostly minor deviations in tempo. The huge crescendo near the end is truly massive, and the rousing conclusion caps off a good, but too-unusual-to-be-great recording.

Now to the second sonata quasi una fantasia. The opening Adagio sostenuto seems almost tailor made for Sherman in some ways. It’s moody and gloomy and mysterious, and very receptive to interpretive license. Sherman does his best to create a moody and gloomy and mysterious feel, and the warm-ish sound, sustained tension, and comparatively few tweaks all combine to make for a strong open. The Allegretto is striking, with Sherman’s rubato deftly deployed and his usual fine dynamics on full display. The movement ends up being something of a stand-alone piece rather than an integrated musical bridge, but that’s fine. The Presto agitato is fast and intense right out of the gate, with a rolling thunder effect in the bass. There are pauses and fits-n-starts and such, but they add an agitated, unsettled quality to the music that works well. But it lacks coherence and ends up being the relative weak link in a good version of the work. Had it been just a bit tighter, it would have been a splendid version.

Up to this point, Sherman’s cycle is generally (very) good but unsteady, and always thought provoking. Would Sherman ever have a string of Big Hits? Yes! It starts with the Pastorale. The work opens with an Allegro characterized by extended sustain (with room sound enhancing the effect) that creates an enveloping, comfortable sound. Sherman moves ahead at a leisurely pace more akin to a nice Allegretto than Allegro, and his tell tale left hand clarity and insistence forms a strong basis for the music. Again, his huge dynamic range plays its part, but here the forte passages seem, well, organic: they flow naturally from the music and never gratuitously overpower the material. Just after 6’20” or so, the playing assumes some real urgency for a brief time, before fading back to more leisurely music in a most satisfying way. In many places, the tolling bass is both hypnotic and reassuring. The Andante manages to pull off some contradictory feats with aplomb. The tempo is slightly broad, but there’s a surprisingly urgent feel to the music and the liltingly beautiful music conveys inner anguish. (Think inner tears, if you will.) To offer maximum contrast, the middle section is more upbeat, but in a fidgety, unsettled way. The Scherzo finds Sherman deploying his normal tricks, with loud, striking playing offering contrast to slow, quiet playing which has a few sudden decelerations and pauses. The Rondo, well, somehow I just knew Sherman would take things to extremes, slowing things way down, exaggerating the music for overall contrast. He does that, but he makes it work extraordinarily well. Quite a feat. Throw in some striking individual effects – the massive crescendo and diminuendo after 3’, say, and what one is left with is a top flight, albeit odd, reading of this great sonata.

But it’s not as good as what follows. Indeed, Sherman’s traversal of the three great Op 31 sonatas is uniformly superb. Great, actually. Here, the peak is the first of the trio. It’s not like Sherman really changes his approach or anything. Indeed, the Allegro vivace utilizes the same interpretive combinations familiar from prior sonatas to create a light yet occasionally beefy sound. The playing is alert and dexterous, yet it’s never pressed for any reason. The second theme is unique: it’s dense and, well, earthy and folksy, in an intellectual sort of way. For some reason, the image that popped into my head while listening was that of a stuffy college professor downing a few, shedding said stuffy decorum, and getting down. It’s fun and sophisticated, refined yet bawdy, and gracefully condescending, all while tacitly and silently admitting various shortcomings. The Adagio grazioso opens with somewhat blurred trills which then give way to faux refined playing full of charm. The middle section is brisk, with Sherman favoring a more punchy, pokey staccato, which seems to add weight to the proceedings, though in a slightly begrudging manner, almost as if Sherman is saying “This music is light fun, damn it, so keep it that way!” As the movement progresses, Sherman pushes and pulls the tempo, and truncates or elongates notes and phrases in a marked style, but it all works. The bass trills near the end are extremely weighty and pronounced and somehow humorous – silly, even. To close, Sherman plays the Rondo in a deliberate, almost formal fashion, and lays his tricks on thick. Hardly a bar seems to go by without some type of heavy-handed intervention. But when one combines superbly clear part playing, delightfully distorted pauses, and seemingly arbitrary accelerations and decelerations, it just proves too much to resist. Interestingly, Anton Kuerti’s cycle peaks very high with this work, so maybe Sherman’s take just proves that a heavy interpretive hand pays big dividends here. Whatever the case may be, this ranks among my favorites.

Sherman’s strengths lend themselves to a second sonata of not a little distinction. He opens with an extended and almost artificially slow Largo, and immediately after the opening arpeggio ends, the music changes, hinting at a tempestuous movement to come. Dynamics, drama, and powerful bass all work together to deliver the goods, but it can and does sound a bit contrived. This is what Sherman thinks dramatic music sounds like. It’s not fully engaging emotionally. “So what?” I say, because when Sherman leads off some phrases with an almost breathless left hand, the effect is exciting. The Adagio is, as one would expect, altogether calmer and more beautiful. The bass again grabs one’s attention, for its superb clarity if nothing else. (There’s something else, though.) Extended pauses and deliberate phrasing won’t be to everyone’s taste, and the thoroughly thought-through style means that, as with the opener, emotion goes missing at times. It all works, though. To close, Sherman opens the Allegretto with urgent, unsettled middle register notes before pounding out short ‘n’ sharp bass notes, a pattern he then repeats, resulting in a sort of ceaseless nervous energy, with the almost twitched out upper register notes only enhancing the effect. The overall conception is decidedly unorthodox – some would say weird – and I can see some people hating this one. I love it.

The final sonata also succeeds fabulously. The Allegro finds Sherman putting on a show. He’ll notably elongate a chord, quickly tinkle out a phrase, or otherwise do what he wants. Why? Why not?! When the music picks up, so does Sherman, doing all the same things, just a bit more quickly and vigorously, as with the staggering crescendo at about 4’40”. In some way, all this jiggery-pokery ought not to work, but it does. Surely this sonata begs for it. And that’s a good thing, because the Scherzo is even worse in terms of Sherman’s intervention. The bass line is sonically hunkered down most of the time, waiting to not so benevolently jump up and box the listener’s ears. The right hand melodies are staggered and uneven and unruly. It’s all terribly mischievous, in a drunken goblin sort of way. Things relax a bit in the Menuetto, though even here Sherman just can’t seem to not play with the score. For instance, he’ll be playing things nicely enough, then he’ll rush a passage or pull back for no reason. Again, why not?! The whole thing comes to a most caricatured end in the Presto con fuoco. Sherman bobs and grooves, stops and starts, and even lollygags. Such unevenness may unnerve some listeners, but when one throws in the irresistible drive and energy, one can’t resist. I know I shouldn’t like this one as much as I do, but I can’t help myself.

Now to that delightful pair of sonatinas known as Op 49. Sherman continues to throw in his normal tricks, but he knows not to make too much of these works – that would court disaster. The first sonata opens with a relatively straight Andante. It’s mostly tender and attractive, with the comparatively small outburst there for textural contrast. The Rondo ends up sounding like a wash of sound, aided by the relatively distant recording, and when that combines with the perfectly judged amount of pep (the interpretive cousin of the ever so important oomph), one gets a delicious musical bon-bon. The second sonata opens with a light, fun, and attractive Allegro ma non troppo, though the middle section boasts flashes of angst. The Tempo di Menuetto closer finds Sherman incapable of restraining his tempo-altering tendencies, so plenty of off kilter pauses can be hard. Some may find it a bit too contrived, though I find it just about contrived enough. Great? Nah. Doesn’t need to be.

The Op 53 should be, and Sherman approaches (and maybe achieves) greatness. The Allegro con brio opens at a nice, brisk pace, though the overall sound remains somewhat subdued. The bass, especially, sounds restrained, almost as though the piano is a giant, coiled musical snake poised to strike at the right opportunity. As the music moves into the second section, Sherman applies his rubato more liberally than before (when he wasn’t exactly paleoconservative), and then in the long ascending passage leading into the first long run, Sherman plays jackhammer chords while pushing and pulling the music to and fro. Here’s where extremes start to come in: Sherman plays the fast music very fast, the slow music very slow, and forte and louder passages in a crackling and pounding manner. Some may find it impossibly mannered – which it most certainly is – but that doesn’t mean it’s not refreshing and invigorating – because it most certainly is that, too! Yes, yes, it’s an overwrought showboat approach, and generally I dislike that, but here I’m defenseless; I love it. The Introduzione sounds very slow and very powerful and very labored. That’s not to say Sherman struggles with the music, but rather that he creates the aural illusion of a protagonist carrying some overwhelming emotional burden, sullenly resigned to his inner turmoil. The whole movement carries on like that until an extremely long final note fades to a lovely, more mature, and more accepting of fate Rondo, where the long transitional trill offers a stable, somewhat subdued base for the thundering eruption of power that accompanies it. If one never senses joy in the playing, then at least one hears relief after the sullenness of the middle movement. So it goes as the music waxes and wanes, between quiet spells recalling prior music and throbbing, violent playing offering musical catharsis, until a towering end. Yes, it’s heavy handed, but what can I say, it’s stupendous.

cont'd . . .

May-05-2007, 19:31
. . . cont'd

After such a stellar performance, it’s only natural that the next work, a possibly “lesser” work, wouldn’t be as impressive. Sherman opens Op 54 with an In Tempo di Menuetto that sounds somberly dramatic and fully satisfying if perhaps not very menuetto-like in the opening, lyrical section. The octaves are beefy and loud, yet seem, well, soft at heart – sort of like a big, burly, scary lookin’ dude who’s really a softy. It makes for nice contrast and tension. It should come as no surprise that the next appearance of each section finds Sherman trotting out Shermanisms, here to excellent effect. The opening section has rubato lathered on, and the octaves section is more strident than before – not too much, mind you, but enough. The last portion of the movement gradually dissolves into wonderful trills before the whole thing lazes away. The Allegretto sounds comparatively fast and mightily manipulated when it comes to tempo, but it retains a slight softness and lacks overwhelming intensity. (As it should.) It’s sort of a soft-core virtuoso display, with only the more biting coda sounding more standard. So it’s not as impressive as the Waldstein. It needn’t be.

The great Appasionata follows and offers some interesting things. It also seems to miss a few things. The Allegro assai starts off dark and tense and restrained. The first excursion into more powerful music, while not lacking in power, is likewise somewhat restrained. The dark hue remains. Something’s gonna happen. Something sinister? While one waits for whatever that something is, one can (and does!) revel in fine articulation and control, even while at high speed. The flight into the upper registers just after 4’ is simply masterful, the crescendo after 4’30” towering, and the successive upward thrusts after 5’30” punchy in a Roy Jones Jr kinda way. Everything conveys controlled passion. Nothing sinister here. But wait, what about the last part? Oh, there’s good stuff there: the final ascent to high tension music around and after 8’ keeps one on the edge of one’s barcalounger, and Sherman pounds out the bass notes and exorcizes out the high ones, before the final (near) eruption leads to an exhausted coda. Whew! But the listener may not really work up a musico-emotional sweat. The Andante con moto offers some needed (?) rest. It’s warm and surprisingly gracious. Only the occasionally halting rubato may offer fits for some – or delight for others. Don’t let that warmth and graciousness fool you, though: Sherman keeps the music taut, especially during the fast variation. The ending Allegro ma non troppo opens with fierce, stiff, gallop-y notes, then speeds up while quieting down. Then, pow! Sort of. Blunted bass notes restrain the first outburst, but the tension has risen. It rises some more. Just after 7’, the good stuff comes. Sherman starts hitting the ivories hard, then very fast, and it all culminates in a thrilling end. So what’s missing, you may be wondering? Abandon and true passion. It seems overthought. No biggie, not really. I like this recording.

The fine little Op 78 sonata fares quite well. The Adagio cantabile is definitely beautiful and singing, and the Allegro ma non troppo finds Sherman injecting all his standard traits, though here it’s mostly in his sly left hand which supports his flight-of-fancy right. A few hints of steel are the only negatives (if negative they be) to be heard. Sherman positively makes a meal of the Allegro vivace. It becomes an edgy Scherzo under his fingers, as he pushes the overall tempo, deploys exaggerated accelerations, and bunches phrases. It becomes Beethoven-Meets-The Marx Brothers. That’s a compliment.

The next nice little late work opens with a Presto alla tedesca that’s suitably quick, but the movement has an overarching waltz-like rhythm to it, with rubato aplenty. The cuckoo motif is pushed and pulled around, but never too much. It seems to take on a modern sound – rather like some of the early 20th Century homages to music from centuries past. The Andante sounds more pressed than most, losing a bit of gravitas as a result, but also gaining some dramatic impact. The Vivace is rushed through, generating fun and excitement, though some may very much dislike Sherman’s manhandling of the music.

Jumping right into the Les Adieux finds Sherman opening the opening Adagio with long, sustained chords that sound a bit contrived. He’s trying too hard to put some emotion into it. The rest of the Adagio is similarly contrived, though never overwrought. The Allegro is quicker and sounds downright chipper and giddy. So is this a sad farewell or a drunken going-away party? Well, despite some swelling crescendos that sound big (or at least big-ish), nice contrasts throughout, and Sherman’s pushing and pulling of the music, the answer is I don’t know. It is a smaller scale, more intimate take on the piece, though. The Andante espressivo actually manages to sound “bigger,” and Sherman tries to make it sound sad, but it seems a bit artificial. Nicely played bass darkens the sound world nicely though. The Vivacissimamente keeps things on the small side at the open, but there’s a sense of anticipation, which then blossoms into a celebratory, jovial, and just a bit boisterous welcome back. Here it seems that the individual details are more interesting than the whole, but the whole is still interesting, if not a world-beater.

The Op 90 sounds better. The first movement starts with brooding, dark, and heavy – but, perversely, in a good way! – chords which set the stage for a movement of drama and heft. The faster passages are clean and hard-edged, left-right clarity is superb, strong contrasts abound, and the whole thing has an intense feel. Throw in some superb interpretive tricks, like a tolling bell effect created by repeated notes around 2’ in, and one has a fine opener. The second movement sounds flowing, graceful, and decidedly lyrical, though some louder notes have a slightly astringent tinge to them, which adds some variety. (I think I should investigate Sherman’s Schubert.) Anyway, this is a winner.

Things get even better with Op 101. But they also sound a bit different than normal. The Allegretto ma non troppo opener sounds warm and autumnal, if you will, and Sherman plays it relatively straight tempo-wise. The music just flows, and that late Beethoven sound world pops into being. Pronounced, almost gaudy bass notes intrude around 2’ in, but they seem to be nothing more than fleeting gestures, though they return in even grander form around 3’30”. As a whole, the opening movement is concise and moving, somewhat unexpectedly. The Vivace all Marcia sounds grand and bold, as befits the music, but there’s also a somewhat disjointed feel. Sherman seems at sea sometimes, just drifting along. The middle section has an even more disjointed feel, yet it sounds friendly and playful and almost childish, in a most becoming way. Then it’s back to the somewhat off-kilter opening material. Why played thusly? Why not? The Adagio ma non troppo, con affeto is drawn out and lovely, lyrical, and searching, and it remains comparatively light. The closing movement starts with a bright, celebratory, very dance-like, and buoyant Allegro. Sherman keeps his distance, though. The fugue arrives with a thundering open and is deliciously fluid and inviting throughout. There are also some superb little things in the music, such as some wonderful little repeated figures on either side of 5’30” that I never paid much attention to before. This is a unique reading of the work, and one that manages to pull off several tricks at once. It definitely evokes the late LvB sound world the music needs, but it also sounds wonderfully flexible and tonally variable. It’s not just musical granite; it’s more, well, human. What a fresh, beautiful take on the work.

The great Op 106 opens with a fast Allegro which itself has accelerated passages, and other tempo tomfoolery is in bountiful supply. While the music certainly sounds grand at times, it seems more a Herculean pianistic effort here; the piano is being manhandled to be manhandled. Sherman definitely has fine technique, but given what he opts to do, he sounds like he’s working a bit harder than normal. Still, the energy and excitement levels remain high, almost like it’s a middle aged man’s last hurrah. He’s gonna show them kids what’s what. At times it seems like Sherman is only gliding along the surface of the music, though, and not really plumbing the depths, but then something will come along – the massive outburst at 7’32”, say – to remind the listener who’s playing. The Scherzo, in contrast, is taken at a slower – but not slow! – tempo, and Sherman likes to front-load his phrases, with strength and speed instantly switching to something more drawn out. What sounds to be some near-slips can be heard, but the overall energy level and some occasional beefy playing make for a fine movement. But it’s surely the great Adagio where Sherman leaves his mark. It opens in an unusually tense fashion, and is un-slow (at 17’38”, I’d hesitate to say it’s really fast), with the tension making it seem faster than it is. There’s below-the-surface seething and anguish, and that doesn’t let up as the second section starts. Indeed, it’s as unrelenting as the opening section. Something goes missing in this slightly undifferentiated approach, but something is gained with this stylistic sameness. Around 6’ in things change. A sense of calm despondency descends on the playing for a short while. Still, the movement remains uncommonly tense and anguished right on through to the end. The concluding movement opens with a Largo that maintains the preceding tension in a most un-Largo-like fashion – it’s a bit quick. Really, though, it merely serves as a bridge to the great fugue, which starts with expected strength and oomph. As it continues, it’s clear that this is not the clearest, not the fastest, and not the most intense fugue around, but enough of these traits are there to satisfy, and when they combine with what sounds like not a little delight derived from unfurling the music, the whole thing works. This is very much a non-standard take on this work, and I have a feeling that people will either love it or hate it. I love it. It’s smaller, more personal, and more direct than many readings, and reminds me of Paul Badura-Skoda’s take in that regard. But Sherman’s more cavalier treatment of the music makes it quite different.

That leaves the final trio of sonatas, and here I must say that Sherman’s style results in less satisfying recordings, though they still satisfy in their own way. Op 109 opens with a Vivace ma non troppo with that nice late-LvB sound, though Sherman’s penchant for tempo tinkering starts to erode the solidity of the music. That written, Sherman’s massive power during the towering crescendos adds philosophical weight as well as physical weight to the music. The Prestissimo opens with bone-crushing power and, due at least in part to the more straight-forward delivery – is more successful. The final movement opens with a lovely, slow, and deliberate Andante theme that sounds most decidedly transportive. But then it turns exaggerated and excessive – just like that – with the first variation. It’s just overdone. Sure, it evokes what it’s supposed to evoke, at least to some extent, but the effect is not exactly fully endearing. The same can be written about the second variation. The third stays exaggerated, but since it is exaggerated compared to the others, it works better. Suffice it to say, the Shermanisms displayed through to the end lessen the work’s impact. It’s not bad, but it could have been better.

Alas, things don’t improve with Op 110. In fact, or at least in opinion, things sound less compelling. The Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo sounds quite nice at the open, and boasts a gently prancing left hand, but then Sherman’s mannerisms some to the fore and sound too precious and saccharine. Again, it’s not bad, but it’s not ideally compelling. The Allegro molto sounds predictably strong, but it also sounds unpredictably thick and drab. The Adagio ma non troppo sounds just a bit too cold. Yes, it’s desolate music, or can be, but ideally it should be a little less cold than this. The fugue is very formal and serious and deliberate, but somehow distant, and the repeated chords prior to the inverted fugue start off stiff and deliberate, but quickly build up in volume and power, but they never quite pop. Given Sherman’s penchant for power, I expected more. The inverted fugue is much like the original one, and the ending is powerful indeed. It’s hard to really describe what’s wrong here. Much of the playing is superb, and some flashes of brilliance are there, but it’s all just a bit too distant and forced.

The cycle closes with an Op 111 that betters its two immediate predecessors, but that ultimately can’t quite compete with the very best out there. The Maestoso, after a brooding open, sounds biting and dark, but not especially fearsome or imposing. As the music becomes fiercer, Sherman’s playing does become more biting and sinister, but in an almost caricatured way. It sounds almost darkly comic, as though Mephistopheles is playing a rather brutal practical joke, if you will. It’s not without merit, but it’s not what I generally prefer. The Arietta sounds weighty and peculiarly direct. It’s beautiful, but not too beautiful. It’s also not especially transcendental; it’s more ambulatory and questing, until the second half, when it becomes quietly urgent and does a much better job of establishing that late-LvB sound world. The segue to the first variation is fluid and uneventful, as is the variation itself. It’s resigned to whatever will come. The second variation has greater tension and more urgency, but is still somewhat resigned. The third variation is fast and boisterous and not especially jazzy. Then things go flat. The long chains of trills sound curiously uninvolving, and the entire post-third variation sound world sounds plain and direct and earthbound. Sure, it’s well played, and it’s better than 109 and 110, but something important goes missing. One always hopes for a stunning closer to the great thirty-two, but one doesn’t always get what one wants, now does one?

I really like this cycle. In some ways I guess I shouldn’t. It’s not very proper after all. Sherman is about as cavalier a pianist as I’ve heard. He throws in individual – or idiosyncratic if you prefer – touches everywhere. He doesn’t maintain a common stylistic approach for all of the works, or within a work, or even within a movement sometimes. He’s not overly devout; he’s utterly irreverent. He’s self-indulgent. Yet for the most part his approach works. Sure, his late sonatas hardly match up to the best out there, but at his best he brings unique insight and vitality to the music. I’m not sure I’d say his playing is revelatory, as the uncommonly well-advertised producer Gunther Schuller writes, but it offers more than enough musical food for thought. At least on the first go-round (and even the second and third), one doesn’t really know what expect next. Subsequent listens simply reveal something missed the last time. That’s a very good thing. But it is also, well, weird, at least in this case. I’ve referred to Alfred Brendel as Mr Quirky, and he is, within the context of mainstream pianists. Sherman falls well outside of the mainstream. His playing is engaging, probing, tonally attractive, and he makes one approach the works afresh. That’s another very good thing. In the idiosyncratic pianist sweepstakes, he’s much, much more to my liking than Anton Kuerti in his 70s cycle and approaches Eric Heidsieck in overall quality. Yes, I’m very glad I got this cycle, but it most certainly will not be to everyone’s liking. For those who crave something new and unique, get it now. This set is an experience.

(My obvious thanks to Dennis DeYoung.)

Dec-07-2007, 04:37
Hi Todd,

I've just joined the site and want to congratulate you for your running commentary and insights to the numerous LvB cycles. I think you have brought the LvB cycle to a very wide readership. Excellent job!

Have you done a review on Annie Fischer's cycle on Hungaroton? Overlook this question if you have. I just purchased this set after staying a few years with Kempff's (mono DG), Schnabel's EMI, John Lill (which I think is quite revelatory in numerous aspects), the Gulda 1967 (now on Brilliant Classics), The Backhaus DECCA set and the Baremboim 1960s EMI. IN fact, as I write this, I'm going through the recent DVD release of his Berlin recital which I think so far (up to concert 7) tops his earlier EMI set. Mayvbe it's the 'live' performance that has made the communicative difference which has a certain immediacy.

But I will be interested in your take on Fischer's performance. Many positive reviews have come in and a couple of negative ones which I find hard to pin down. One in particular referred to her performance as making the sonatas "sound dull"! I couldn't quite believe when I read this, after listening to the E flat Op. 26 sonata (which I have personally named the fin de secle sonata, for obvious reasons of its composition date). I myself think her playing unearths aspects (nooks and crannies) of the sonatas that I have not heard previously. Her inventive use of, particulalry, the una corda pedal when playing piano/pianissimo passages is quite brilliant. although inconsistent at times, the natural feel of her pedaling brings a certain truth to particular passages. Her opening bars of the Pathetique, with imaginative use of rest notes, are just mesmerizing (to me at least).

anyway, I can't say much as I'm only at the 22nd sonata, but I would love your take (even if it is a summarised one) of Fischer's version.

Cheers to you for numerous review jobs of the LvB cycle well done.


Dec-07-2007, 05:04
My god man (at least I assume you're male). What an effort!! Do you sleep?

I'm a fan of the Beethoven and will, if I ever get time, read your comments through. My favourite Sonata is No. 29, it's just so quirky and involving.

I notice you've avoided Alfred Brendal, any reasons?

Dec-07-2007, 05:17
Hmmm, Brendel...

I have a love/hate relationship with Brendel. Nothing personal. I grew up with his VOX cycle but it doesn't do much for me these days. I have selections of his first Philips cycle of LvB sonatas but I find it difficult to resonate with his tempi and his voicing. Now this could be my problem bec. of my not owning state-of-the-art listening equipment. I still love the ol' vinyls! Coming back to Brendel, his Liszt B minor sonata, however, and the annes de pelerinage (first 2 books), and his Schubert late sonatas, particularly D960, are a different thing altogether. I think the're brilliant.

But I find watching Brendel live more satisfying than listening to him on recordings. Brendel's communicative abilities on the stage are second to none.

But Brendel's LvB will always keep me honest, I think! Although a little too cerebral for my liking...

Dec-07-2007, 05:46
Kel - yeah - Brendal's often been accussed of being cerebral, however, I read a comment he made about himself that he's just an average, hard working guy who happens to be a pianist ...

Dec-07-2007, 06:00
No doubt about Brendel being hard-working and a pianist, and a damn good one too! I find, however, that artists have quite a different opinion of themselves as do the public of them. That's fine, I feel, as long as the latter's opinion doesn't get hostile. It makes for the diversity of art and the availbility of a wide range of expressing one's feelings.

I think if Brendel presented himself with less of an afront as a 'pianist-thinker' in his informal interviews and chats, listeners might be more open to other aspects of his playing, which are certainly there, esp. in a 'live' performance. I stress that it's a listening (comminicative) thing, and perhaps not Brendel's fault but how we choose to approach his performance individually.

I see as a contrast to Brendel a certain Charles Rosen. Now here's a brilliant mind on and off the piano, and I'm not just going by the fact that he is an accomplished academic and writer. It's just that when he talks informally about music (and I mean outside of his vastly famous books), you hear something of the 'heart' speaking and not the mind. And his playing of LvB's late sonatas comes across similarly. Cliched though, but it's cliched bec. it's somewhat truth.

But your point regarding Brendel is certainly noted. Thanks for your time! :smirk:

Dec-07-2007, 06:14

Anyone out there interested in Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo violin?

I recently acquired Johanna Martzy's 1950s recording on EMI Korea of these works to add to my Heifetz, Perlman, Modtkovitch, Mullova (selections), Hahn (selections), Kyung Wah Chung (selections), Sholo Mintz, Ida Haendel, Szigeti, Monica Huggett, Szeryng (his earlier SONY mono version) etc collection.

Martzy's version is difficult to find these days. But they're well worth the effort. Her playing, generally, is in between Szerying and Haendel, at least with regards to tempi. She favours a wide range of tempi (though not as wide as Haendel who probes thru' the famous Chaconne in just over 18 mins.!). But what was surprising was the sound...full-bodied (in 24 bit), beautiful altho mono. I have to spend more time on it before I'll say anything else.

But contributions/insights will be appreciated!

Dec-07-2007, 06:39
I have to say I'm not a fan of the "old fellows" playing Bach ... and I'm not (necessarily) a purist but I prefer a less 20th century and purer approach. Period instruments are fine by me ... but that's a PERSONAL preference and not a criticism of your collection.

Dec-07-2007, 22:47
Have you done a review on Annie Fischer's cycle on Hungaroton?

I wrote a very brief, general one years ago. One day soon I shall revisit her cycle yet again and hope to write about it. Her cycle is one of the supreme recorded cycles. I rate her cycle, Gulda’s Amadeo cycle, Backhaus’ mono cycle, and Kempff’s mono cycle as my four favorites.

I’ve currently got notes on 11 cycles that I’ve not yet written about, and have another waiting in the wings. (I’m sampling Michaël Levinas now, and Akiyoshi Sako needs another listen.) BTW, I covered Barenboim’s DVD cycle in a separate thread earlier this year.

I notice you've avoided Alfred Brendel, any reasons?

I covered his second cycle in this thread. I have notes on both his first and third cycles as well. Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of Brendel, his Schoenberg and newer Mozart recordings aside. It’s not so much that he’s cerebral – Sherman is also cerebral, for instance – so much as he can be a tad clinical and aloof. Of his three cycles, his second is my favorite overall, but as with Barenboim, all three cycles offer performances that stand out.

Dec-08-2007, 00:30
I'm glad someone has the time to type all of that down. I do well to
give a short essay. My favorite beethoven piano sonata is the
moonlight sonata all three movements and Fur Else.
judy tooley

Dec-08-2007, 02:46
. . . My favorite beethoven piano sonata is the
moonlight sonata all three movements and Fur Else.
judy tooley

Für Elise ... wow, that brings back memories ... the one single piece that I think every beginning piano student the whole world over is given to learn. I got to hate that piece and still do to this day, although I admire Beethoven's music in general.

Moonlight Sonata - beautiful ... I've heard Charlie Balogh play this at Organ Stop in Mesa ... stunning work, stunning organ, awesome music.

Dec-10-2007, 02:14
I'm glad someone has the time to type all of that down. I do well to
My favorite beethoven piano sonata is the
moonlight sonata all three movements and Fur Else.
judy tooley

Hi Judy,

If you like the Moonlight sonata, then try your ears with Annie Fischer's version. Although hers is not the only one that stands out for me, I can say though that her legato line in the opening phrases is just pure magic, ethereal almost. Her playing transports you to another world. And I cannot say enough of her singing tone, even with her left hand, something I find drastically missing in many performances of LvB's sonatas.

Dec-10-2007, 02:21
Todd - I'd be very interested to hear what is your favourite recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata (29), it's my all time favourite. I also notice Jeno Jando didn't rate a mention yet ... I assume you'll get to him?

Dec-10-2007, 03:50
John Lill hasn't been mentioned. He's got a good Hammerklavier. I think Fischer's is astounding, and two of my favourites is Richter and Rosen.

Dec-10-2007, 16:02
My favorite is the old recording of great Solomon Cutner.

Dec-11-2007, 03:39
Todd - I'd be very interested to hear what is your favourite recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata (29), it's my all time favourite.

I don't have a single favorite. Rather, I'd say that the below ten more or less compete for the honor:

Maurizion Pollini
Rudolf Serkin
Annie Fischer
Friedrich Gulda (Amadeo)
Claude Frank
Craig Sheppard
Seymour Lipkin
Paul Lewis
Daniel Barenboim (EMI, 2005, DVD)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Gramola)

I may or may not get to Jando. I'm not a huge fan based on what I've heard from him.

Dec-11-2007, 04:24
Hey Todd - thanks for the list, apart from the Barenboim set (which I own) I don't know the others - will attempt to get hold of at least some of them. As to you not getting to Jando ... I understand, though it makes you rather an unlikely critique, yes?

Dec-11-2007, 19:28
The brother to paul, one of the musicians at church loves to play
Beethoven when he is there on the Steinway piano in our sanctuary.
I also loved hearing it while I was in Wednesday night class. Some of
it is really beautiful including Song of Joy, Moonlight Sonata, and Fir
else as he played it note per note as he went through an entire song
judy tooley

Dec-11-2007, 21:49
Hmm, "Fir else" ?? Ahah, Beethoven wrote for the tree forest ... :rolleyes: :confused: :grin:

I think you meant Für Elise ... I hate that piece ... I cringe everytime I hear it ... it was drummed into my head as a beginning piano student ... Beethoven is great ... but that piece ... :ut: <cringing> :nut:

Dec-12-2007, 01:45
Krummhorn ... I tend to agree with you about Für Elise but when it's played by a competant pianist ... I also hate the 5th symphony for the very same reason: heard it far too often as a student.

Dec-13-2007, 18:19
As to you not getting to Jando ... I understand, though it makes you rather an unlikely critique, yes?

I'm not sure I get your point. I simply write about what I want to, when I want to. I'm not a professional critic and have never claimed to be one.

Dec-13-2007, 23:24
Well, sir, if you publish your tomes here you become a de facto critique, that's for sure. I enjoy them, so don't stop, as to Jeno Jando, fair enough.

Dec-14-2007, 16:30
Well, sir, if you publish your tomes here you become a de facto critique, that's for sure.

I don't get paid for what I write, so I'm merely an enthusiast writing about music, not a critic.

Apr-05-2008, 21:21
Kun-Woo Paik


A couple years ago I picked up the first volume of Kun-Woo Paik’s Beethoven sonata cycle, comprising sonatas from Op 31/1 through 81a. The notes indicated that the rest of the cycle would be recorded later in 2006 and 2007. Cool, I thought, since I was still buying plenty of cycles at the time. But 2006 and then 2007 came and went with no additional volumes here in the US. I’d occasionally check MDT and Amazon, but to no avail. Then a few weeks ago I broadened by search and stumbled upon Han Books in Los Angeles. It’s a Korean bookstore that imports all manner of goodies from Korea. Among the goodies it sells are all of the remaining volumes of the cycle. Decca released the cycle in three additional 2-disc sets rather than two 3-disc sets, but there it was. (The additional volumes are also available in France I later found, though the box-set is not.)

Also there was the complete set in a nifty looking super digi-pac box more reminiscent of LP box-sets than CD box-sets. Though I had the first volume, I decided to go for the complete box because it looks so nifty and because it comes with a DVD and because the sonatas are presented chronologically and because it’s a limited, numbered edition. (Mine’s number 2229.) And it’s not too expensive – around $114 with shipping. Once I got the box it became apparent this set is for the Korean market only. The generous book (not booklet) is detailed and physically large – and all in Korean, save the French intro by the pianist. The included DVD is a low-rent affair, with blah camera work, blah image quality, and no subtitles for people who don’t speak French or Korean. But that’s irrelevant, really – it’s all about the music.

When I wrote about the first volume, I noted that I thought it was a mixed bag: Some sonatas were superbly played, some not, though Kun-Woo’s technical mastery was evident throughout, as was his emotional detachment. Opp 31/3, 57, 78, and 54 came off best, and I surmised that the pianist would fare better in the early sonatas than the late sonatas. Well, after hearing the whole cycle, it’s clear that it is a mixed bag overall, and my initial hunch was right – Kun-Woo is better in the early sonatas than the late ones.

Rather than go into detail, I’ll just cover the set in very broad strokes. The earliest sonatas generally fare well. Crisp, light, lithe playing characterizes much of the set, and some sonatas, like Op 2/3, Op 7, and the two Op 14 sonatas all benefit greatly. The pianist’s comparative detachment doesn’t detract at all here, and the generally high energy playing really sounds fine. The recorded sound doesn’t offer the last word in clarity, and Kun-Woo’s playing isn’t the clearest, most differentiated around, but it’s quite fine. Unfortunately, the meatier early works don’t fare as well. Op 10/3 comes off as too lightweight for me, with not a whole lot of drama or passion in the great slow movement. Op 13 fares better, with the briskly played opener having a bit of oomph. The last of the early sonatas (or the first of the middle, depending on how you look at), Op 22, is taken at a slightly broader tempo than I would have anticipated, but still has enough verve and variety to satisfy.

The middle sonatas find Kun-Woo doing some fine things. Op 26 is surprisingly effective, delivered in a taut, slightly cool fashion, with the Funeral March poked out in a small-ish scale but edgy enough fashion. Op 27/1 possesses enough energy and drive to satisfy, and Op 28 is lyrical, smooth, and quite charming. The middle of the middle I’ve covered in more detail, but revisiting the sonatas found me enjoying Op 31/1 a bit more, and now I must say that 31/3 is top-flight stuff. The Appasionata reminds me of an updated version of Robert Casadesus’ formidable take on the work, and Op 54 still stands as a unique take, with a blistering fast Allegretto.

The late sonatas are less satisfying. The first thing I noticed about the late sonatas, which here start with Op 90, is that the recorded sound is different – and not as good. It’s more distant, more resonant, more muffled, and more metallic. It’s still modern sound, it’s just not as good as the rest of the set. Anyway, Op 90 sounds quite nice, especially the second, proto-Schubertian movement with its flowing lyricism. Op 101 is a miss, though. It never really evokes the late-LvB sound world for me. Less satisfying yet is the mighty Hammerklavier. Though Kun-Woo definitely has the chops to play it fast, he instead plays it very slow, emphasizing the quasi-orchestral, grand nature of the music. The slow movement lacks enough gravitas, to boot. The last three sonatas improve a bit, though all lack the ultimate degree of late Beethoven gravitas. Op 111 probably fares best of all, with the pianist playing with decent drive and bite in the opener and allowing himself personal leeway in the slow movement, delivering a very fine Arietta, blurred, beautiful trills, and some nearly transcendental playing at times.

Overall, this is not a great cycle in my estimation. But it is a slightly better than above average one overall. Compared to the most recent complete cycles and some on-going ones, I’d definitely have to say he’s closer in quality to Barenboim’s superb DVD cycle than he is to Paul Lewis’ rather dull cycle, though Barenboim rather handily delivers more of everything that counts most. Kun-Woo is uneven like Andras Schiff, though he even more rarely delivers the brilliant insights that Schiff sometimes does. He’s nimbler and more individual than Ikuyo Nakamichi, though she plays rather more beautifully. (And Kun-Woo’s playing is itself rather distinguished tonally.) He lacks the seriousness and weight of Craig Sheppard, though he’s more flexible. He tinkers more with tempi and dynamics than Akiyoshi Sako, but his vision is less compelling, solid, and certain. And he definitely doesn’t aggressively present his ideas like Ronald Brautigam, and sometimes there’s less excitement as a result. Overall, this is a fine cycle, one I’m glad to have, and one I’ll return to with pleasure, but I must seek out others for more meaningful Beethoven.

Apr-06-2008, 03:22
I'm glad someone had the time to type all of that up. :grin:
judy tooley

Apr-06-2008, 22:20
I have Schnabel,Kempff (DG Stereo),Barenboim (EMI 60's) and Brendel cycles.My favourite is Kempff.

Apr-07-2008, 00:39
My favorite Beethoven sonata is Moonlight.
judy tooley

Jun-03-2008, 01:42
I hope that you have listened to more Beethoven cycles by now.Do you mind sharing your opinions on them?

Jun-04-2008, 03:18
I hope that you have listened to more Beethoven cycles by now.Do you mind sharing your opinions on them?

Oh, yes - I've added 15 or so cycles to my collection over the past 18 months or so, and I have detailed listening notes on 11 of them. The problem is finding the time to write. I've been too busy to write much lately, though I hope to write about the remaining cycles starting sometime later this year.

Jun-04-2008, 11:56
I am looking forward to it.

Jun-19-2008, 22:06
"Oh, yes - I've added 15 or so cycles to my collection over the past 18 months or so, and I have detailed listening notes on 11 of them. The problem is finding the time to write. I've been too busy to write much lately, though I hope to write about the remaining cycles starting sometime later this year."

I'm looking forward to it too! Your write-ups are the most insightful Beethoven sonata reviews that I have read, bar none.

- augustwest

Jun-19-2008, 23:23
Todd - keep up the excellent work, you're an inspiration.

Jul-13-2008, 13:13
Todd - I'm new to the forum, and found your reviews fascinating. I have one question for you about op27 no.2 - I went to see a live performance by Andras Schiff at Carnegie Hall in New York a while back in which he played this sonata, and I was astonished to hear him play the 1st movement with the pedal down all the way through - Out of your collection of Sonata cycles do any other pianists do this when playing this movement?


Jul-14-2008, 15:35
Out of your collection of Sonata cycles do any other pianists do this when playing this movement?

Yes, some do, and many of course use it extensively. I can't remember which ones hold it throughout at the moment though. Schiff explains his choice in the "interview" accompanying the recording of the work.

Jul-19-2008, 10:35
Thats interesting to know. It is so amazing, and apparent from your commentaries, how the same pieces can be interpreted so differently by the different pianists.


Jul-24-2008, 23:56
Todd - last night was I listening to the semi finals of the Sydney International Piano Compeition, and to my delight TWO of the competitors (both Russian) played Beethoven's Opus 106 (The Hammerklavier) ... I was in heaven each time. It's undoubtedly my favourite of his final masterpieces and an incredible indurance test for any pianist, as you well know.

Apr-26-2009, 22:07
Great notes on these cycles. Most of them I own, but some I do not.

I realize you have a lot more that you did not post, however I wanted to make sure that you checked out Robert Benz' cycle on Thorofon records. It is not available in a box set and is rather difficult to collect as the cycle is spread among 9 separate discs.

Anyway, I spent a small fortune acquiring them and have never been happier with a cycle. Of course, it is not the be-all-end-all. Like you I don't think that any cycle is perfect...but it is my absolute favorite out of the 53 complete cycles that I own.

Thanks again Todd for spreading some intelligent criticism of the new testament recordings.



Oct-23-2010, 22:59
I wanted to state my appreciation of your efforts as well, Todd. Unlike many of the members on this thread, I am new to the Sonatas. I have Pommier's recording of 11-20 as well as Goode's recording of 21 thru 23.
Going thru your thread, I did not see reviews of the cycles by both men. Did I just miss the reviews or are they coming in the future or are you planning not to do a review of those two? Can you give me some insight into either of them?
One suggestion- Is it possible to create a Table of Contents for the various reviews with links to where they are located in the thread? That would make them even more useful.
Having said all that, I want to thank you again. Even if you never answer my question or write another review, what you have provided is the most comprehensive guide that I have yet seen to these wonderful recordings.
You, sir, are a cultural hero.

Jan-23-2016, 05:38
It has been years since I last posted in this thread, but I have some more cycles I've listened to, so I figured I might as well post some more.


Daniel Barenboim - EMI, 2005, DVD

Part 1

Concert 1

Daniel Barenboim has joined the elitist of elite categories, atleast as far as complete cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas areconcerned. He has recorded the cycle three times, a feat otherwiseaccomplished only by Alfred Brendel. (Or maybe not. An Andante boxrefers to three complete cycles by Friedrich Gulda, meaning one hasnot been released, and I’ve read from a not necessarily reliablesource that Maurizio Pollini has recorded three complete cycles buthas nixed their release(s).) That doesn’t necessarily mean thatBarenboim’s interpretations are among the best in this most augustcanon, but at least he has shown a dedication to the music, and onecan hear how his approach has changed over time. I have writtenabout his prior EMI cycle already, and I have listened to his 1980scycle on DG a couple times now, and if I ever find the time to writeabout it, I will, but for now I decided I might as well write abouthis brand spankin’ new set on EMI. On DVD!

That’s part of the attraction, of course, this being the firstcomplete AV cycle to make it to market. Truth to tell, I don’treally care about the ‘V’ part; I’m all about the ‘A.’ (It’s really inconvenient: how am I supposed to listen to this setat work or while on the road?) Plenty of other people may getexcited about the prospect of finally seeing a pianist play theworks, though, and for them this is a first. So this may or may notbe a must-get cycle for non-musical reasons.

The cycle was performed in a series of eight concerts in Berlin inthe Staatsoper Unter den Linden in June and July 2005. I don’tknow if any studio touch ups were made afterward, but that’s notreally too important, at least to me. For the most part, this is a“live” cycle, with all that implies. What it often implies issome memory lapses, extraneous noise, and, most importantly, moreenergy of the type that only comes when an artist plays in front ofan audience. The first two traits are largely absent, though thelast one is not. That in turn implies something worth hearing. Andpossibly watching.

Rather than cover the sonatas chronologically, this time aroundI’m going to report on them as they appear on disc, concert byconcert. And the first concert’s a goodun, at least from arepertoire standpoint: Op 2/1, 31/3 and 106. Barenboim opens thecycle with Beethoven’s first sonata – always a good idea. Rightfrom the start one can hear that this cycle is different from bothprior cycles, though one can hear echoes of both of them, too. TheAllegro opens vigorously, with a nicely brisk tempo and unusuallyclear playing, as one generally expects from this pianist. Theslower sections sound notably slower, so as to add as much contrastas possible. Some may find the contrasts contrived, others not. I’mmostly in the latter camp. Decidedly slower is the Adagio, which isvery slow. It almost sounds exaggerated, particularly whencompared to the first movement. But it sounds lovely and precise,and, once again, Barenboim plays with exemplary clarity. I foundmyself wishing the music would flow just a little bit better, butlistening to it isn’t exactly hard to do. The Menuetto sticks witha broad overall tempo, which in turn results in startling dynamic andtonal contrasts when the fast, descending upper register figuresarrive. The overall effect is to make the movement slightly stormy,an effect enhanced by the charming middle section. Barenboim takesthe concluding Prestissimo at a nice tempo, though I suppose it couldbe faster. One thing is certain: the playing is stormy. Anotherthing is also certain: the playing is strong. There’s energy anddrama aplenty, with near ideal clarity at all times. Throw in agentler, more beautiful middle section for contrast, and one is leftwith a much more than solid open to the cycle. A strong case couldbe made for this being the best opener of Barenboim’s three cycles.

Op 31/3 reinforces the positive first impression. Barenboim opensthe Allegro in a stately and relaxed fashion, then segues to moreenergetic but never pressed playing. While there are slight hints ofmischief, the overall mien is a bit on the serious side. Throughout,subtle dynamic, tonal, and tempo changes add color to the music, andthe movement ends with powerfully played chords. The Scherzo is acorker: fast, scampering, with nicely judged chords (strong but notoverpowering ) to interrupt the flow, it really sounds fine. No,it’s not caution to the wind playing, and outright fun is in shortsupply, but it’s still superb. Some potential troubles pop up inthe Menuetto. Stately and lovely, it may sound too manicured forsome tastes. Some of the dynamic transitions can sound a bit stiff,depending on what one listens for, but in the context of thisperformance, they work very well. The Presto con fuoco ends the workon a very strong note. Fast, filled with pep, and almost fun,Barenboim brings it home. Great dynamic contrasts and superbly cleanfingerwork and a sense of inevitability make this one heck of an end. As with the first sonata, one could argue that this is the best ofBarenboim’s three takes. Could it be because these are taken fromconcerts?

Quite possibly, because the same thing can be written about theHammerklavier. As with his prior recordings, Barenboim usesbroad tempi throughout the work, but also like his prior recordings,he pulls it off. Only better. The Allegro sounds grand andorchestral enough to satisfy Big Sound fans, yet it’s incisiveenough for those wanting more bite and clarity. I find that thisrecording flows better than the prior two, the first in particular,while maintaining the benefits of the big ‘n’ slow approach. There’s a certain lightness to it, by which I mean it’s not atall ponderous. Something else that’s missing is Barenboim’sbreathtaking clarity, at least in fast passages. Barenboim isn’t akid anymore, and some of the more complex passages present more of achallenge to him now. It’s not that’s he’s sloppy or misses awhole lot, but something had to give, and it’s clarity. Not in theslower music, though – it’s to a very high standard. That Timeis winning is also made clear in the rougher, less precise, lesssculpted sound. But – and this is a biggie – it sounds morealive, more vital, despite the changes. (Or maybe because of them?) The same more or less holds true for the Scherzo, with its broadtempo, powerful (though not overwhelming) playing, and its “chunky”sound. Where Barenboim shined as a young man he also shines as amore mature artist: the Adagio is wonderful. Only more so. Theplaying is slow but pregnant with drama and tragedy from the get-go,though it never just pours forth in sloppy fashion. The even slowersecond section sounds both pensive and tense, and while slow, themusical line not only never breaks, it never even slackens. Themovement gradually morphs into a solitary lament – a fact (orimpression, I guess) that really only hit me around 10’ in – thenit changes again to placid rumination, all while effortlesslymaintaining the musical line. It defies gravity, if you will, in thebest late-LvB fashion. The coda ends up sounding like a distended,sad farewell. Superb. The final movement opens with a clear, lucid,at times dexterous Largo which then changes over to a fugue of superbclarity. No surprise there. The music assumes a brighter demeanorthan I thought it would, and Barenboim’s technique seems moreassured here than in the opening movement, a few brusque or slightlyrough patches notwithstanding. The tempo always sounds just right –never pressed, never too slow – and the slow, baroque passage isplayed in a wonderfully serene manner. A rousing coda wraps up asuperb Hammerklavier.

The first concert must be considered a success. I preferBarenboim’s 2005 take on all three sonatas more than either of hisprior takes. Make no mistake, though, this is Daniel Barenboim atthe keyboard, and certain traits remain. He never really pushes anytempi, so those who want him to let loose will not be happy. Hisstyle can sound overly manicured and even precious at times, thoughthere’s less of that this time around. Barenboim’s tonal palateis broad, but not as broad as before, though that is influenced bythe recording. Overall, I’m quite happy and want to hear more. Hopefully I can, um, attend another concert in the next day or two.

To production values, they’re to a high level, but not thehighest level. Image quality is very good, though a number of operasI have surpass it (like Gardiner’s Les Troyens). Sound isclose – one can see how close the various microphone arrays are –and at times the upper registers are a touch too bright and clangyand metallic, and the sound lacks some bass oomph when it ought nottoo, and quite a few pedal stomps can be heard. These are quibbles. I have more serious reservations about the videography. There areclose-ups of Barenboim’s face from various angles, and close-upsand even closer close-ups of his hands throughout the concert. Idon’t need to see his cuticles, and I can probably do withoutseeing so much sweat, and I can certainly do without the HolySkewed Angle Batman! views of those ten fingers that pop up allthe time. I did find one way to avoid distraction – I shut my eyesfor extended stretches. I may end up leaving the television off atsome point during the cycle. Anyway, the musical message still getsacross, and that’s what counts.

Concert 2

The second concert opens with Beethoven’s second sonata. Not abad choice. (Okay, Barenboim had 32 good choices to choose from.) And as before, Barenboim sounds slightly freer and more flowing thanin his studio bound efforts, his first one in particular. TheAllegro vivace moves along at a nice pace, though he takes somepassages at a slow pace for variety. The middle section is weightyand offers a nice contrast to the surrounding music. At times theplaying can sound just a bit precious, or what might be construed asprecious. The Largo is slow, slow, slow, but then it is aLargo. Barenboim plays with great precision and deliberateness, andimbues the music with ample dynamic and tempo changes. It’s notquite stiff and not quite flowing; it can and does sound a bitartificial, but in a most artful way. The third movement is pluckyand perky, clearly articulated, and fun, if still a bit formal attimes. The last movement is light and breezy and smooth and flowing,generally speaking, with a nicely vibrant middle section. All told,this is well played and once again represents an improvement over thestudio cycles.

The Tempest follows, and here one can have intermittentdoubts. The opening arpeggio of the Largo is slow and rich andgenerally quite fine, though the music that immediately follows itsounds a bit stiff. The second arpeggio, not surprisingly, is alsoquite fine, then Barenboim moves into the faster meat of the movementvery well – the playing sounds vibrant and vigorous and urgent. Others sound more intense here, but this works. Indeed, this is yetanother case where the live performance seems to trump the studioversions. The doubts come in the Adagio. Don’t get me wrong, it’ssuperbly played and sounds wonderful, but rarely if ever does theplaying seem to delve beneath the surface. The music sounds glossedover a bit. Some will hate it, some will love it, others (like me)will like it, with reservations. The concluding Allegretto openswith forlorn horn calls that quickly evolve into playing of someurgency. The most musically robust patches can sound a bit strainedand stiff, but then Barenboim will slow up and quiet things down andplay with uniquely intriguing ghostly restraint before returning to a(not quite blazing) gallop. This is a good reading, but I can’treally say it’s as good as the third sonata from the bunch or acontender compared to the greats.

The second little Op 14 sonata comes next, and what a fine versionit is! The Allegro sounds smooth, soothing, and lyrical – perhapscoy to some – and boasts superbly light, fast, and clear runs. More drive arrives in the middle section, but overall the openingmovement sounds wonderfully graceful and flowing. The Andante comesacross as a slightly variegated march characterized mostly by anemphatic yet soft beat and gentle overall character. Barenboimcloses with a Scherzo as light and charming and flowing as theopening movement. This is a delightful performance.

The concert closes with the Les Adieux sonata. The openingAdagio comes across as cool and remote but still despondent. This isanother case where some may very well find Barenboim’s playing toomanicured. Anyway, as the piece swells during the Allegro, anappropriately celebratory sound ensues, though one riddled withresignation. Throughout, Barenboim plays with splendid dynamic andtonal variation, something he does pretty much all the time. TheAndante espressivo is more emotionally engaging than the openingmovement, though I’d hardly describe it as heart-on-sleeve musicmaking. Still, Barenboim conveys a sense of inner sadness andturmoil, and the coda is simply breathtaking, with whisper quietchords trailing off into silence. To close, Barenboim plays theVivacissimamente wonderfully. It opens in a wonderfully swelling,grand, and ebullient manner, though informed by a very propersensibility. It maintains this approach more or less to the end,with a quasi-orchestral sound part of the payoff. It may not be oneof the very best versions yet committed to disc, but this is a fineversion that ends a fine concert. I certainly hope the next sixconcerts are as good (or better!) than the first two.

Concert 3

The third concert opens with a Big Name work – thePathetique – and this version is the best of Barenboim’sfour recordings of the piece. The Grave opens with a near perfectchord, strong but not fortissimo thunder, then moves on to somewhatslow and definitely deliberate playing that, when alternated withthat strong chord, expertly builds up tension until the beginning ofthe Allegro molto e con brio. The Allegro section is then suitablyswift, with superb dynamic contrasts, especially from the right hand. Contrary to his prior recordings, this one flows and stayssatisfyingly fast throughout, with only a few, very effective slowsections for contrast. (I generally prefer a fast Op 13, so keepthat in mind.) After a nice, strong end, Barenboim plays the Adagiocantabile in a most ingratiating manner. It’s slow, clear,meticulous, and calm. As the movement progresses, the music takes ona stately feel. It’s here where some may find the playingcontrived, but I like it. The concluding Rondo opens in bright,clear, and on the broad side of fast style, and as the movementprogresses, Barenboim hammers out some notes here and there which,when combined with the nice tonal and tempo variation, creates a mostsatisfying take. Barenboim still doesn’t ascend to the heights inthis work, but he’s moved up the mountain.

He’s much nearer the peak in the Op 26. I figured that afterhearing Gerard Willems’ breathtaking account of this sonata only amatter of weeks ago I’d be waiting for another contender. (I hopeto cover Willems’ cycle in the near future.) I was wrong. Barenboim opens with an Andante as poised and attractive as one couldwish for, and as usual, his playing sounds as clear as one couldwant. The first variation acts as an extension of the opening theme,while the second sounds quick and plucky and enthusiastic, with anice, brief, loud outburst thrown in for good measure; the thirdvariation is somber and serious, a sort of mini-funeral march, whilethe fourth sounds light and crisp and choppy; the fifth is lyricaland rich and mesmerizingly clear. The Scherzo is downright brisk andsuperbly accented to open, and things only pick up from there. Theruns are vital and dexterous, and plenty of rhythmic snap pervadesthe playing. Then the core of the work arrives, and Barenboim playsa funeral march fit for a hero. Somber and tense to open, Barenboimplays with world-class oomph, emphasizing the grandiose nature of themusic, and in the middle section he accelerates the playing nicely. The closing Allegro opens at a nice pace, but sounds a bit flatcompared to what came before. Quibbles quickly fade as the playingpicks up the pace and the dynamic range. A very strong andcontrolled middle section before a potent end caps it off. There arebetter versions out there – by Willems, Frank, and Michelangeli toname three – but this is a contender.

Next up is the little Op 79. Barenboim plays the Presto allatedesca in a very crisp, forward moving fashion, though he tends tounderplay the cuckoo motif. The off key passage is delivered well,and the whole thing sounds, well, whole. The Andante sounds quickand slightly light, lean, and taut, at least compared to others whomake this a meaty movement, and the middle section sounds simplylovely. The concluding Vivace opens in a light, leisurely mood,moves to a playful and leisurely style, then returns to the openingapproach. Quite good. Perhaps not great, but quite good.

Straight to the top tier goes Barenboim’s Op 101, though. Nokidding. This is a great performance. The Allegretto ma non troppomay even be slightly faster than normal (very slightly), or at leastBarenboim’s playing makes it sound that way. Additionally, theplaying sounds rich, flows well, and displays a restrained lyricism. The Vivace alla Marcia explodes out of the gate, though hereBarenboim’s usually unimpeachable clarity can in fact be impeached! The trade-off is more drive and oomph. I like drive and oomph. Especially in a march. It’s vital, it’s flowing, it’s beefy,it’s nifty. The Adagio switches gears into a slightly somber mood,where the playing seems to float in the ether, or nearly so. It’squiet and searching, and that works well indeed. The concludingAllegro then arrives with a striking trill and even more strikingleft hand chords. The playing is fast, with remarkable clarity andarticulation and drive and, yes, more oomph. At the same time, themusic sounds just a tad light. Barenboim doesn’t try to make thisthe Maestoso from Op 111. No, he makes it sound joyous at times. And vital. Throw in myriad wonderful little touches, like theveritable swirls of notes just after 5’30”, and one gets a damnedfine recording. Dare I write great recording? I dare.

After roughly a third of the canon, I must report that I find thiscycle to be the best of Barenboim’s three efforts. He maydisappoint me in the remaining 21 works, but I doubt it. I’ll findout soon enough.

Concert 4

The fourth concert opens with Op 10/1, and as before Barenboimdelivers the best version I’ve heard from him. The openingarpeggio is both stronger and faster than I would have previouslyexpected, and the sound remains rich and clear, if also a bit flat. The second theme is suitably slower, remarkably clear (especiallywhen the repeated bass figure underpins the music) and probablybetter than the opening music. And it flows. The Adagio moltosounds slow, rich, and luxurious, but the runs remain light and fast,and dynamic contrasts are fine, and the overall sound is undeniablylovely. As happens on more than one occasion, though, the playing isnot maximally involving. The Prestissimo opens quickly, boasts veryswift runs, and then seamlessly transitions to slightly broad andirresistibly flexible playing. The playing sounds both vital andpliant, a most becoming combo. At times it seems like Barenboim mayactually let loose. An excellent take.

Next up is the 11th sonata, and here Barenboim again delivers thebest version I’ve heard from him, though here it’s by a prettywide margin. The Allegro con brio opens in reasonably swift fashion,continues to display admirably flexibility, and it not only flows,but it grooves. (Barenboim can’t match Gulda in thisregard, but still.) Smack dab in the middle one gets to hear playingthat’s fast and lithe and spiffy. Following up the fine firstmovement is an Adagio con molto espressione characterized bydeliberate, slow, and beautiful playing of not a whole lot of depth. That’s fine here, though, because that means the music doesn’tsound overthought. As the movement progresses, the playing becomescooler and darker, taking on an almost quietly ominous air. The lastportion of the movement sounds lovely, like the opening, but it alsosounds more distant. The Menuetto opens gently, and sounds smooth,light, and uplifting. The more vigorous music, especially in themiddle section, is strong but not overwhelming, driven but not manic. It’s quite good. To close, Barenboim opens the Rondo in light,leisurely, and charming fashion, before he moves into a middlesection where he delivers potent chords and fast, scampering playing,all while maintaining uncommon clarity. The playing in the lastportion of the movement sounds exaggeratedly slow at times, but sowhat? Another fine reading, though one bound to divide opinion.

The two little Op 49 sonatas follow, and Barenboim does agenerally excellent job here. The first sonata opens with an Andantethat remains clear and light and lyrical, yet also manages to soundjust a bit substantive. The Rondo sounds unabashedly happy and funand energetic. The second sonata keeps the same sound in the Allegroma non troppo, and throws in some nice bass weight, too. The closingTempo di Menuetto sounds slower and gentler, but stays lyrical, andshows just how well Barenboim can control the bottom end of thedynamic spectrum. Such wonderfully diverse quiet playing is alwaysnice to hear. I don’t know if I’d consider either one a worldbeater, but hey, they’re nice.

The program ends with the mighty Appassionata. Here’sone work where Barenboim just didn’t produce a great or exceptionalor even appreciably above average reading in either of his two priorcycles. He does much better here. The Allegro assai opens in aslightly brooding style hinting at fierier things to come. When theydo come, Barenboim delivers. With qualifications. Yes, the faster,more intense playing sounds nicely swift and intense, but it’sstill somewhat restrained. The slower playing is notably broad andrich. Throw in numerous minor variations in tempo and dynamics, andBarenboim seems to be manhandling the piece, albeit while wearingvelvet gloves. Some will find it mannered. They won’t (orwouldn’t) find the satisfyingly thundering bass and occasionalintensity mannered, though. Except in the very loudest passages,Barenboim maintains his exemplary clarity, and he brings the movementto a superb end with a massive build-up to the coda. The Andante conmoto sounds solemn and achieves an almost static feel at times. Italso sounds aloof much of the time. The fast variation doesn’tsound particularly fast, but the overall effect is to offer amovement that contrasts significantly with the outer movements. Inthat regard it succeeds. Especially when one hears the concludingAllegro ma non troppo. Strong but not crushing opening chordstransform quickly into playing that is fast and intense, with theplaying only ratcheting up in intensity until it becomes very fast,pungent and nearly grinding. (He never achieves quite the level ofintensity of, say, Annie, but that’s alright.) And there’s morethan ample vitality; restraint is largely thrown to the wind here. The only downside to the movement is that Barenboim omits the repeat. Why? The movement needs it! Without it, it sounds unfinished. Hadhe included the repeat, this would be even better than it is, andit’s pretty damn good. I need to listen to some more.

Jan-23-2016, 05:45
Part 2

Concert 5

The fifth concert opens with the great seventh sonata, and what a nice time to hear it, so close to Angela Hewitt’s rather dissimilar take. Differences aren’t apparent in the opening seconds as Barenboim opens the Presto quite quickly, with notable energy, and even some gruff (!) playing, so rare for him. Wait but a few seconds, and Barenboim begins to deploy his standard devices in the slower music, adding color and nuance and subtlety. Some may find it too much, though. But throw in superb clarity for most of the movement, and really, how can one resist? The Largo shows just how effective Barenboim is at imparting a sense of mood in a few notes. The superbly controlled and “expressive” playing very heavily hints at tragedy, but of a somewhat manufactured kind. There’s melodrama and an occasional thickness that may leave some less happy, and yet others may hear in this a saccharine romanticism that turns them away, but I like it. The Menuetto has a very soft, sweet opening, then quickly picks up speed and energy, but it never sounds rushed or anything other than pleasant. Even the big, beefy middle section sounds pleasant. Barenboim opens the concluding Rondo with a slightly broad tempo but quickly and seamlessly changes to a lighter, quicker style that’s all sun and fun. Well, except for the big, bold, assertive Beethoven that shows up later and finds Barenboim hammering away in satisfying fashion. Being live, a few things don’t sound as polished as they otherwise might, but that’s good. Yes, a nice start to a concert.

The second work is the first of the sonatas quasi una fantasia, and I so wanted a knock-out reading. Alas, ‘twas not to be. (That’s not to say it’s bad.) The Andante theme sounds positively wonderful. Ever so slightly on the broad side, with superb tonal shading and dynamic nuance, and supreme control, it sounds almost like a lost, late Mozart fantasy, emboldened and embellished by the Bonn master. The second theme is decidedly “big” and quasi-orchestral, and works well. It’s in the Allegro where doubts arise. It’s just a wee bit too slow and some of the phrasing sounds exaggerated, though not in an entirely unpleasant way. The second section here is more forceful, though, but it’s also more forced. The Adagio, somewhat against expectation, sounds rich and somber and lovely, and then Barenboim moves into the last part of the work with a nicely paced second try at an Allegro and an even-more-lovely-than-before pass at the main slow theme. There are good parts, wonderful parts, and so-so or not so good parts. It never jells into a truly satisfying whole.

Next up is the Op 90 sonata, and as with the first work in the concert, Barenboim plays in a style some may not fancy. The opening movement sounds bold and rich but not overwrought when played loud and lovely and tonally variegated in a most pleasing manner when played more quietly. The long, fast run is superb, and the more urgent passages take on the just the right degree of angst mixed with late-LvB goodness. The second movement really is where some may have issues. It’s lyrical and beautiful and a bit contrived. More immediacy would have been nice, but the supreme control and unfailing lyricism still work well enough.

The concert closes with the Waldstein. This is the best of the three versions Barenboim has recorded. I’ll just get that out the way right now. It’s not “perfect,” and there are some nits to pick, but this is one fine reading. The Allegro con brio opens swiftly, in well articulated fashion, in contrast to Paul Lewis’ less enthralling open to the same piece. Barenboim makes sure to take the time to let things breathe when needed, and throughout the movement the music waxes and wanes in scale and breadth effortlessly. Barenboim will go right ahead and play at different dynamic levels simultaneously – and uncommonly clearly – to superb effect, especially when he plays the right hand melodies quickly and comparatively lightly while underpinning the proceedings with a beefy left hand. Every aspect of the playing is sublimely controlled without any garishness or excess gilding of the lily, if you will. Of course, others may demur. The Introduzione offers a stark contrast to not only the opener, but to many other takes. It sounds slow and funereal at the outset, yet it also manages to sound mellifluous and, well, golden. Granted, this can be construed as a surface effect, but what an effect! And then, before you know it, the movement ends! No foolin.’ It floats by. The concluding Rondo finds Barenboim playing in his best quasi-orchestral style, but not before he should. The movement starts off slowly and gently and only gradually builds up in tension before erupting – and erupt it does – into its orchestral grandeur on the heels of a magnificently dispatched long trill. At times Barenboim plays seemingly without restraint, or at least with a shrewdly calculated facsimile of romantic abandon. There’s more gruffness, maybe a slip here or bunched chord there, or whatever, but this is, again, live playing, and while not wild-man intense, the vitality of the performance and the control of Barenboim’s playing, mixed with that golden hue, make it hard for me to say anything but good things. (Okay, so maybe there aren’t any nits.) Yes, this is Barenboim, and if you just don’t like Barenboim, you may not like this, but it’s unambiguously better than his two prior efforts with this piece. It’s also one hell of a way to end a concert.

I think it’s safe to say at this point that this is shaping up to be Barenboim’s finest cycle, and one filled with goody after goody.

Concert 6

The sixth concert opens with a work generally well-suited to Barenboim’s style – the Pastorale. As is his wont, Barenboim takes the opening Allegro at a slow pace, and adds a certain richness to the music, and here he plays with a not-quite-droning left hand and singing right hand to tickle one’s ears. The more Allegretto or Adagio tempo may leave some wanting a bit more verve (and I can’t say that I wouldn’t have liked that), but Barenboim’s constancy and tonal refinement work to gradually dissuade the listener that the playing sounds too slow. The middle section retains the overall slowness of the movement, but Barenboim still manages to ratchet up the intensity appropriately. See, there’s no need to rush. The Andante maintains the leisurely pace, but the temperature cools a bit, and nice, clean left hand staccato keeps one’s attention. The middle section lightens up a bit, inducing (perhaps) a smile and it sounds relaxed and relaxing, rather like a stroll through a, well, a pastoral landscape. Not too surprisingly, the Scherzo stays on the broad side, but it’s buoyant and bouncy and rhythmically satisfying. The middle is appropriately groovier and admirably clear. The work closes with a Rondo possessed of a slightly faster overall tempo than before, with a gently rocking left hand and gorgeous right hand melodies. It doesn’t plumb the depths, I suppose, but does it really need to? Nah. It’s quite good. Perhaps the best of Barenboim’s three recordings.

No such qualification is needed for the next sonata: this 2005 performance is Barenboim’s best traversal of Op 2/3. The Allegro con brio is light and quick and fun, and tonally varied, with the ascending passages in particular demonstrating vigorous, clear, and (possibly faux?) grooviness. (How does one fake grooviness?) Barenboim keeps the energy level high and the playing comparatively direct throughout, though he does indulge his fancy a little just after 9’ when he plays with hints of later, lusher romanticism. The Adagio offers a significant contrast, sounding slow and rich, with a right hand that sounds more yearning than urgent. The dark, quasi-ominous tolling from the left hand is a nice touch. Perhaps the playing may strike some as too artificial, but I find it artful. The Scherzo is quick and articulate and charming – but in an assertive way. In the midst of this, Barenboim fills the middle section with numerous little touches like micro-pauses and almost imperceptible tempo accelerations and decelerations. Ya gotta listen close. The playing makes ya wanna. The Allegro assai is wonderfully done: sprightly, light, dashing, clear, and played with admirable dexterity throughout, Barenboim caps an unambiguously successful reading.

The concert continues with a solid Op 78. The Adagio cantabile sounds both Grand and light at the same time – a nice feat – though one might complain that the left hand playing is approximately 6.27135% too stiff to properly underpin the right hand chicanery. 93%+ is still an A, though! The second movement sounds looser and funner yet still manages to maintain a sense of not-quite-late LvB gravitas. Perhaps some of the playing would strike some as too obvious point-making, but it’s fine for what it is.

The concert closes, like the nest two do, with one of the last three sonatas. Here’s it’s the 109. (Can you figure out the order of the next two?) And here is one of the relative weak spots of the cycle. The Vivace ma non troppo starts gently and beautifully, immediately establishing that late-LvB sound one craves, though of a distinctly plush variety. It’s ethereal and abstract, though some may say it’s precious and contrived, too. The Prestissimo just isn’t prestissimo enough: it’s too slow and thick and unfocused at times. Flashes of detail-oriented brilliance can be heard, but the whole suffers a bit. The extended Andante and variations opens with a predictably lovely theme at an unpredictably quick speed. (Quick for Barenboim, not someone like Gulda.) The first variation slows up to offer more rich warmth. The second is mostly notable for its distinct but never edgy staccato. The third variation starts off too thick and slow and groove-deprived to make it ideal, though these traits all shine through later on. Then after that, the variations and coda assume a slow, ethereal, and very much beauty-focused style. The lead-in to the final climax is fast and demonstrates superb clarity, and the whole thing fades away into serenity. Doesn’t sound bad, huh? It ain’t. But something just doesn’t quite click. It’s a collection of moments and instances, not a unified whole. In this music that’s a liability.

Concert 7

The penultimate concert starts off with the always enjoyable starter to the Op 31 trio. Once again, Barenboim delivers his best recording to date. The Allegro vivace is clear and quick, with foot stompin’ pedaling aplenty, and ample good humor for good measure. Barenboim adds his unique little touches everywhere, but not only do they never obtrude, they help. The Adagio opens quite slowly, with blurred trills superimposed over a dragging left hand. If that sounds negative, trust me, it’s not meant to. Everything seems to unfold at a stately pace, yet nothing sounds stuffy or stiff. It’s laid back and warm. The middle section picks up the pace, as it should, and the return of the opening material has a bit more drive than the first time around. Barenboim injects a little drama near the end with some nice ‘n’ beefy bass trills. The Rondo is taken at a slightly broad tempo, but this merely allows for greater dynamic and tempo contrasts later on. Superb clarity and articulation remain constant, and with (and because of) the broad-ish overall tempo allowing for nice variation within the movement, it never drags and never feels rushed. It feels just about right.

The Moonlight is next, and depending on what one wants, this can also be considered the best of his three recordings. The Adagio sostenuto is suitably slow and somber, and hazy, and more than a little funereal. Barenboim’s deft pedaling allows for sharp-ish attacks that lack excess edge, with the decay bleeding into the body of the music. Quite nice. The Allegretto sounds crisper and brighter but not excessively jolly, while the Presto agitato ends the piece by storming out the gates. Fast, with rolling bass, vehement intensity, and assertiveness bordering on aggression, Barenboim nails it. He knows when to slow up, too, making this a very satisfactory version.

Next up is the little sixth sonata. The Allegro opener sound light and sunny as it should, and the second theme sounds a bit weightier – though not too weighty – again as it should. At times the playing does tend to be just a bit too thick for the music, but such instances are infrequent and brief. The Allegretto sounds richer and more serious, if not quite serious, offering a nice bridge to the very quick, snappy, light, and downright fun Presto closer. Why no repeat?! Why!? Had it been there, this would be even better.

The concert ends with, and I’ll bet you guessed it gentle reader, Op 110. The Moderato cantabile is mostly about certain things – beauty, warmth, fluidity, grace and lyricism, all of the highest order – and decidedly less about others – seriousness of purpose, musical philosophizing, and ethereal, spiritual transportation. How do you like your late LvB? I tend to prefer more of the latter, though I appreciate the former. Anyway, the Allegro molto is taken at a rather measured though flowing tempo, basically creating a movement possessed of not a little grandeur. The Adagio ma non troppo opens with a distant, despondent feel – to the good – while sounding quite attractive – to the better. The fugue is measured, superbly clear, and grows in scale and strength as it unfolds. The post-fugue music assumes new levels of solemnity and desperation, though Barenboim’s refinement and control never abandon him. The repeated chord build-up to the inverted fugue is gradual, terraced and ends up nice and loud (though I could have done with even more), and the fugue itself is as good as the original one. The final build-up at the end is massive, has a few smudges in it, but otherwise caps off an excellent reading of the work and yet another fine concert.

Concert 8

The concluding concert starts off with the first of the Op 14 sonatas. Alas, this is another weak-ish spot. The Allegro is taken at a relaxed tempo, is delivered in a relaxed style, and is generally upbeat and warm, and maybe just a bit whimsical. The Allegretto is notably slower, with some faux drama thrown in the mix, and yes, it too sounds rich and warm. The Rondo sounds relaxed again, though it does have an upbeat mien and a vigorous middle section, and a rich, warm sound. It’s that rich and warm sound throughout that weakens it. It’s too ripe, too romanticized for my taste. It’s not even close to bad, but I’m afraid it’s not really close to great either.

Next is Op 7. The Allegro molto e con brio again finds Barenboim adopting measured tempos, and it again finds him playing with superb clarity and nice dynamic contrasts. He just sort of cruises along with some nice little bumps in the road to catch one’s attention. There’s a nice energy level to the piece, though some may want a more muscular, heroic take. Not surprisingly, the Largo is slow, but the musical pulse remains steady. The long pauses are none too long, and ample power is on display when required. The Allegro sounds warmer and more lyrical and is downright comfortable. The middle section is quicker, of course, and displays clipped phrasing. The Rondo sounds graceful, cheerful, and, again, warm, with a predictably vital middle section. The work tapers off gradually and gracefully. Another fine if not world-beating performance.

The next to last sonata is Op 54. Here the opening section of the In tempo di menuetto sounds slightly slow but rich and lovely and most lyrical, and maybe just a little soothing. After this the octaves come as something of a surprise: loud and striking and biting and clear and somewhat fast, and displaying deliciously stable rhythm. Each reappearance of these two sections offers a nice alteration of the one before, culminating in trills evoking a surprisingly late-LvB-like sound. The second movement is a bit slow, and pulls off a neat trick: the sound is smooth yet each note is distinct and clear. At times Barenboim seems to “float” the notes while still remembering to add oomph when needed. Generally I prefer a slightly more driven approach to this, but this is curiously effective.

The cycle ends with – you guessed it – Op 111. A solid choice to close the cycle if you ask me. The Maestoso starts with spaced-out opening chords, though a dark, ominous tone is immediately apparent. Then Barenboim really stretches out the slow music that follows. Too much? Nah. Now the music sounds brooding. Then the big bass trill leads strongly into the Allegro, which then builds up even more until the playing is muscular and imposing and almost fearsome. A high level of tension is maintained throughout the movement, and dynamic contrasts are informative. One huge problem here is the imagery. The camera angles and movements suck. They’re comically bad in a sonata that simply doesn’t need such distractions. Hideous, hideous stuff. Best to turn the TV off here. Back to the music: the Arietta is slow to the point of being almost static – but that’s good! – and it sounds absolutely lovely and transcendent. The second half tosses in sublime serenity. The first variation starts off precise and measured, and sounds lighter, though not at all lightweight. It’s almost as if, after arriving in musical Elysium, one ought to just enjoy one’s self with no heavy burden. It works. The second variation is likewise broad, but it’s also meticulously clear and rhythmically secure, and both fluid and tastefully restrained. The third variation is weighty yet snappy, if perhaps less obviously “jazzy” than in some other recordings. Then the music transforms into what it should, nay, must be: utterly transcendental, ethereal, and almost magical. The playing is a bit slower than I usually prefer, but Barenboim pulls off the trick of suspending time here, erasing any doubts. The long chains of trills, here a bit blurred at times (just an observation, not a criticism), start off slow but gradually builds up as the surrounding music transports the listener even more securely into the wonderful musical world Beethoven surely meant listeners to experience. At the end one just marvels in the journey, in the beauty. This is one extraordinary recording of this most remarkable sonata. (Really, is one better?) A noteworthy achievement.

I’d have to say that Barenboim has definitely produced his best overall cycle with this most recent offering. Not everything is perfect, and some of his earlier recordings are as good or better as some here, and one can always find something to quibble about. But taken as a whole, this is an excellent set, nearing greatness. Some may even say Barenboim achieves it. Others would say he doesn’t. That’s because some of Barenboim’s traits that so displease some are still here to hear. He generally favors broad tempos. He can’t resist, it seems, playing almost too beautifully at times. This is gruff, rough stuff, right? Well, maybe not. Some of the playing does sound too saccharine, too contrived, too whatever. But such instances are rare and cannot detract from the overall achievement. There’s an energy, a life to the music this time around that was absent to one degree or another in the two earlier studio cycles. It seems as though Barenboim is at his best before an audience. Maybe he’ll record more music this way in the coming years. I hope so, because I want to hear more music making like this from him. Now I just have to burn the DVDs to CD so I can enjoy the purely musical aspects of the set away from the television. But I will say, if you plan on buying just one DVD cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas, make it this one, and make it snappy.

Jan-23-2016, 17:31
Dieter Zechlin and Takahiro Sonoda

My Beethoven sonata collecting, both complete sets and individual discs, has fallen off over the last year or so, but every once in a while I like to try something new. Since I’ve already got all the Big Names, and most of the not-so-big names, new cycles will almost invariably be by lesser known or downright obscure pianists. These two epitomize that. I’ve known the name Dieter Zechlin for a while, but only because he recorded a complete cycle for Berlin Classics for the bicentenary of Lou’s birth. Takahiro Sonoda is a name I’d not even seen until a couple months ago. He’s a Japanese pianist who recorded for decades and recorded at least two, and possibly three, complete cycles. I ended up with his Denon cycle, recorded for the bicentenary of Lou’s birth. Who wins, as it were?

I’ll start with Zechlin. I cannot recall ever reading any glowing praise for his cycle, and one person who had heard the cycle mentioned its straight-forward and somewhat cold sound. That about sums it up. There is more to Zechlin, though. For one, he tends to adopt comparatively brisk tempi. This lends vigor and energy (if not perhaps youthful energy) to the early sonatas, and some at least superficially exciting passages in later works like the Waldstein and Hammerklavier. It also tilts the cycle more to the earlier works. Zechlin is at his best when playing the more exuberant works. The Op 2 sonatas come off very well, as does Op 7, the first two Op 10 sonatas, and Op 22. When the musical lifting becomes heavier, he begins to show his limitations. The Op 31 sonatas, for instance, are somewhat lacking in the flexibility and humor I tend to prefer, though some of the individual movements come off very well – the opener for the first and the closer for the third, say. The later sonatas reveal more limitations. Zechlin sounds as though his technique is far more than up to the challenge, but his playing becomes colder, more detached. So the aforementioned Waldstein takes on a cool slickness, the Appassionata a detached, calculated fieriness. An at times exciting, but cool Hammerklavier ends up leading to well played but too distant late sonatas.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Mr Zechlin. Again, his technique is very good, and he doesn’t play too willfully. It’s just that he doesn’t play with a great deal of character. Overall, I’d say his cycle is decidedly average, which means that there are obviously much better available, but also much worse. Indeed, his more or less relentlessly straight-forward approach may even be a good introduction for some. Sound is of its age, which in LvB cycles means too close and too dry and too artificial. To see what Zechlin can do, I also opted for his Schubert sonata set, and for some reason he’s better there, especially in the more virtuosic pieces (D845 and D850). Go figure.

Sonoda is different. His approach to Beethoven is almost devoutly reverential. (This is also true of Akiyoshi Sako and, even more so, Ikuyo Nakamichi – perhaps it’s a relatively common approach for Japanese pianists?) He adopts slightly slower tempi, especially at the beginning of works. This leads to him sounding almost stiff at times. He lingers on tiny details at times, though never for too long, and will seem to almost lose the big picture of a work to focus on little details. He eschews virtuosic displays. This approach leads to a different style of cycle from Zechlin’s. Sonoda is definitely at his best in the later works, and perhaps a bit lumbering in some of the earliest works. In this regard he reminds me of Craig Sheppard. His style wouldn’t really seem to guarantee success in some sonatas, but it frequently does. Once out of the less than ideally played very early sonatas, his approach does start to pay dividends. The first truly great sonatas – Op 10/3 and the Pathetique – come across with more than enough gravitas. The two sonatas quasi una fantasia, which might seem to suffer from Sonoda’s style, come off very well. Indeed, somehow Sonoda manages to sound too stiff and fussy in the first, yet still deliver a reading that, overall, is most satisfying! The Op 31 sonatas all sound excellent. The first opens stiff and uncompromising, but can one detect whiffs of fun? The second movement is exceptional, starting off with mockingly stiff left hand playing. And a fun closer reveals Sonoda’s true outlook. The other two sonatas in the set also work better than expected. The Waldstein ends up being a bit of a clunker, but after that Sonoda moves from strength to strength. Though Sonoda generally downplays his technique, the Appassionata is powerful and thundering. The Les Adieux, somewhat like 27/1, manages to succeed despite some mannerisms, here (perhaps) too much attention to details. Op 90 is a blockbuster reading, one of the best I’ve heard, and then the last five sonatas all sound superb. Sonoda’s attention to detail is evident, but he also manages to focus on the big picture. The Hammerklavier is energetic enough in the opening movements, searching enough in the slow movement, and a model of contrapuntal clarity in the last movement. The last sonatas all sound quite fine, even if a few quibbles show up – the big build-up in 110 isn’t big enough, the trills in 111 not clear enough. The quibbles do not, however, prevent Sonoda from playing with that late-LvB goodness the works deserve.

Sonoda’s cycle is definitely the better of the two, though I can’t say he challenges my established favorites. He is definitely above average, though. Until now, Akiyoshi Sako seemed to deliver the best cycle from Japanese pianists, but now I’m not so sure. Disregarding that ultimately inconsequential qualifier, this is an excellent cycle. As to sound, well, it’s like Zechlin’s in that it is too close and too dry, but it’s also too metallic and harsh. There’s audible ringing at times. I’m not sure if this is an accurate representation of Sonoda’s tone; I also picked up his Diabelli variations which sound more tonally refined (though it is best listened to in mono given the recording technique). I also got his Bach recordings, which have a similar sound and approach. As here, he largely succeeds there, though not perhaps as a world beater.

While my LvB collecting may have dropped off, there are still good thing out there for me to hear.

Jan-24-2016, 21:15
Ian Hobson

Ian Hobson’s cycle was never high on my list of cycles to hear. Indeed, I’d largely forgotten about it until I picked up a disc of Michel Block playing some Ravel and Falla works with Mr Hobson conducting. Alas, that disc for the Zephyr label did not find Mr Block in top form, and I found Hobson’s conducting not especially inspired. But his name popped back on the radar. So I did the (almost) inevitable and bought the New Testament. It ain’t too bad. It ain’t great, either.

The biggest problem with the set as a whole is that there’s what I can only describe as a generic sound to it. Hobson adopts generally sensible tempi – not too fast, not too slow. He plays with an attractive sound, though it’s a bit soft, blunting some of the attack where needed. His dynamics are well controlled and wide ranging, but rarely does anything really grab the listener’s attention. (Well, this listener, at any rate.) There’s heft and drive and rhythmic snap, but perhaps not quite enough. It’s largely undistinguished.

That written, I noticed one positive thing about the cycle. Hobson gets better as the cycle goes along. I definitely prefer cycles where the quality improves in the later works, but even so it’s hard to think of true standouts. The critical Op 31 sonatas all fare well, though none really engross like they should. The Appassionata is a bit broad, and much of the time lacks energy, but in certain portions, especially in the last movement, Hobson plays with real flair and power. The Hammerklavier is a bit long, but the great Adagio is very good. Even parts of Op 111, especially the second movement, sound excellent.

This is a decidedly middle of the road cycle, interpretively and qualitatively. I can think of literally dozens of cycles I prefer, though I can also think of more than a few that Hobson trumps. It wouldn’t be a bad introduction to the works for a newcomer, but I don’t see it satisfying in the long run. I’ll find out.

Sound, though, is quite good. It appears that the folks at Zephyr went for that audiophile, minimalist set-up, so the piano is a bit distant, but dynamics are excellent and tone on the full side. And though irrelevant, I must note the poor packaging. I don’t know who thought up the idea of black lettering on a charcoal gray background, but deciphering what’s on an individual disc from the cover can be challenging.