String Trios, Op 9 No 1, Op 9 No 3, Op 3
Leonid Kogan vn Rudolf Barshai va Mstislav Rostropovich vc
Here is the latest instalment of Supraphon’s issue of classic concerts given in Prague in the 1950s and ’60s. This one dates from June 2, 1960, at the Prague Spring International Music Festival. And what a line-up: three supreme Soviet artists, for whom Czechoslovakia represented a taste of freedom while the West remained out of bounds. And there’s freedom aplenty in these vigorous, highly charged performances: just sample the concluding Presto of Op 9 No 1 or the opening movement of the E flat major Trio, Op 3. These are strong-jawed readings with a great sense of purpose and, even when some of the details are a bit shaky (and tuning and ensemble less than pristine), they are never less than compelling.
In the opening movement of the C minor Trio, Op 9 No 3, the players dig into the cragginess of Beethoven’s writing. Yes, the Leopold Trio offer a cleaner, more refined approach that’s easier to live with, but this gets to the heart of the matter. Another asset to this set is the violinist himself, Leonid Kogan, whose tone is searing in its intensity.
What is less easy to live with is the rubato, particularly in the slower movements (the Adagio of Op 9 No 1 being a case in point). Here, the Leopold Trio are all the more effective for letting the music speak for itself. However, if it’s Russian temperament that you want, it’s worth seeking out the readings from Oleg Kagan, Yuri Bashmet and Natalia Gutman on Live Classics, over-reverberant acoustic notwithstanding. But this new release captures a compelling moment in history: it must have been some evening!
Complete Works for Cello & Piano
Adrian Brendel vc Alfred Brendel pf
The Brendels, father and son, give us Beethoven’s complete works for piano and cello. You’ll have to search long and hard to hear performances of a comparable warmth and humanity or joy in music-making. Sumptuously recorded and lavishly presented (including engaging family photographs), the sonatas are offered in a sequence that gives the listener an increased sense of Beethoven’s awe-inspiring scope and range.
CD 1 juxtaposes early, middle and late sonatas with a joyous encore in the Variations on Mozart’s ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. CD 2 gives us the Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, continues with the remaining two sonatas and ends with the other Magic Flute Variations, on ‘Bei Männern’.
Pianist and cellist are united by a rare unity of purpose and stylistic consistency, whether in strength and exuberance, an enriching sense of complexity or in other-worldly calm (often abruptly terminated). What eloquence they achieve in the opening Adagio of the Second Sonata, what musical energy in the following Allegro molto tanto presto, instances where Beet-hoven’s volatility is always tempered by the Brendels’ seasoned musicianship.
In Op 102 No 2 Beethoven’s far-reaching and still bewildering utterance, there is a quiet strength and lucidity; time and again a direction such as Allegro vivace is exactly that and not stretched, as in more urgently, even neurotically, propelled performances. Their glowing expressiveness at 10’57” in Sonata No 3 is ‘interior’ yet never at the expense of impetus, and Adrian Brendel’s ad libitum lead into the concluding Allegro is memorable – improvisatory and relaxed. Both players display rhythmic resilience in the final Rondo from Sonata No 1, and what open-hearted delight and joie de vivre there is in the sets of variations. The Brendels offer an invaluable additions to the recordings of these masterpieces.
Complete Works for Cello & Piano
Xavier Phillips vc François-Frédéric Guy pf
This is the third instalment in François-Frédéric Guy’s traversal of Beethoven and the first to delve into the chamber music. He is well matched in intellect, musicianship and temperament by cellist Xavier Phillips as they journey from the ridiculous (the Variations on ‘See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes’, in which Guy dispatches the virtuoso piano part with complete aplomb, to delectable effect) to the sublime (the Op 102 Sonatas). The two sets of variations on themes from Mozart’s Magic Flute are a very different proposition from the ‘Conqu’ring Hero’ but just as persuasive, with the Op 66 set given a particularly sparkling reading.
Competition is of course thick on the ground, not least from Isserlis and Levin (playing a tremendously characterful McNulty fortepiano), which was an obvious choice for Record of the Month in February 2014. But Phillips and Guy deserve that accolade just as richly and their utterly different sound world is equally riveting.
From the same year as the ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Variations come the two Op 5 Sonatas with which Beethoven embraced the genre of sonata for piano and cello for the first time. In the opening Adagio sostenuto of Op 5 No 1, Phillips and Guy conjure up the sense of a genre being formed before your very ears. Compelling too is their reactivity, Guy never stealing the limelight from Phillips, though it would be easy to do so, particularly in the first two sonatas, in which the piano’s role is more overtly brilliant. The First Sonata’s Rondo is a highlight, with a real one-in-a-bar swing, the minor touches given due prominence. By comparison, both Müller-Schott/Hewitt and Qin/Tiu sound too well behaved; Isserlis and Levin are also a degree steadier but they offset this with some fantastically imaginative keyboard colours. But when it comes to judging the final moments, with the gentle ‘dissolve’ into a meditative mood that is then boisterously cast aside, Guy and Phillips are unassailable. The finale of Op 5 No 2 also has a wonderful elasticity, combining mischievousness with ardent tenderness as Beethoven demands. We’re made acutely aware of the different air breathed in each sonata. Phillips imbues the opening of Op 69 with a confiding quality that is just right: Müller-Schott is a tad more tentative, though both have a songful beauty of tone in their upper registers. In the same work’sScherzo, incidentally, Guy chooses (like Hewitt) not to repeat the tied notes where Beethoven marks a change of fingering, a feature which both Levin and Tiu observe.
One of the finest aspects of this new set is a sense of absolute rightness about each of the tempi chosen. The slow movement of Op 69, for instance, possesses a natural songfulness alongside which Müller-Schott/Hewitt and Qin/Tiu sound somewhat effortful; this contrasts splendidly with an ebulliently quick finale, neither player ever sounding puffed. The C major Sonata, Op 102 No 1, is just as impressive: it unfolds with a sense of total inevitability, its frequently gnarly world view convincingly conveyed, while the brief Adagio has a prayerful intensity.
And if you want to sample the seamless responsiveness of this partnership, just listen to the opening of Op 102 No 2, with its quicksilver changes of mood, from gruff good humour to elegant yearning and then back again to a kind of tart playfulness. The development, in which Beethoven conducts outlandish experiments on the briefest of motifs, is again judged to a nicety – Phillips’s deep sforzato accents slicing through the texture without becoming aggressive.
There follows one of Beethoven’s great late slow movements. Phillips and Guy shape its arching, aching lines with great intensity. Isserlis and Levin are a tad faster and the cellist’s use of vibrato only as an expressive effect is very striking. The test point with this Adagio is the espressivo melody introduced by piano and then joined by cello. Too slow and it sags like perished elastic, but not in the hands of Phillips and Guy (disc 2, tr 7, 0’56”). But then turn to du Pré and Barenboim and you find something more miraculous still: at a recklessly spacious tempo they turn it into a profoundly moving prayer. The close of the movement, a Beethovenian question mark, is answered by a fugal finale which in this new version has wondrous airiness and energy without trenchancy. It’s a recording that brings this sublime music into your living room in the most natural manner possible, and I can’t wait for Vol 4 of the series. Terrific!
Steven Isserlis vc Robert Levin fp
A cellist who tends towards introversion; a fortepianist who tends the other way. Put them together and something magical happens within the tensions they engender. Beethoven’s directions for the introduction to Op 102 No 1 are explicit – Andante, softly singing, sweetly, tenderly – and Steven Isserlis, playing a gut-strung 1726 Stradivarius, invokes its beauty in hushed, withdrawn tones. Robert Levin, the moderator on Paul McNulty’s copy of a 1805 Walter & Sohn instrument equalising dynamics, matches him in essence and aura. Think of repose in C major for 27 bars until the switch to the main movement; and the sudden shock of a fortissimo chord in A minor is ruder than it would be on a modern piano. No politesse from Levin. What follows is an untrammelled Allegro vivace, two-in-a-bar as marked, tempo changes graphic, every sforzando or accent stabbing the texture, Isserlis unfurling the vehemence also implicit in his lines.
Recover from the onslaught and return to the beginning, to Op 5 No 1. Repose in C major wasn’t a one-off. It manifests itself again, but now in F major and at a slower tempo, Adagio sostenuto. Isserlis has the theme but Levin is no mere accompanist, fastidious in his role as a partner yet one who never overwhelms the cello, even in the chords and roulades during a brief spell of agitation towards the end of this introduction. Rapid pacing isn’t demanded in the ensuing Allegro – now a plain instruction without an oft-added stipulation, and in common time – of mercurial moods ever present; and laid bare by a duo with no inhibitions about extremes in expressive flexibility.
What did Beethoven often add? Try Allegro molto più tosto presto in the first movement of Op 2 No 2. Pretty quick, pretty specific about how quick too; but Isserlis and Levin are also thoughtful in ensuring that the running triplets for the keyboard aren’t reduced to a frantic, unchecked clatter. Yet power and thrust are unassailable, reinforced by lacerating bowing from Isserlis in the development where screws are tightened – in a movement believed to be one of Beethoven’s most notable achievements, no less so for its expectantly prefaced, grandly fantasia-like 44-bar Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo, for Isserlis and Levin an arch, declamatory and lyrical. With something more – a trenchant edge, probably arising from the timbres of the fortepiano, its light action and fast transients.
It can sing too. Try Allegro ma non tanto, the direction for the first movement of Op 69, probably the best-known work in the set. Isserlis leads expansively, the melody marked p dolce, which is matched by Levin whose part is similarly marked, both locking in to a breadth of scale as suggested by the tempo qualification. Not only does breadth equal magnitude, it includes leeway too. We’re back to expressive flexibility; and we stay with individuals who speak as corporate souls. Tenderness to turbulence, the frames of mind or spirit alter and are neither ignored nor glossed over. Instead they are profoundly felt and candidly declared, through dynamics spanned across the grades end to end, tempi stretched and snapped back into a pulse that doesn’t sag or lose grip. Pick this movement if you fancy trying before buying. But be warned: attracted or repelled, Beethoven may well have the last word. He advocated Gehfühlstempo, the tempo of feeling.
Thus it is that kaleidoscopic distinctions are never underestimated. Neither is attention to detail. Repeats are observed, some decorated. Reactions to emotional currents governing the expansion and contraction of phrases are unflinchingly dramatic. The pliant line is always present, introspectively so in the slow movement of Op 102 No 2, Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto, for Anton Schindler ‘among the richest and most deeply sensitive inspirations of Beethoven’s muse’, its third section (from 6’21”) a whispered exchange between the musicians. In contrast is the Scherzo of Op 69 – with a difference, not new to disc but now far more resolutely proffered. The second of two similar notes tied across bar-lines isn’t silent, for, according to Czerny, Beethoven wanted it to resound like a vibrato. Levin varies his choice of pairs, Isserlis does not; and his repetitions are like echoes feverishly urging the music onwards.
Theirs is a shared experience of audacity and spirituality. Small changes in recorded levels plus a few sniffs are insignificant. They don’t detract from the riches born of scant regard for the superficiality of toeing conventional lines or selecting safe options, shared with listeners in even the less mighty works, the variations and Horn Sonata. This is Beethoven fleshed out by Levin and Isserlis – and anodyne he ain’t here.
Violin Sonatas, Vols 1-3
Alina Ibragimova vn Cédric Tiberghien pf
Wigmore Hall Live
Review of Vol 3: This third disc concludes Ibragimova and Tiberghien’s live set of the Beethoven sonatas. The qualities of the earlier instalments (8/10, 12/10) – polished technique, spontaneity and deep engagement with the music – are as strongly apparent here. One small illustration will demonstrate the special character of these performances. The fourth of the final variations of Sonata No 6 begins with three unaccompanied violin chords played piano. Often, violinists seem embarrassed by these, or else create a somewhat eccentric effect. Not so Alina Ibragimova, who gives them the character of tentative, fearful steps into the unknown, to be reassured by Tiberghien’s suave reply. The following minor-key variation shows how both players can bring flexibility and fluidity to their performance, with the confidence that they will be sympathetically accompanied.
By comparison, the excellent studio set by Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov appears more studied. In the middle section of Sonata No 3’s Adagio, each of their perdendoso phrases ends in a ghostly whisper – a wonderful effect. Ibragimova and Tiberghien don’t attempt anything so extreme but their playing has a powerful sense of progress through the series of modulations, born, I imagine, out of the intensity of live performance. In the finales of this sonata and of the Kreutzer, Faust and Melnikov are slightly faster and more brilliant but Tiberghien and Ibragimova, with superb poise and control, appear more carefree and joyful. And their account of the Kreutzer’s first movement, with its Furtwängler-like broadening at the climax of the coda, unmistakably exposes the music’s portrayal of emotional turmoil.
Complete Violin Sonatas
Isabelle Faust vn Alexander Melnikov pf
The musical sleight of hand used by these expert players to focus the very different character of each sonata is in itself cause for wonder. Though quite different as musical personalities – Faust, subtle and quietly formal; Melnikov, a master of the meaningful pause – the combination of the two fires a laser between the staves. Fleetness and elegance are very much to the fore in the Op 12 set, beauty of tone, too, especially in the First Sonata.
The Spring Sonata is lyrical and playful, the opening as easy-going as anyone could wish, the Adagio like a song without words, Faust’s tone warming but relatively restrained, Melnikov a discreetly supportive partner. The more dramatic sonatas are muscular yet very light on their feet. The A minor, Op 23, is Sturm und Drang with a vengeance, and both players make a point of (metaphorically) pursing their lips: in fact, you sometimes feel that what isn’t being expressed outweighs what is. Of the three Op 30 sonatas, the kernel is the C minor, where Faust and Melnikov strike a perfect balance between fire and ice. Their little “freedoms” are very telling but although the shaping of phrases is obviously the product of considered teamwork, you never feel that they’re playing safe. Cautious Beethoven makes for a very passionless partnership, and there’s no sense of that.
For many, the success of any recorded Beethoven violin sonata cycle rests on the effectiveness of its Kreutzer, and again Faust and Melnikov make the grade with oodles of drama and well judged tempi: nothing is too fast for comfort or too slow to get airborne. The Kreutzer shares its silver-disc space with a documentary DVD which is both musically revealing and entertaining – but I shan’t let on and spoil the fun! Airy, well balanced sound provides a realistic aural context for what may well prove the leading Beethoven violin sonata cycle of the decade, certainly one that respectfully challenges conventions so that even collectors wedded to their Kreisler, Grumiaux, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Kremer and Szigeti cycles stand to learn and be musically stimulated. A marvellous set.
Complete Piano Sonatas. Eroica Variations. Diabelli Variations. Six Bagatelles
Friedrich Gulda pf
Orfeo’s nine-disc set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas (plus the Eroica and Diabelli Variations, and the Bagatelles Op 126, all from 1957) is no mere duplication of what we already have. Indeed, this 1953-54 Austrian Radio sonata cycle falls almost exactly midway between the constituent parts of the Gulda cycle that Decca issued on LP and subsequently reissued as an 11-disc set in its “Original Masters” series. Oddly enough the first point of contrast to hit home, specifically in the early sonatas, is the enormous superiority of Orfeo’s recordings, which are clearer, better focused and generally far more listenable than their Decca counterparts. As to the performances, I would cite in particular the slow movement of Op 7 which has greater breadth than on the 1957 Decca stereo recording (Gulda’s Amadeo version was swifter even than the Decca), and where the poise and pacing are, to my ears, pretty close to perfect.
The first movement of the Decca Moonlight, infamous in its day, swims in a sea of sustain pedal, an effect that Gulda hadn’t yet hit upon in the early Fifties, much to my relief. The Tempest, Waldsteinand Appassionata sonatas are startlingly red-blooded (the Waldstein’s first movement in particular is charged with an unusually high level of nervous energy) and the later sonatas capture that almost inexpressible combination of physical confrontation and spiritual engagement that only the greatest Beethovenians can muster. Gulda was always at his best in the last three sonatas but his Decca Hammerklavier, for all its trimness and brilliance, rarely matches this one for impact, while the later Diabelli, although hugely energetic where needs be, is less relentless than Gulda’s airless later recording which made a brief appearance here on a Harmonia Mundi CD. Gulda could charm, too, and I would challenge anyone to find a more lyrical reading of the G major Sonata Op 14 No 2, save perhaps Gulda’s 1959 radio recording recently put out on Audite. It is hardly credible that all this interpretative accomplishment was achieved by a pianist who, at the time, was still only in his early twenties, and who would subsequently divide his musical activities between the Viennese classics and varieties of jazz. There are certain records that seem to capture the very moment when a fledgling virtuoso first confronts a great corpus of musical work, and this marvellous set represents such a confrontation. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Complete Piano Sonatas
Wilhelm Kempff pf
Wilhelm Kempff was the most inspirational of Beethoven pianists. Those who have cherished his earlier stereo cycle for its magical spontaneity will find Kempff’s qualities even more intensely conveyed in this mono set, recorded between 1951 and 1956. Amazingly the sound has more body and warmth than the stereo, with Kempff’s unmatched transparency and clarity of articulation even more vividly caught, both in sparkling Allegros and in deeply dedicated slow movements. If in places he’s even more personal, some might say wilful, regularly surprising you with a new revelation, the magnetism is even more intense, as in the great Adagio of the Hammerklavier or the final variations of Op 111, at once more rapt and more impulsive, flowing more freely. The bonus disc, entitled ‘An All-Round Musician’, celebrates Kempff’s achievement in words and music, on the organ in Bach, on the piano in Brahms and Chopin as well as in a Bachian improvisation, all sounding exceptionally transparent and lyrical. Fascinatingly, his pre-war recordings of the Beethoven sonatas on 78s are represented too. Here we have his 1936 recording of the Pathétique, with the central Adagio markedly broader and more heavily pointed than in the mono LP version of 20 years later.
Complete Piano Sonatas
Artur Schnabel pf
Schnabel was almost ideologically committed to extreme tempos; something you might say Beethoven’s music thrives on, always provided the interpreter can bring it off. By and large he did. There are some famous gabbles in this sonata cycle, notably at the start of the Hammerklavier, with him going for broke. In fact, Schnabel also held that ‘It is a mistake to imagine that all notes should be played with equal intensity or even be clearly audible. In order to clarify the music it is often necessary to make certain notes obscure.’ If it’s true, as some contemporary witnesses aver, that Schnabel was a flawless wizard in the period pre-1930, there’s still plenty of wizardry left in these post-1930 Beethoven recordings. They are virtuoso readings that demonstrate a blazing intensity of interpretative vision as well as breathtaking manner of execution. Even when a dazzlingly articulate reading like that of the Waldstein is home and dry, the abiding impression in its aftermath is one of Schnabel’s (and Beethoven’s) astonishing physical and imaginative daring. And if this suggests recklessness, well, in many other instances the facts are quite other, for Schnabel has a great sense of decorum. He can, in many of the smaller sonatas and some of the late ones, be impeccably mannered, stylish and urbane. Equally he can be devilish or coarse. At the other extreme, he’s indubitably the master of the genuinely slow movement. For the recorded sound, there’s nothing that can be done about the occasional patch of wow or discoloration but, in general, the old recordings come up very freshly.
Complete Piano Sonatas
Paul Lewis pf
Review of Vol 4: Only an extended essay could do justice to the fourth and final volume of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven sonata cycle. But space, sometimes the critic’s friend, here his enemy, forbids much beyond generalisation when faced with such overall mastery and distinction. Like me, you may well cherish your beloved sets by Schnabel, Kempff and Brendel (to name but three), but Lewis surely gives you the best of all possible worlds; one devoid of idiosyncrasy yet of a deeply personal musicianship.
Where else can you hear Op 10 No 2’s madcap finale given with such unfaltering lucidity and precision? Try Op 28’s finale for an ultimate pianistic and musical finesse or the opening Allegro where Lewis makes you conscious of how the music’s gracious and mellifluous unfolding is momentarily clouded by mystery and energised by drama. In such hands the final pages of Op 111 do indeed become “a drift towards the shores of Paradise” (Edward Sackville-West) and throughout all these performances you sense how “the great effort of interpretation” (Michael Tippett) is resolved in playing of a haunting poetic commitment and devotion. Such playing is hardly for lovers of histrionics or inflated rhetoric, but rather for those in search of other deeper, more refreshing attributes, for Beethoven’s inner light and spirit. Somehow Lewis’s quiet and distinctive voice can lift even the most familiar phrase on to another sphere and his playing throughout, shorn of accretion, makes all these sonatas shine with their first radiance and eloquence. Admirably recorded, this three-disc set is crowned with a scholarly and illuminating essay by Jean-Paul Montagnier.