Overige 7


Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Vol 2, Nos 11 – 21

Jean Efflam Bavouzet (pf)


‘My impressions of Bavouzet are of his selfless concentration, understanding, boundless musical energy, and in everything offered his command of timing and of the glorious variety and drama of these compositions.’

Not every track on these three CDs is perfection but they proclaim an artist of exceptional calibre establishing a position as an important player of Beethoven. And without doubt he is a quite wonderful pianist, it seems to me, in his prime, with a thrust and command of brilliance and musical energy that are controlled by a most likeable personality. We’ve come to admire him in many composers, and in a touching contribution to these booklet-notes he wonders if he can justify adding another Beethoven sonata cycle to the many already available. My answer is an enthusiastic yes.

Listening to him in pieces which articulate Beethoven’s journey from his first maturity to his ‘second period’, you sense, all over again, how it obviously gave the composer pleasure to demonstrate how what is expressed is indissolubly linked to its technical execution, both for him and for the pianist; the one illuminates the other. The compositions soon leave the amateur pianist behind and indeed disregard the capacities of all would-be performers, as well as the audience. I believe it was to someone complaining the piano music was so difficult that Beethoven expressed the view that ‘struggles and difficulties were not obstacles to be avoided but welcomed as a means of reaching the heights, good features in a composition therefore, the difficulties for the performer included…since what is difficult makes one sweat’. Now go home and practise.

Characteristic of Bavouzet everywhere is an ineluctable forward movement, a thrust and passion for what is to come, in the light of what we’re hearing now and what we’ve heard a moment ago. His freshness and directness are delightful, the virtuosity often breathtaking, but his control is as much musical as technical. A truly exciting interpreter, he’s able to make you feel how the total structure of a Beethoven sonata, not just the surface, has an audible power. You may notice small lapses in acuteness of perfectly judged expression – I think very few – but the dynamic life of the music is always there, together with a concern for its character and the achievement and articulation of the larger shapes.

There are pianists who persist in abusing the Waldstein Sonata as a bravura work and I’m so glad he isn’t among them. It is the only one in the canon of 32 in which all three movements begin pianissimo, and the cumulative span of the quiet sections in the outer movements, so difficult to sustain on today’s powerful instruments, creates panoramas that have been likened by Alfred Brendel to sound-spaces unfolding before the musical eye. Beethoven’s pedalling instructions in the finale continue to fox many players, with tonic and dominant harmonies in the ‘mountain’ theme flowing into and out of each other as part of a vision of encompassing high and low, near and far, clear and obscure. The transparent opalescence Bavouzet achieves in the rondo theme is to be savoured and wondered at.

So is the prestissimo coda, at the very end, released as if from a coiled spring and as exciting as I’ve ever encountered it. Bavouzet excels in such inspirations and there are other examples at the close of the G major Sonata, Op 31 No 1, and the Pastoral Sonata, Op 28 – a particularly balletic one, this, thrown off with exceptional grace. By the time you reach such moments you have come to cherish this player’s immaculate rhythm and strict timekeeping, which has nothing to do with swallowing a metronome. Playing a tempo with this degree of élan and finish derives from a discipline that Bavouzet may have learnt to adhere to in his days of studying Ravel with Pierre Sancan at the Paris Conservatoire. Ravel would have loved it while doubtless hating every note of Beethoven.

The three sonatas in the Op 31 group are all successes, the ‘elemental’ D minor (No 2) ranking as a notable addition to its already distinguished discography. Forget the Tempest nickname, attributable to the unreliable Schindler, and follow perhaps Czerny’s supposition that the motion and character of its finale may have derived from a view of horses and riders passing by Beethoven’s window. I saw somewhere recently the E flat Sonata, Op 31 No 3, described as ‘chatty’ and liked that. Bavouzet can do many things and reminds us that Beethoven isn’t always heroic and high-minded. He had a liking for the graceful and elegant, as in this sonata’s Minuet; and there is another example in the B flat Sonata, Op 22, a work which was the composer’s farewell to the 18th century.

I mentioned small lapses in the acuteness of expression. You don’t identify them by comparing Bavouzet to Brendel or to anyone else; he is his own man. But in the first of the Sonatas quasi una fantasia, Op 27 No 1, there is a finger slip at bar 9 (second time round) in the opening section which should not be there in the finished product. And someone was nodding when it came to the English version of the pianist’s contribution to the booklet: the seven crescendos followed by a sudden drop to piano occur not in the ‘single theme of the finale’ of Op 26 but in the theme of the Variations first movement. This became a hallmark, a fingerprint, of Beethoven’s style, and in this early instance of it I have heard other pianists convey the effect better, among them Schiff and Barenboim, and Rudolf Serkin from way back.

‘Tout pour la musique, rien pour le piano.’ A fine French pianist, Yves Nat, little remembered now, said that (and he was very good in Beethoven). In sum, my impressions of Bavouzet are of his selfless concentration, understanding, boundless musical energy, and in everything offered his command of timing and of the glorious variety and drama of these compositions. I retain too a sense that their space and reach have been encompassed.

beethoven_string_quartets_vol_1_1Beethoven Complete String Quartets Vol 1

Elias String Quartet

(Wigmore Hall Live)

‘For all the boldness of both the dots and their execution, the Elias Quartet observe a certain Classical propriety which does not domesticate Beethoven’s more feral inspirations but places his innovation in its proper context.’

For all the boldness of both the dots and their execution, the Elias Quartet observe a certain Classical propriety which does not domesticate Beethoven’s more feral inspirations but places his innovation in its proper context. Done with light hands, the Trio of Op 18 No 4 has an easy-going charm that serves to accentuate the otherwise dominant key of fierce tension. Nowhere do the Elias push the tempo to unreasonable extremes; rather tone-colour is an important and individual means of expression, including pure tone and sul ponticello in the spectral Presto of Op 130 and a keening portamentothat would not feel out of place in Bartók or Ligeti and yet here gropes for tonal certainty in the dark introduction to Op 74, before the sun comes out in the Allegro and its famous ‘harp’ countermelody, which has rarely deserved the nickname less: no pretty imitation here. Still the steep and rugged passage through the development doesn’t thicken the body of their sound, which remains as distinctively slim and lithe as it was on their superb debut CD of Mendelssohn (10/09).

Those recordings were led from the front with unstinting courage by Sara Bitlloch, and I hear that quality in the slow movements especially of Op 74 and Op 130: how unafraid she is of the melodic snowline, how securely her colleagues are roped behind her. And if the Grosse Fuge is patched from this single performance, it isn’t obvious: either way it’s an astonishing achievement, to make the piece feel for once like a plausible finale and not a monolith, by giving each gesture the rhetorical space of a Bruckner finale and not grinding every dissonance into your ear. Lengthy applause is retained and deserved.

beethoven_missa_solemnis_0Beethoven Missa Solemnis  

Monteverdi Choir; Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner

(Soli Deo Gloria)

‘Such is the visceral intensity of the music-making, a certain girding of the loins may be required before a second hearing, but isn’t that precisely how it should be with a work of this power and magnitude?’

John Eliot Gardiner’s earlier recording of the Missa solemnis was a landmark event. Reviewing the disc in these columns, John Steane noted that, had it been available while he was writing his survey of recordings of the work for Choral Music on Record (Cambridge: 1991, ed Alan Blyth), he would have judged it the best of all. And, indeed, it remains a leading contender as a ‘library’ recommendation.

There are those, I know, who find that 1991 performance stronger on the work’s dramatic element than on what is rather vaguely termed its ‘spiritual dimension’. But that’s a judgement which could equally be levelled at the live 1940 Toscanini account or even Klemperer’s hair-raisingly dramatic 1951 Vox recording (6/53 – nla), a version which I’ve long thought hors concours. If we’re to distinguish between what, down the years, have been the most widely admired and collected versions of the Missa solemnis – a list which would also include Philippe Herreweghe’s memorable 1995 Harmonia Mundi recording and the famously well played and eloquently sung 1965 Karajan – it might be useful to use different terms of reference.

When Hilary Finch in The Times reviewed the live Barbican performance on which this new Gardiner recording is based, she spoke of Gardiner’s determination to reveal the sheer awe and terror within the music: ‘Praise and adoration seemed themselves by-products of fear in the blast of raw, hard-edged voices that was the Gloria.’ There is ‘awe and terror’ aplenty in that great 1951 Klemperer recording, alongside moments of deep calm and radiant beauty, as there are in this live Gardiner account. Herreweghe has always taken a more proportionate view of the music, one that (for want of a better word) is more ‘humane’. It’s also, like the earlier Gardiner version, a performance which more readily accommodates itself to the gramophone and the demands of repeated listening.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this blistering and yet at times often profoundly moving new account of the work is one which complements the 1991 version rather than supplants it. The newer version demands to be heard. Such is the visceral intensity of the music-making, a certain girding of the loins may be required before a second hearing, but isn’t that precisely how it should be with a work of this power and magnitude?

beethoven_andsnes_1Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, Choral Fantasy 

Prague Philharmonic Choir; Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes


‘The unanimity in the closing bars between Andsnes and his orchestra says it all. Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy.’

To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity, for the company has been most engaging, by turns profound and delightful. It’s a rare treat to have the Choral Fantasy as a juicy extra to the concertos. I was made more than usually aware of its original context – as the finale of the famously epic concert that also saw the premieres of, among others, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Concerto; suddenly I noticed connections between the Fantasy and the Fourth that previously passed me by. Robert Levin may be matchless in conveying the rhetoric of the extended piano opening but Andsnes manages to be lithe and spontaneous-sounding, and doesn’t overplay hints of melodrama – dangerously tempting with all those diminished sevenths scattered about. The Mahler CO wind are predictably characterful in their variations on the theme that prefigures the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the chorus are fervent without sounding too butch. That’s in part down to the performers and in part surely the recording, in that most eloquent of spaces, the Prague Rudolfinum.

The Fantasy is much more than just a handy filler but it’s the Fifth Concerto that is likely to be the real draw. So how does this one stack up? Andsnes makes his mark in the initial flourish with playing that has the requisite steel but which is tempered with a twinkle. The qualities that made the previous instalments so compelling are here too: the naturalness with which piano and orchestra meld and converse and, at times, tussle; the airiness of the textures; the subtlety of the details. The clarinet phrases (at 1’21”), for instance, dance more than those of Rattle’s BPO. And the Mahler CO’s timpanist adds to the buoyancy of effect but again subtlety is the watchword. In a way Andsnes reminds me of Schnabel in his sureness of touch, albeit in a very different style; Kissin’s point-making and self-conscious massiveness have no place here.

The string introduction to the slow movement is another glorious passage and – praise be – it’s not too slow (though I must confess to a guilty pleasure in Gilels’s rapt reading, ultra-spacious though it is). Andsnes is limpid, apparently simple, in those deliquescent phrases. But one of the most impressive aspects of this reading is the transition from slow movement to finale. So often it bumps: Pollini, Kissin…I could go on. Perahia on the other hand is just right, as is Brendel. And so is Andsnes. It helps that none of these go hell for leather in the last movement, instead imbuing the muscularity of the writing, with its ungainly rhythms, with a healthy dose of gleefulness. The unanimity in the closing bars between Andsnes and his orchestra says it all. Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy.

beethoven_diabelli_vars_0Beethoven Diabelli Variations 

András Schiff (pf)

(ECM New Series)

‘I’ve been convinced of the success with which pianist and both instruments inhabit everything undertaken here and meet its challenges. It’s an impressive achievement.’

The discography of the Diabelli Variations is already distinguished but here’s a remarkable addition to it. Two performances are offered, one on an original piano of the early 1820s (by Franz Brodmann, a little-known Viennese maker), the other on a modern grand by Bechstein, built in 1921, that has survived to our day without major restorations. Why? Because, in Schiff’s words, it’s always a joy to play on wonderful instruments, and in the course of studying Beethoven’s work he saw an opportunity to capitalise on good fortune by presenting views of it in two different sound worlds. So, take your pick: the Brodmann, if you want the experience of a lovely Hammerflügel from near the work’s source; or the beautiful Bechstein from the interwar years when concert and recording artists could enjoy a greater variety of piano sound than has existed since. I do like Schiff. He brings an agenda with him (and why not?), but throughout the double CD he delights with insights and a feast of fine playing, excellently recorded; and his focus on the music never wavers.

It’s been said that there’s no other work that contains so many different features of Beethoven’s genius. The Diabelli Variations are a tough call, and of course one wants to hear as many fine versions as one can. Brendel’s, for me, has long been a benchmark, in particular for his wondrous ease in conveying the ‘profound levity’ of late Beethoven. But Schiff’s mastery of the early piano enables him to bring to the fore another important aspect that concert performances today often overlook: their intimacy. The Viennese fortepiano, even a sophisticated example such as this, was essentially a domestic instrument. When quite close to it you can be invited to overhear the performer, and I’m sure this was Beethoven’s intention, not infrequently. In the modern concert hall, which he never knew, we tend to expect, as a norm, a projection of his piano music in terms of a constant dramatic articulation. A falsification? Well, it can be; but it never is here, and I’ll risk the suggestion, too, that Schiff’s immersion in Bach is a good direction to come from when attempting the heights and depths of these variations. Sample the ‘homage to Bach’ Fughetta (Var 24 – tr 27 on the Bechstein version on disc 1, and tr 25 on the Brodmann on disc 2). Praise be as well that appropriate acoustics have been taken into account: the chamber music hall in the Bonn Beethovenhaus is ideal for the fortepiano and the Bechstein resounds perfectly in the Auditorium of Swiss Radio in Lugano.

And there’s more. Disc 1 is completed by a fine account of Beethoven’s last sonata, the C minor, Op 111, that touches high distinction in the Arietta second movement; and the recital on the Brodmann concludes with Beethoven’s last thoughts for the piano, the Six Bagatelles, Op 126. These fit the 1820s piano like a glove, their ‘open pedal’ effects not excepted, and they glow with a range of colour, light and shade that Schiff modulates expertly.

Do not hold back. I started out with feelings of uncertainty as to the fortepiano’s adequacy to encompass the ranges of expression and sonorities explored by Beethoven in these late works. They reach out, after all, to the limits of known territory in his day. Unimportant passing reservations aside, I’ve been convinced of the success with which pianist and both instruments inhabit everything undertaken here and meet its challenges. It’s an impressive achievement.

beethoven_bax_0Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos 14 & 29

Alessio Bax (pf)


‘Even when compared to legendary performances of this sonata (Kempff, Richter, Gilels, Brendel, etc), this performance stands its ground in music to test the technique and intellect of even the greatest pianists.’

Often known as ‘the Mount Everest of the keyboard’, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata poses every conceivable problem, musically and technically (though the two are indissoluble). Even Myra Hess, a great Beethoven pianist, was daunted by its demands, leaving it to others for public performance. For Alessio Bax the challenge remains, but is superbly resolved in a reading of a formidable pace and impetus yet leaving ample time for expressive resource. His opening Allegro is like a river in full spate (though sharply focused rather than, as in Schnabel’s case, a frenetic race against the clock). At the same time the great Adagio sostenuto, appassionato e con molto sentimento is just that, finely shaded and tautly disciplined, while Bax’s final fugue, rapid and resolute, is, as Stravinsky put it, ‘contemporary forever’. Even when compared to legendary performances of this sonata (Kempff, Richter, Gilels, Brendel, etc), this performance stands its ground in music to test the technique and intellect of even the greatest pianists.

Bax’s Moonlight Sonata opens with a fast-flowing andante rather than adagio, yet the playing is so fine-toned and poetically responsive that it creates its own classic sheen. His central Allegretto is bright and perky (quite without, say, Arrau’s over-emphasis) and in the finale he creates a furious tempest of sound, with sforzando chords at the apex of each phrase like pistol shots. For a step into the light there are two Beethoven-Bax encores, the Chorus of the Whirling Dervishes and Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, both as dazzling as they are witty (the former with an Alkanesque turn of mind). Finely recorded, Alessio Bax is clearly among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public.

beethoven_complete_cello_sonatas_1Beethoven Complete Cello Sonatas and Variations

Matt Haimovitz (vc) / Christopher O’Riley (fp)


‘Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley play the living daylights out of these works. They lap up Beethoven’s combative style like hungry lions anticipating raw steak.’

Cellist Matt Haimovitz prefaces his period-instrument Beethoven cycle with an absorbing essay, writing that ‘the consideration is no longer the modern-day “how can the cello cut through the multi-voiced powerhouse of a concert grand piano”, but “how can it make room for the nuances of the 19th-century fortepiano?”’ Good engineering also helps, and Pentatone’s vividly resonant production captures the music’s wide dynamic range with comparable clarity and heft to the two Bylsma editions, and surpasses the slightly dry and close-up Isserlis/Levin cycle.

More significantly, Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley play the living daylights out of these works. They lap up Beethoven’s combative style like hungry lions anticipating raw steak, relishing the composer’s frequent subito dynamics, unpredictable placement of accents and over-the-bar-line phrase groupings. Rarely has Op 5 No 1’s first-movement introduction come alive with such rhythmic character, while the rollicking yet relaxed repartee of Op 5 No 2’s Rondo underlines the music’s kinship to the Fourth Piano Concerto’s finale. Similar attention to detail adds intensity and colour to the off-beat accents in Op 69’s Scherzo, and the Allegro vivace’s playful demeanor (complete with scrupulously observed staccatos) makes for a brash contrast to the eloquence and nobility one normally encounters. If the duo pile into Op 102 No 1’s Allegro vivace too aggressively for certain pitches to register, the joyous, uplifting mood conveyed by their briskly paced Op 102 No 2 final fugue’s transparency and sophisticated phraseology is worth this release’s total price.

Terrific performances of the variation sets prove more than merely filler. If you want a HIP counterpart to the Maisky/Argerich cycle, look no further.

beethoven_solo_concertosBeethoven ‘The Solo Concertos’

Vienna Chamber Orchestra / Stefan Vladar pf 


A complete set of Beethoven concertos – given the catalogue – is always a bold offering, but Vladar excels here, with performances full of colour and charm.

If you fancy a set of the Beethoven piano concertos that’s suitable for listening to at a single sitting, then look no further. The ingredients are ideal for the job: abundant energy; bold, clear-sighted interpretation; brilliant though intelligently deployed pianism; poetic handling of the various slow movements; vital conducting and orchestral playing that fits the ‘chamber orchestra’ template like a glove. I loved it; and, while hardly tempted to bin my Arraus, Brendels, Kempffs, Serkins or Schnabels (to mention merely a handful of classic complete sets of the complete piano concertos), Stefan Vladar’s refresher course held me captive for the duration.

The First Concerto provides a convenient initial sampling point, with its well-paced, dynamically inflected opening tutti and the way Vladar, having conducted what we’ve heard thus far, announces himself (2’37”) – crisply, elegantly and with confidence. Note the badinage with the orchestra, the suddenly drumming accompaniment at 3’40” and the gaiety of the closing Rondo.

Vladar finds more light and shade than do many of his rivals in the Second Concerto’s opening and his way with the first movement is abundantly playful. Again the closing Rondo, truly a molto allegro, serves as a celebratory finale. Had I to cite two of the slow movements that Vladar performs with especial sensitivity they would be the romantic hearts of the Third and Fifth (Emperor) concertos, the former at 2’28” where the music assumes an almost bel canto level of lyrical intensity. Again, note how Vladar faces his orchestra to cue some expressive interlinking passages. The Emperor’s Adagiois similarly poignant and with every note perfectly placed.

The sublime busyness of the Fourth Concerto’s first movement is kept fully up to speed, not unlike Serkin’s mono CBS recording (under Ormandy – nla). In the slow movement I would have welcomed rather more gravitas around the growling interjections that encourage the soloist’s humble pleading – Vladar keeps his strings rather too light and clipped – and when the piano trills that follow prompt a spiralling swirl of reaction, you should feel emotionally drained. Here you don’t.

The Triple Concerto with violinist Isabelle van Keulen and cellist Julian Steckel has the intimate, animated feel of a family affair about it – you hear so much. Then van Keulen goes solo in the Violin Concerto, using her own arrangement of the first-movement cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his piano version of the work. It’s a good performance, very good at times, intelligent, mobile, tonally bright and with excellent trills, and van Keulen makes that cadenza sound fairly convincing (not everyone does). She adds the two Romances, the Second of which sounds uncomfortably fast.

To be honest I’d treat this last CD as something of a bonus: Vladar’s conducting is again excellent but it’s his playing and conducting of the piano and Triple concertos that really makes the grade. The sound is very realistic, though be warned that the piano is very much upfront. An exceptional set.

Het leven & de muziek van Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) op Compact Discs, DVD's en Boeken

%d bloggers liken dit: