Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110
PERFORMER: Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: PR 254 023 ADD
Brendel can be the most intelligent of Beethoven pianists but he can also disappoint, as some of the performances in his two earlier recorded surveys of the sonatas have shown. Both the Waldstein and the F major Sonata Op. 54 are given strong, thought-provoking readings in the second instalment of this, his third complete cycle. In the Waldstein, a sure sense of direction is established early, and the forceful, tension-sprung momentum of the opening Allegro con brio resurfaces in the last movement to compelling effect. Brendel generates a powerful sense of expectation in the terse, central Adagio, although he slightly underplays the lovely, flowing tune of the Rondo. A similar controlled energy characterises the F major Sonata, revealed here as a much more experimental, forward-looking work than its two short movements might suggest. The A major, however, recorded five months earlier, receives a rather literal performance, lacking penetration in the brief, profound Adagio and excitement in the fugal writing of the finale.

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Unlike Brendel, Richter avoids the recording studio, but four new discs on the Praga label (Praga PR 254 020/021/022/023, distributed by Harmonia Mundi) offer the chance to hear him playing Beethoven live in previously unreleased Czech recordings made between 1959 and 1986. Ten sonatas are included on the discs, and best recorded is a steel-fingered 1986 performance of the Diabelli Variations, generously coupled with the Op. 110 Sonata in A flat. Sound quality is inevitably variable (though never less than acceptable), while the performances combine a remarkable clarity, sharp dynamic contrasts and a unique sense of fantasy. Strongly recommended. David Michaels