Beethoven: Piano Sonatas; Eroica Variations, Op. 35; Electoral Sonata No. 1; Electoral Sonata No. 2, WoO 47

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Piano Sonatas; Eroica Variations, Op. 35; Electoral Sonata No. 1; Electoral Sonata No. 2, WoO 47
PERFORMER: Emil Gilels (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 453 221-2
It’s a tribute to the astonishing diversity of Beethoven’s sonatas that any pianist wanting to undertake a complete cycle feels the need to assign a specific character to each individual work. To Anton Kuerti, the opening movement of the G major Sonata Op. 31/1 is like some cartoon game of cat and mouse, with a coda that leaves only the grin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat behind; while Sherman, who, like Kuerti, has written his own programme notes, sees this comic masterpiece as a ‘robotic joust and carnival, … the mirth of jesters and jugglers, the collision of the earthly with the prior abstract.’ ‘Meanwhile,’ Sherman continues, ‘back on the analytical front [sic!], the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the music entwine in a variety of Kama Sutra positions.’ Fortunately, Sherman’s playing is somewhat less convoluted than his prose.

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Kuerti seems to me to have judged Op. 31/1’s first movement to perfection, and his performance has all the humour the music needs. He is persuasive elsewhere in the cycle, too: the opening Allegro of the Sonata Op. 2/3 is imaginatively shaped and played with just the right amount of expressive shading; the first movement of that later C major Sonata, the Waldstein, is superbly handled; and in the first movement of the Appassionata Kuerti finds just the right intensity. So far so good; but, alas, Kuerti seems to think that the slower and more softly he plays Beethoven’s slow movements, the more profound they will be. Not so: the Adagio of Op. 31/1 plods unbearably, while the middle movement of the Tempest, Op. 31/2 is stultifyingly static, with the melodic line failing utterly to sing. Nor are these isolated instances: Kuerti treats every single slow movement or slow introduction as if it were a dirge, and the same approach even spills over into the occasional quicker piece: the absurdly languorous performance of the Moonlight’s Allegretto middle movement, for instance, and the ponderously-handled opening movement of the Sonata Op. 111.

Kuerti’s recordings were made in the mid-Seventies, so there is some excuse for the rather shallow piano sound. Not so in the case of the first instalment of Russell Sherman’s new Beethoven cycle. Here, the piano is distant and harsh, militating against the promise of the producer (no lesser a personage than Gunther Schuller) that listening to these performances will be some sort of epiphany. Rather than present the works in chronological order, Sherman commendably includes an early, a middle and a late sonata on each disc. His performances are nothing if not idiosyncratic – occasionally thought-provoking, but more often infuriating. Particularly irritating is Sherman’s spasmodic jerkiness: the middle section of the Adagio in Op. 31/1 lurches forward so much as to sound like something out of another piece altogether, while the rubato in the Rondo theme of the same sonata’s finale is mannered to the point of absurdity. The same goes for the Rondo of the little E major Sonata Op. 14/1, as well as the Adagio sections from the opening movement of the Sonata in the same key, Op. 109. For all their laudable intentions, these performances are unlikely to make much of an impact in what is a crowded field.

There is some irony in the fact that the single autograph reproduction in the booklet accompanying DG’s re-release of Gilels’s Beethoven recordings comes from Op. 111, since this was one of the few sonatas Gilels had still to record at the time of his sudden death in 1985. (The others were Op. 2/1, Op. 14/1 and the two-movement F major Sonata, Op. 54.) There is a directness and a commanding authority about this playing that make it compulsive listening, even if one doesn’t always agree with certain aspects of the interpretations themselves. The grace and charm of the early Op. 2 sonatas, the limpid and unsentimental playing in the Adagio of the Pathétique, Op. 13, the arching phrases in the Hammerklavier’s great Adagio, the melancholy performance of the Op. 109 Sonata (one of Gilels’s very last recordings) – all these, and many more, are a joy to hear. Less easy to accept are Gilels’s slow tempi in the first two movements of the Hammerklavier, though his steady speed for the concluding fugue makes this music sound more manic than ever. There are other quirks of interpretation, too: the extraordinarily slow opening movement of the Appassionata, ignoring the indicated increase in tempo for the coda; and the disappointingly unadventurous use of the sustaining pedal in the finale of the Waldstein. But these are small points in a distinguished set of recordings and, in compensation for the four missing sonatas, DG have included Gilels’s magisterial performance of the Eroica variations.

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Last, but by no means least, is the start of a new cycle from the young Chilean pianist Alfredo Perl. This is playing of exceptional warmth and musicality, and the beauty of Perl’s tone (helped by an excellent recording) is striking. The performances of the three Op. 10 sonatas are first-class, and the Pathétique and Moonlight are among the best I have heard. Less impressive is the Op. 26 Sonata, whose first three movements sound rather studied, and the opening movement in the last two sonatas of Op. 2 is just a shade too relaxed for discomfort. But these recordings would be urgent recommendations regardless of expense. At bargain price, they are irresistible.