WORKS: Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 26; Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 49/1; Piano Sonata in G, Op. 49/2; Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109; Bagatelles, Op. 126
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56148 2
Some people view Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas as a triptych, though each offers a complete world in itself and a sense of culmination that calls only for silence to follow. Increasingly, record companies are catalogue-minded rather than musical in their programming, so Brendel’s disc is a convenient package. Kovacevich’s is a more thoughtful and unusual compilation, with the last set of Bagatelles, written three to four years after the Op. 109 Sonata, sharing its conciseness and philosophical maturity. The other sonatas on Kovacevich’s disc are relatively low-profile, including the two, Op. 49, each in two movements, which have often been used as teaching pieces. Op. 26 has four movements, beginning, unusually, with a set of variations – the form that ends Opp. 109 and 111 – and including, as its third movement, a funeral march ‘on the death of a hero’ which Kovacevich plays particularly stylishly, almost cavalier in his easy elegance.
He’s actually a pianist who has to work hard, though his fluency in the first movement of Op. 109 transcends any feeling that he’s interpreting a printed score and, while the Festival Hall’s Steinway has a tinny treble which pings metallically on accents, he nearly always makes a lovely sound. He’s also passionate and fiery, giving all he can, and pushing each movement as far as his imagination will stretch.
Brendel, by contrast, has a distinct air of reserve, as if he’s demonstrating how the music should go rather than performing it. If you already know and admire his playing, there’s no reason for disappointment here, for his musical judgement is not in question. It’s a matter of what kind of artist he is: I prefer one who is more personal and a pianist who doesn’t so consistently subdue his left hand and shrink from real commitment in climaxes. In the final fugal section of Op. 110, when the music should exult, Brendel seems to lose heart, and he is surprisingly reticent in the opening of Op. 111. Without the storms of life, the plateaux of spiritual calm where Brendel prefers to dwell lose a certain sense of reward. Adrian Jack