Beethoven: Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 81a (Les adieux); Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Bagatelles, Op. 119

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 81a (Les adieux); Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Bagatelles, Op. 119
PERFORMER: Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 5 57520 2
It’s remarkable that so many fine recordings of the Hammerklavier exist, since the work – Beethoven’s single most titanic creation – fits perhaps more closely than any other Artur Schnabel’s definition of a certain type of musical masterpiece as being ‘better than it can be performed’. Kovacevich’s should certainly be added to the Op. 106 shortlist: in my view it’s the crowning achievement of his EMI Beethoven sonata cycle, displaying all his peculiar greatness as a Beethoven player.

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This is an immensely daring performance – the imperious con moto opening statements announce no less – with a risk-taking urgency of motivic articulation and rhythmic attack that betokens a readiness to go to the limits, the pianist’s own and the music’s equally. But paradoxically it’s not a driven performance: moments of ‘breathing’ – wonderfully simple cantabile utterances in the scherzo and Adagio – point to total Beethovenian empathy, a complete command of all four movements as an evolving musical drama. The spacious recording threatens to become overloaded only at peak moments of the finale’s fugal cut-and-thrust.

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The disc also offers one of the best of all Les adieux recordings, and an unbeatable set of the Op. 119 Bagatelles. Comparisons with the pianist’s excellent Bagatelle recordings a quarter-century earlier (Philips) underlines the mature Kovacevich’s infinitely deepened artistry: the knack of mining all the quirky humour and tenderness in these self-confessed trifles is here unsurpassed. My benchmarks for the sonatas notwithstanding – Solomon for Op. 106, Perahia, currently difficult to track down, for Op. 81a (and on this level of execution such recommendations count as personal preferences, not inscribed-in-stone judgements) – this is one of the most completely rewarding Beethoven issues of recent times.