Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Opp. 14/2, 27/1, 27/2 (Moonlight), 81a (Les adieux), 10/1, 22 & 31/3

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: GM Recordings
WORKS: Piano Sonatas, Opp. 14/2, 27/1, 27/2 (Moonlight), 81a (Les adieux), 10/1, 22 & 31/3
PERFORMER: Russell Sherman (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: GM 2067
Who needs more Beethoven cycles? What new insights can the pianist offer? And do we want novelties anyway? Most novelties are mere mannerisms. We want Beethoven, not Beethoven on ice, and we already have Kempff, Schnabel, Brendel, etc.

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Russell Sherman asks such questions in his CD booklet, and comes up with a complicated answer to which I refer the reader. He plays well enough to stop us asking them for a while. Not that he hasn’t an ear for novelty. He is a hard-driving, even macho pianist who sometimes reveals impatience with conventionally ‘beautiful’ slow movements. The Adagio of Op. 27/1, for example, is halting to an almost gratuitous degree. Anyone can play beautifully, he seems to say. If only. But mostly his sound is clean and fresh, robust yet feeling.

Louis Lortie inclines towards a softer version of Beethoven, graceful, sophisticated, the urbane companion that the composer was not. He dabs rather, and can sound a shade too exquisite, but is also attractively light and agile.

Lortie shares with Sherman a tendency to interpret by suggestion, achieved by a host of unexpected pauses and rubatos. Daniel Barenboim, back in the recording palaeolithic (1966) and brimming with joyous self-confidence, wouldn’t have stooped to such portentous prevarication. Flashy he may be, but his playing still reverberates with a directness and ferocity that leave one gasping.

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Out of all the hundreds, my benchmark is Kempff (1965), but with two more on the pile such choices are ever more difficult. Christopher Wood