Paavali Jumppanen performs Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Ondine
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 16-18, Op. 31; Nos 24-27, Opp. 78, 79, 81a & 90
PERFORMER: Paavali Jumppanen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ODE 12902 D

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I listened to these two discs shortly after I had heard, several times, the latest instalment of Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven series (reviewed here). The contrast was, and remained, acute. Where Biss mainly plays music of the Classical period, with forays into Janáček, Paavali Jumppanen is a Boulezian who also plays 19th-century music. Yet I find his playing and interpretation, at any rate on this pair of discs, disconcertingly staid. After Biss most pianists might well seem routine, but with innumerable recordings and live performances of these inexhaustible works, one does hope for something fresh and illuminating, and mainly my hope wasn’t fulfilled. 

Jumppanen plays a sumptuous Steinway, so the sound is wonderful, as is Ondine’s close but not too close recording. He has a tendency to play loud passages very loudly, while quiet ones are almost always mezzo-piano. That means that the lovely Op. 90 Sonata emerges quite without character, or anyway not its own. The two small sonatas, Opp. 78 and 79, are also decent in these accounts, but not so bewitching as they should be. 

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He fares best with the first disc, which contains the three Op. 31 sonatas, the first of them a peculiar affair, the only one which Stravinsky didn’t like, and I must admit to sharing his distaste. The first movement is a lengthy joke at the expense of a pianist who is unable to co-ordinate his hands, while the second, which even the ardent Tovey calls ‘the most reactionary and diffuse of Beethoven’s slow movements’, goes on for ever and never arrives. The other two, the recitative-prone Tempest (No. 17), and the adorable La chasse (No. 18), both get accounts which do justice to their stature. So there are good things here, but overall I can’t warm to it.

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Michael Tanner