The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings – part 5 (updated 2018)

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Concluding our survey of the greatest Beethoven recordings, from the piano sonatas to Fidelio

beethoven

Piano Sonatas Nos 14 & 29

Murray Perahia pf

DG

The first thing we should do in approaching this musically remarkable and, in terms of its exploration of the composer’s tempest-tossed inner life, extraordinarily fascinating addition to the Beethoven discography is banish all thoughts of moonlight.

A further assumption it might be useful to set aside, as we attend to what Murray Perahia calls ‘two of the most radically groundbreaking of the composer’s 32 piano sonatas’, is that the Hammerklavier is the more difficult of the two pieces. I’m not thinking here of the finger-wrenching challenge of actually delivering the Hammerklavier, something the unbridled fury of the finale of the earlier sonata interestingly presages. Rather, I’m thinking of the imaginative and technical challenges that the emotionally complex Sonata quasi una fantasia in the then alien key of C sharp minor presents to the player: first in seeking out its essence, then in distilling that essence on whatever keyboard circumstance or time provides. (As Charles Rosen observed, the sonata’s finale shredded the pianos of 1801 as surely as its opening movement troubles more modern ones.) ...

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Piano Sonatas Nos 28–32

Maurizio Pollini pf

DG

Make no mistake, this is playing of the highest order of mastery. Indeed, I am not sure that Pollini’s account of the Hammerklavier is not the most impressive currently before the public, though the instant such thoughts are penned, the noble performances of Eschenbach, Arrau, Brendel and Ashkenazy spring to mind. Yet not even beside such giants as these as well as Solomon, Kempff and perhaps even Schnabel does Pollini’s achievement pale.

If Schnabel’s Hammerklavier was not one of the triumphs of his pioneering cycle, its surface roughness worked in its favour in that the listener was never distracted from the spirit by the beauty of the letter. Pollini’s account is simply staggering, for if there are incidental details which are more tellingly illuminated by other masters, no performance is more perfect than this new version. Superb rhythmic grip, sensitivity to line and gradation of tone, a masterly control of the long paragraph; all these are features of this remarkable reading. In the slow movement the sublime outpouring of lyrical feeling beginning at bar 27 shows Pollini’s peerless sense of line and eloquence of spirit, though memories of Arrau who fashions this passage with great poetry are not banished. John Ogdon’s account has a splendidly withdrawn feeling at this point and a raptness and tranquillity that I greatly admire. No one, however, quite matches Pollini’s stunning finale: its strength and controlled power silence criticism. There is no doubt, I think, that this is great piano-playing. Robert Layton (January 1978)

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Piano Sonata No 29, 'Hammerklavier'

Emil Gilels pf

DG

Few works of music stimulate active and stressful thinking - anxious thought complementing the music's search for resolvable sounds - than the Hammerklavier. Nor is it a work which is easily mastered physically. (Pollini, on DG, strikes me as being too obviously masterful; Brendel, on Philips, less so.) Of all pianists, Schnabel (on his 1935 HMV recording) perhaps comes closest to conveying a reckless, all-or-nothing mood, allied to a terrier-like grasp of argument and a sure instinct for the work's persistent striving for release into uninhibited song. Yet there are scrambles and mistakes in his performance which were avoided, with minimal loss to the music's headlong impetus, in the famous 1956 Solomon recording, whose absence from the catalogue is much to be regretted. Like Solomon, Gilels gives us an outstanding reading of the vast slow movement. The tempo is spacious, apt to Gilels's mastery of the music's anisometric lines and huge paragraphs, paragraphs as big as an East Anglian sky. Few pianists since Solomon have come near to matching Gilels's ability to touch off the rapt, disburdened beauty of these lofty Beethovenian cantilenas.

The search for lyric release is something which Gilels seems particularly to stress. The arrival – introit, rathe r- of the finale's D major subject, Tovey's "Still, Small Voice" after the Fire, is here a moment that is specially cherishable, the more so as the fugue and the subsequent aggressive peroration are played by Gilels with a directness and lucidity which contrasts interestingly with his sophisticated and equivocal treatment of the opening Allegro movement. There, we have a sense of impetus and attack (Gilels's sheer pianistic command compensating for a tempo 42 minims a minute below Beethoven's startling and plausible minim = 138) though when we reach the gracious second subject in G, rhythmic motion is not so much suspended as upstaged by the first intimations of the music's surprising capacity for feminine songfulness.

The Scherzo, as befits its character, is also equivocal; the playing of the Trio and the dance's quietly elaborated reprise is a rare treat for the ear, though the tempo seems slow for so obviously ironic a piece. It takes a major pianist standing outside the Viennese tradition to see the volatile and ageing Beethoven subsuming gamesome Classical ironies in Romantic pathos and a feeling of personal travail.

There is, though, nothing effete about the totality of Gilels's reading. Formidably in command of the music, he neither subjects the notes to his virtuosic will, nor demeans his own technique by mimetic attempts at audible disorder. Disturbingly aware, in the first movement, of what he suggests are unstable fancies informing the work's manic oscillations, Gilels proceeds to achieve a troubled coherence in the brilliantly executed coda of the finale where his extraordinary technique allows the music's evident ferocity to be tempered by Orphic assurance.

It is, in fine, an absorbing and ambiguous reading. At times it is a model of lucidity, arguments and textures appearing as the mechanism of a fine Swiss watch must do to a craftsman's glass; yet the reading is also full of subversive beauty, the finely elucidated tonal shifts confirming Charles Rosen's assertion that Beethoven's art, for all its turbulence, is here as sensuous as a Schubert song.

The recording is limpid and resolute, with something of the character and atmosphere of Wilhelm Kempff's celebrated recordings of this endlessly challenging, endlessly fascinating work. Richard Osborne (December 1983)

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Piano Sonatas Nos 27-32

Solomon pf

Warner Classics

Solomon’s 1952 recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata is one of the greatest of the century. At the heart of his performance there’s as calm and searching an account of the slow movement as you’re ever likely to hear. And the outer movements are also wonderfully well done. Music that’s so easy to muddle and arrest is here fierily played; Solomon at his lucid, quick-witted best.

The CD transfer is astonishing. It’s as though previously we have merely been eavesdropping on the performance; now, decades later, we’re finally in the presence of the thing itself. It’s all profoundly moving. What’s more, EMI has retained the juxtaposition of the 1969 LP reissue: Solomon’s glorious account of the A major Sonata, No 28 as the Hammerklavier’s proud harbinger. We must be grateful that Solomon had completed his recording of these six late sonatas before his career was abruptly ended by a stroke in the latter part of 1956.

The Sonatas Nos 27 and 31, were recorded in August 1956. In retrospect the warning signs were already there; yet listening to these edited tapes you’d hardly know anything was amiss. There’s the odd fumble in the Scherzo of No 31; but, if anything, the playing has even greater resolve, both in No 31 and in a songful (but never sentimental) account of No 27. The recordings of Nos 30 and 32 date from 1951. Sonata No 30, is very fine; No 32 is, by Solomon’s standards, a shade wooden in places, both as a performance and as a recording. Still, this is a wonderful set, and very much a collectors’ item.

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Diabelli Variations

Stephen Kovacevich pf

Onyx

Wilhelm von Lenz described the Diabelli Variations as “a satire on their theme”. It’s an apt summation, for what could be more remarkable than something as inherently mediocre as Diabelli’s theme giving voice to one of the greatest – some would argue the greatest – work ever written for solo piano?

Kovacevich writes in his introduction to this new set that it was the Diabelli Variations – via the Serkin recording – that first made him love Beethoven. It’s a reading that still holds its head high today, and just a decade later, in 1968, Kovacevich set down his own recording, rightly acclaimed and something of a calling-card for the young pianist. But what of this new performance, made 40 years later? What is immediately striking is the sense of a cumulative whole, the tension and indeed speed with which he approaches the work. The work’s juxtapositions of the sublime and the ridiculous are presented with a vividness that sounds more live than studio-bound ...

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Songs

Stephen Genz bar Roger Vignoles pf

Hyperion

The 26-year-old Erfurt-born baritone Stephan Genz is in the first bloom of his youthful prime. His Schumann Liederkreis, Op 24 (5/98) was the first recording to give serious warning of the distinctive lyric ardour and keen intelligence of his artistry; and now Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Mailied’ (Op 52 No 4), with its lightly breathed, springing words, could have been written with Genz in mind.
Four more Goethe settings celebrate the great man’s 250th anniversary year. Roger Vignoles, Genz’s regular accompanist, contributes an irresistible bounding energy and even a sense of mischief to one of Beethoven’s most spontaneous yet subtle settings, ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’; and an elusive sense of yearning is created as the voice tugs against the piano line in ‘Sehnsucht’ ...

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Choral Fantasia. Triple Concerto. Rondo for Piano & Orchestra

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf  Thomas Zehetmair vn Clemens Hagen vc Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Warner Classics

Listening to the opening tutti on this joyful new Triple Concerto, I could just picture Nikolaus Harnoncourt cueing his strings, perched slightly forwards, impatiently waiting for that first, pregnant forte. This is a big, affable, blustery Triple, the soloists completing the sound canvas rather than dominating it, a genuine collaborative effort. So beside the Beethovenian strut to this performance there is poetry too, as at 8’25” where Clemens Hagen wafts in with the principal theme underpinned by gently brushed strings. Then again the modulating sequences from 9’36”, so often crudely hammered home in rival versions, are stylishly shaped, the emphases properly focused, with Aimard clearly centre-stage. And yet thoughtfulness never spells caution (all three works were recorded at concerts in Graz over the last 18 months); Hagen and Thomas Zehetmair throw caution to the winds near the end of the first movement ...

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Missa Solemnis

Laura Aikin sop Elisabeth Kulman mez Johannes Chum ten Ruben Drole bass-bar Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Sony Classical

This is a remarkable account of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and, in one important respect, an unusual one. For though it is in no sense lacking in drama, it is in essence a deeply devotional reading. And aptly so. ‘Mit Andacht’ – ‘with devotion’ – Beethoven writes time and again during the course of the work.

Where many of the Mass’s most praised interpreters have treated it as a species of music drama, the god Dionysus never far distant, Harnoncourt’s performance has an atmosphere you might more normally expect to encounter when listening to a piece such as the Fauré Requiem. His aim was to ‘develop the work from silence’ and ‘keep the usual frenzied sonorities within bounds’. A search for inner and outer peace – the aspiration Beethoven writes above the opening bars of the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ – is the performance’s ultimate goal ...

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Fidelio

Stemme; Kaufmann; Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

Decca

It was Abbado’s second Berlin Philharmonic symphony cycle from 2001 which thrust him more or less unexpectedly into the ranks of the immortals where Beethoven is concerned. And it was seven years after that, in Reggio Emilia in 2008, that he conducted his first Fidelio. Like Furtwängler in his 1953 studio recording, Abbado leads a viscerally charged performance that flies to the very heart of the matter, and does so in a version which, stripping away much of the spoken dialogue, recreates Beethoven’s lofty Singspiel as musical metatheatre.

The recording derives from two semi-staged concert performances, the audience happily sensed but not heard. Technically the recording is first-rate but, then, you need no sonic-stage trickery in the dungeon scene in a performance which reveals as exactingly as this how Beethoven’s own orchestrations are key. One of the many glories of this thrillingly articulated Fidelio is the playing of the basses and lower strings, sharp-featured and black as the pit of Acheron.

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Fidelio

Jurinac; Vickers; Frick; Hotter; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden / Otto Klemperer

Testament mono

As month follows month and more and more live performances appear, our perspective on the purpose of recordings seem to be changing. In December we had Maria Callas’s 1952 Covent Garden Norma superseding her studio efforts; and here is the first night of Otto Klemperer’s legendary 1961 Fidelio, also from the Royal Opera House, to challenge his noted studio set from a year later. This confirms the Achilles’ heel of Walter Legge, EMI’s leading mogul at the time, in his unwillingness to record live occasions, probably because he liked to have every aspect of a recording under his control. In this case there is more to it than that. Klemperer wanted, in the studio, to retain his Covent Garden cast; Legge preferred to make changes with two exceptions (Jon Vickers and Gottlob Frick). On the evidence of this magnificent issue, Klemperer was right. Not only are the singers, by and large, better equipped for their roles, but given the electricity of the occasion the conductor’s interpretation is more vital (often faster tempi) and even more eloquent.

For his own staging, Klemperer decided to include far more dialogue than is usually heard (so, incidentally, did Böhm in 1978) so that we have as much a play with music as an opera. The singers speak and act with such feeling and immediacy, most particularly Jurinac, Hotter and Frick, as to justify the added text. Add to that the dedication on all sides to Klemperer, articulated by Mike Ashman in his booklet article for which he interviewed surviving singers and players, and you can imagine why this was such a special occasion ...

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