Beethoven: the 2020 Editor's Choice recordings

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

All of these outstanding albums were named Editor's Choice or Recording of the Month in the 2020 issues of Gramophone

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BEETHOVEN An die ferne Geliebte SCHUBERT Schwanengesang

Roderick Williams bar Iain Burnside pf


While recently hearing Matthias Goerne’s deadly serious Beethoven Lieder disc (DG, 4/20), I kept thinking that what this music really needs is Roderick Williams and his ever-buoyant treatment of text. And here he is with the pianist Iain Burnside, performing Beethoven’s meticulously integrated An die ferne Geliebte along with Schubert’s discursive, wide-ranging Schwanengesang.

Schubert is the disc’s main event, a fascinating unthemed collection of songs that was posthumously titled not by the composer but by his publisher, and which though widely recorded comes with no standard interpretative approach. At times, the composer expanded on many of his trademark techniques; at others, he went beyond the bleak, musically spare terrains of Winterreise. While some singers begin Schwanengesang with the weightier Heinrich Heine songs, Williams starts with the more tradition-based Ludwig Rellstab settings and from there successfully encompasses the huge range of vocal demands, seemingly with stronger identification with this music’s expanding artistic vistas than in his recording of Schubert’s more contained Die schöne Müllerin (8/19).

Any lyric baritone such as Williams plays by different rules from the likes of Hans Hotter (Warner Classics), the ideal Wagnerian voice for songs such as ‘Atlas’. In the larger picture of Schwanengesang, Williams has lovely tenor-ish colours put to good use but also summons, out of artistic willpower, more than the necessary amplitude for the dark confrontation of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. At the same time, Williams the composer is also making cool assessments of what the music needs. Though his ‘Der Doppelgänger’ is as intense as any I’ve heard, he doesn’t stretch the tempo to breaking point, with a timing (3'37") that’s at least a minute shorter than performances by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This music may be Schubert composing on the edge of his early 19th-century world, but it’s still not Shostakovich.

On language matters, Williams sings German as a non-native speaker in the best sense, harnessing the words with a sense of discovery of how much closer they bring him to the archetypes within the various verses, to which he brings particular sympathy. And it’s on this front that his reading of the Beethoven cycle shines, with a feeling for the words that keeps the more strophically structured songs from seeming redundant, supported by Burnside’s sense of rubato that’s beautifully fashioned to the emotional temperature at hand. This disc doesn’t displace classic accounts – such as Goerne’s live pairing of the same repertoire with Alfred Brendel (Decca, 7/05), which John Warrack called ‘one of the great Lieder partnerships of the day’ – but stands beside them. Williams fires on all cylinders here, including some I didn’t know he had, and his longtime admirers won’t want to miss this. David Patrick Stearns

BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas Nos 4, 5 & 8

James Ehnes vn Andrew Armstrong pf


I’ve said before that I don’t think James Ehnes is capable of making an unmusical sound, and the previous instalments in his Beethoven sonata cycle with Andrew Armstrong were both made Editor’s Choice (5/17, 12/19). ‘The freshness and spontaneity of these interpretations is unfaltering, as is the instantaneous rapport and subtle, crystal-clear tonal beauty of the pair’s playing’, I wrote in December, which leaves me in something of a dilemma when it comes to describing a disc that shares the same qualities in such generous abundance that it’s hard to listen without smiling.

It’s worth saying, though, that these remain chamber performances, captured by Onyx in a realistic but lucid acoustic. Here’s the Spring Sonata, in all its verdant lyricism, and Ehnes and Armstrong never force it. The score’s surprises emerge naturally from the interplay of the two performers, with Armstrong’s sudden forte chords serving as a springboard for Ehnes’s naturally buoyant phrasing. Ehnes and Armstrong set it between the stormiest of the earlier sonatas (the Spring’s troublesome twin sister) Op 23, and the most playful, the G major, Op 30 No 3, delivered here with Haydnesque audacity and glee. Two miniatures prepare the mood-change, both played with audible joy.

And it’s also fair to say that I don’t think Armstrong is capable of making an unmusical sound, either. He draws mystery around him like a cloak in the quieter passages of Op 30 No 3, and in the Spring Sonata his ornamentation glints like raindrops caught in the sunlight. The fact that two artists of such extraordinary technical skill can demonstrate their whole range without straining the intimate spirit of the duo-sonata medium is just another miracle of this captivating cycle. Richard Bratby

BEETHOVEN Violin Sonatas, Vol 1

Tamsin Waley-Cohen vn Huw Watkins pf


These are closely miked studio accounts, with little sense of the 300-seat Snape Maltings acoustic in which they were recorded, but all the same imbued with the feeling of being caught on the wing. If a note or two of Beethoven’s semiquaver flurries are swallowed up every now and again – in the opening sorties of Op 30 No 3, for instance – that’s the price to be paid for performances which take authentically Beethovenian risks and leave nothing in the rehearsal studio. I’m thinking here, later in the same movement, of the nicely judged pauses to introduce and break up the second subject and Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s pure-toned swells like guileless question marks immediately thereafter.

Such bold strokes of invention may pall on repetition for listeners wedded to the cloudless legato sunshine of Perlman/Ashkenazy or more recently attracted by the lively but cultivated partnership of James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong (see above) in this music. On their own terms, however, Waley-Cohen and Watkins demonstrate a fine and modern appreciation for Beethoven the instrumental dramatist, anticipating Weber in the graceful cantilena of the central Minuet and Mendelssohn in the puckish humour of the finale. I enjoyed the flourish of the violinist’s grand entrance in the First Sonata – like a ballgowned diva at the top of a staircase, cameras popping – as well as the more discreet elegance of her pianistic consort as he matches her step for step. The contrast between bow and keys is similarly marked in their address of the slow movement. In the quick finale, however, it’s the violinist who plays second fiddle and tailors her articulation to the nimble fingers of her pianist.

Their complementary personalities (recorded with a balance in the violinist’s favour, unlike Ehnes and Armstrong) meet most harmoniously in the Spring Sonata’s Adagio, where Watkins draws an appealing, fortepiano-like resonance from the piano and Waley-Cohen’s phrasing taps the music’s pastoral roots. While the vestigial Scherzo passes without incident, the finale springs a surprise, taken rather less Allegro and more ma non troppo than most modern rivals. Waley-Cohen makes play here with the full palette of her tone-colours within a classically restrained canvas for the sonata as a whole – there’s no romantically drawn-out pause for thought or mad dash for the double-bar. Each of the three sonatas inhabits its own costume, made to measure. Peter Quantrill

BEETHOVEN Bagatelles

Paul Lewis pf

Harmonia Mundi

What exactly constitutes a Beethoven bagatelle is a moot point, as witness the varied add-ons to the standard published sets of Opp 33, 119 and 126, masterpieces all. As you’d expect from such an experienced Beethoven performer as Paul Lewis, there’s a confidence in every track and the word that I repeatedly scribbled down during my listening was ‘natural’. But that is not to imply that there’s any lack of strength of characterisation or impact about his readings. What is also particularly telling is the way he creates the sense of a bigger structure over the course of an opus, even where that involves a study in contrasts. In Op 33, for instance, he sets up an aptly lilting gait in the first and proceeds to play up its improvisatory quality, while in the second, though the off-beat accents may be less anarchic than in some hands, that ensures that the joke never wears thin, a quality that also informs the fifth; in the third there’s a quiet insouciance, with the harmonic shifts deftly brought out; the fourth has a lightness of touch, delighting in its quirkiness. The sixth is full of Haydnesque whimsy, while the final number is less obsessive in its repeated thirds – I find Steven Osborne’s slightly more driven tempo even more potent here.

This very much sets the scene for the remaining Bagatelles, Lewis always giving due consideration to Beethoven’s highly contrasting musical ingredients. In the first of Op 119, for instance, the pert opening motif is balanced by the gently sighing response, while the tension between the tinkling musical-box innocence of Op 119 No 3’s opening idea and the following martial motif is brilliantly brought to life. He ensures that the galloping Risoluto of No 5 never becomes overbearing; and while some might charm more overtly in the Allegretto section of the sixth of the set, Lewis instead brings out its darting unexpectedness. He lets the oddness of the seventh speak for itself and another highlight is the last of the set, its mix of filigree and stately chordal movement held in perfect accord.

In Op 126 Lewis sets off serenely before looping off into rhythmic disarray as the full force of Beethoven’s fantasy is unleashed. Both he and Brendel fully appreciate the importance of silence in the toccata-like second, while Piotr Anderszewski revels in its violent extremes, Osborne grimly determined. In the fourth piece Lewis is gloriously gruff without the accentuation becoming overstated, and in the fifth he finds a dreaminess that is very telling as the piece floats ever more free of its harmonic moorings. The Presto of the last is full of fire, contrasting with the unpredictable fantasy of the Andante amabile.

The remaining pieces range from a superbly dispatched Fantasia in G minor, Op 77, Lewis patently enjoying its driving scales and endless shifts of dynamics and tonality, to unpublished pieces, such as the playful Klavierstück, WoO60 – in which both Lewis and Osborne emphasise its unpredictable turns of phrase – and the brief G minor Allegretto, WoO61a, which almost divests itself of tonality altogether. All told, another hugely impressive disc from one of our greatest Beethovenians. Harriet Smith

BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No 4

Kristian Bezuidenhout fp Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Pablo Heras-Casado

Harmonia Mundi

Here we are: instalment three of a series that so far has been one of the finest ornaments of Beethoven’s 250th-anniversary celebrations, the collaboration of Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, in the master’s works for piano and orchestra. First came the E flat and B flat Concertos in questing, probative performances (3/20). Then, with the Zurich Sing-Akademie and soloists, the Choral Fantasy coupled with a Ninth Symphony (9/20) that together, were it not for their health and precision, their blazing colour and finesse of detail, would simply raze the house in their sheer grandeur. Now we have the summum of the classical Viennese piano concerto framed by the overtures to two theatrical works written during the same decade.

And a handsome frame they make. This lean, mean Coriolan overture has the sinister grace of a panther about to pounce. The Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus belongs, first and foremost, to the Freiburg winds, whose variety of colour and virtuosity make this choicest ear-candy. Heras-Casado’s poised but light-footed rhythmic acumen combines with his inerrant instinct for the perfectly sculpted, living, breathing phrase, to create strikingly original interpretations to be savoured with gusto.

As for the main event, Bezuidenhout may have surpassed the most compelling of his solo Mozart set, his Mendelssohn and Mozart concertos with the Freiburgers, his electric Beethoven sonatas with Mullova and even the resplendent Emperor Concerto of this series. Repeated listening has convinced me this is one of the finest, most deeply perceptive and thrilling performances of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto on record. But make no mistake, Bezuidenhout’s triumph could only be achieved by the hand-in-glove support and interplay provided by Heras-Casado and the Freiburgers. The vistas of the Allegro moderato open on to vast, variegated terrain, traversed with such sensitivity and passion that it seems entirely new.

Whether or not you subscribe to the 19th-century idea, extensively elaborated by Owen Jander in the 20th, that the Andante is a musical metaphor for Orpheus at the gates of Hades, it’s impossible to escape the sense of dialogue evoked here. Rarely have the strings sounded more formidable or the piano more plaintive. The Rondo is a true Vivace as Beethoven intended, bracing in its variety of detail, from the subtlety of the bowing that introduces the movement to the sheer delicacy of the ensemble interaction throughout. It unfolds in a veritable terpsichorean delirium, resulting in an all but overwhelming impression of supernal joy.

All this is delivered in the gloriously dimensional sound that is the norm for Harmonia Mundi these days. If you love Beethoven, delight in the sound of precise and imaginative ensemble and revel in brilliant piano-playing, whatever you do, do not miss this! Patrick Rucker

‘Searching for Ludwig’

Kremerata Baltica / Gidon Kremer vn Mario Brunello vc


Unlike Leonard Bernstein’s famous recording of these same two late Beethoven quartets with the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic (DG, 11/92) – titanic, emotionally acute interpretations indelibly stamped with that conductor’s imprint – the Kremerata Baltica act more as an augmented quartet, retaining a sense of intimacy that’s still very much in the realm of chamber music. Indeed, Gidon Kremer begins Op 131 with a solo quartet, and it’s not until a minute or so into the fugue that the rest of the ensemble slips in, so that the transformation is accomplished with what seems like a sleight of hand. And yet, while Kremer’s relatively slender ensemble is no match for the luxuriousness of the VPO’s string section, the added weight pays rich dividends, particularly in the dark, saturated colours of the finale. I wish the cellos (and basses) made more of the humorous sforzandos in the fourth movement (try starting at 6'00"), but honestly that’s nitpicking.

As for Op 135, led here by cellist Mario Brunello, I have only superlatives, for his is a performance as exquisite in its transparency as it is for its attention to detail. Listen near the end of the first movement (starting at 6'13"), for example, to how the musicians give varied expression to a series of identically notated ornaments (a pair of demisemiquaver grace notes): gentle and singing at first, and then aggressively snappy. Or to how modern the opening of the finale (and its various iterations) sounds when dug into with such chiselled concentration.

Heard in its 1976 original, French singer-songwriter Léo Ferré’s ‘Muss es sein?’ exudes the musty perfume of a period piece – outraged declamation over a pleasantly sweet chord progression – but Valter Sivilotti’s arrangement for solo cello, strings and percussion amplifies the frictions, making it an aptly effective prelude to this programme. And if Giovanni Sollima’s musings on fragments from the Biamonti catalogue of Beethoven’s works is considerably less electric, it provides a welcome respite between the intense demands of the two quartets. Not to be missed. Andrew Farach-Colton

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