BEETHOVEN Late Piano Sonatas
It makes an exceptionally neat package to have all five of Beethoven's late piano sonatas fitted on to two CDs, and it is not surprising that both DG and Decca have simultaneously come out with these issues, the Pollini taken direct from the set which in the 1977
Comparisons are not quite what I expected. Remembering the consistent praise which has been heaped on the Pollini set, I have been alarmed just how consistently and to what a degree I have preferred the Ashkenazy versions. I always did feel that the Pollini set had a chill, steely side to it, and the overall timings of the rival set give one obvious reason why: his speeds are generally faster, and though in the first movement of the Hammerklavier the astonishing technical assurance has you on the edge of your seat with excitement, there are other times when his performances seem relentless, particularly when the CD transfer (not remixed) underlines the aggressive side of the recording. I was at first inclined to blame the recording for the absence of any dynamic marking below mezzo forte in many movements, but Pollini—in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier for example—shows that he can, when he wants, play on a whisper of half-tone. Too often I am also worried by his reluctance to play with a real legato, often jabbing at individual notes within a phrase.
All this is the obverse of what I find very sympathetic in the Ashkenazy readings. I had always counted them reliable rather than inspired, not so individual as, say, Kempff, Barenboim or Brendel, but hearing this set as a group reinforces both what dedication, thoughtfulness and natural warmth there are in the playing and what freshness and strength. As ever Ashkenazy's favourite expressive trick is a personal agogic hesitation on salient notes, but only rarely does that sound contrived. Otherwise his preference for relatively steady speeds makes Pollini sound fitful and even nervy by comparison with fast speeds too often lurching ahead or being held back. And Ashkenazy in a movement like the Scherzo of the Hammerklavier at his less hectic speeds finds an element of fantasy missing with Pollini. Equally, in the elusive lyrical first movement of Op. 101 (a personal favourite with me) Ashkenazy's use of rubato is far more natural, less jerky, and at a more relaxed Allegretto the music flows more easily with a far wider gradation of dynamic and tone-colour.
That is partly a question of recording quality, and the CD transfers of the analogue originals of Op. 101, and the last three sonatas, readily match the fine digital recording of the Hammerklavier, with tape hiss less often audible than with the Pollini/DG. Ashkenazy is, however plagued at times by a twangy note or two on his paino. The DG booklet—larger than the Decca—contains separate notes (unattributed) on each of the five sonatas, where Decca have a perceptive essay on all five together by Misha Donat. It is an irritating omission that DG do not provide timings of individual movements, though of course you can work them out from the digital display if your machine is so equipped.'