Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 30 in E,
No. 31 in A?
, op. 110
; No. 32 in c
Alexei Lubimov (pn)
ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES ZZ110103 (66:01)
Alexei Lubimov, one of the last students of the great Soviet-era pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (the teacher of Richter, Gilels, Lupu, and many others), has had an unconventional career.
He did not set out along the standard Russian path, playing lots of Beethoven and Chopin, but rather nettled the authorities with his interests in new music, not all of it officially sanctioned, and with a decidedly un-Slavic fascination with period-instrument practices. Most of his recordings reflect those interests, although there is standard repertoire material as well.
Given that background, this splendid new release represents something of a culmination of varied adventures. To begin with, Lubimov plays on a restored 1828 Alois Graff instrument, Graff being the maker of Beethoven’s last piano. Piano technology moved very quickly in the years spanning the death of Mozart (1791) and the death of Beethoven (1827). The Walter fortepianos associated with Mozart are significantly lighter in tone and bass than this Graff instrument, which has a sound that points firmly to the modern piano. But it is still a wood-framed instrument, albeit denser and heavier in construction than its predecessors, imparting soft, fruity timbres that give this music a very different character from what is heard from a nine-foot concert grand.
It is difficult to say to what extent the choice of instrument brings us closer to Beethoven. Tempos here are broad, certainly slower than the composer’s infamously fast metronome markings. Lubimov’s rhythmic and tempo fluctuations can be surprisingly wide, although his elegance and lack of showiness ameliorate this tendency. Almost all of the large phrases in the music are accentuated by ritards or accelerandos that are not in the score. Large chords are often slightly broken, enhancing the lucidity of the textures. This manner places Lubimov’s conception of Beethoven, at least in these works, as closer to the Romantic era sensibility than to Classicism, a decision made even more fascinating in the context of the use of this period instrument.
Ultimately, and Lubimov admits it in his passionate essay on the music, the readings are personalized. He talks of playing on an old instrument that has some technical “irregularities” that helped him to understand Beethoven’s struggle. And there is a deep humanity expressed in this playing. In a way, these readings are incomparable. Musicians and listeners worship this music and so there have been many fine performances over the years. I wonder if anyone will ever match the depth of Schnabel’s interpretations, now more than three quarters of a century old. Among many excellent modern recordings, I especially admire Uchida. I will now add this very special recording to an exalted short list.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
We are now officially spoiled for choice in period-pianoforte performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s last three sonatas. Ronald Brautigam on BIS, Paul Komen on Globe, and now Alexei Lubimov on Zig-Zag are a distinguished trio. Their performances are all very good, and all in very different ways.
To begin with Lubimov: this is a highly individual account, and if I was a little disappointed in some places, it was only because Lubimov’s glowing Schubert readings set the bar so high. His pacing is a little eccentric in the slow first movement of Op. 109 and the hesitating
allegro molto of Op 110, and the syncopated “fast” variation in the last sonata’s arietta sadly falls flat. Elsewhere, though, he does very well; the poet with a great ear for rubato is in evidence at the beginning of the A flat sonata’s adagio, and in the luminous final variations of Op 109, the fortepiano singing despite its short sustained notes.
The other two readings available sit at opposite ends of a spectrum in which Lubimov might be seen as the moderate figure. Paul Komen has a gorgeous-sounding Graf piano with a dark, rich night-time timbre, slightly less pearly than Lubimov’s and a little tinkly in the top registers. He doesn’t hesitate to take advantage in Op. 111, the final arietta of which expands out to 18 minutes, but his quick movements never lack bite - indeed he’s faster everywhere else than Lubimov. Fast is not to say insensitive: Op. 109 begins with delicately voiced rolls of notes - this is how it’s done! - and some of its final variations (as at 5:30) are magically sung. The fugue in Op. 110 feels rather fast - but then, Beethoven did mark a tempo jolt from adagio to allegro. Komen takes him literally. His Op. 111 is one of my reference versions on any instrument: the first movement strikes a balance between relentless middle-period
sturm und drang and moments of calming repose. The arietta is a transcendent reading, with delightful snap and energy when called for and a simply divine touch, lighter than you’d think possible on pianoforte, after 11:00.
Ronald Brautigam’s traversal, on a modern Paul McNulty instrument after an 1819 Graf, enjoys a piano which is both clear and light in action and warm in tone - only a bit more percussive than Komen’s. Brautigam sails through the fast movements with aplomb and virtuoso technique; his style is to compensate for the instrument’s less powerful sustain by playing quickly but lightly. The opening movement of Op. 109 is a little miracle, as is the powerful close of Op. 110, in both of which the cascades of notes never blur. The Op. 109 variations are just 11 minutes in duration, Op. 111’s not even 15, to Lubimov’s 12:39 and 17, and in truth the whole final sonata does feel a bit too fast. It’s not rushed, indeed it feels quite natural, but the arietta is not ideally contemplative and the first movement is unrelenting in its fierceness.
I would say, then, that what we have here are three distinguished competitors indeed. Alexei Lubimov takes a very honorable bronze: his eccentricities at certain junctures, like the first bar of Op. 109, are minor blemishes on a poetic, very individual achievement. Brautigam does make a superb impression in Op. 109, and Komen is consistently my favorite interpreter of the three, but there are moments in Lubimov’s readings which are to be treasured. I’ll be glad to keep it on the shelf, especially with nigh-ideal acoustics, not as boomy as one might expect from the church venue but also not close enough to capture the clicks of the instrument’s actions.
Zig-Zag have unnecessarily introduced a fly in the ointment with their odd tracking; the Op. 110 sonata is split across four tracks, helpfully, but the Op. 109 is compressed into just two, the shorter opening movements stuck together. What’s that for? Why the inconsistency? This doesn’t actually impact the playing on any equipment I know of, but it does leave my obsessive-compulsive side a little displeased.
As I’ve finished writing this review, another disc has arrived for review - another set of Opp. 109-111, on another Graf fortepiano, played by Penelope Crawford. The original suggestion that we are now spoiled for choice is now even more true. Paul Komen on Globe might still be my top choice here, but for the fortepiano devotee there are now four excellent artists, on four good instruments, and all of them are well worth hearing. Watch this space.
-- Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
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