Notes and Editorial Reviews
This disc received a 1996 Grammy nomination for "Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (Without Orchestra)."
The Op. 31 Sonatas make a finely contrasted group, a self-sufficient programme in themselves. They also offer a wonderful way into the Beethoven sonatas for the collector, not least because they have done unusually well on record. And what to buy? Well, this latest offering from Stephen Kovacevich – the third volume of his emergent Beethoven sonata cycle – is very brilliant, an exceptional record in every way. There is stiff competition from Brendel, and competition of a kind from Richard Goode, though I must say I find his Nonesuch disc worryingly uneven. The D minor Sonata, the Tempest,
is wonderfully well done, finely painted on the keyboard; yet in the witty, beguiling G major Sonata Goode is too much the all-licensed fool, making free with Beethoven's comic inventiveness. There is much in the festive E flat Sonata that is gloriously right – the Scherzo is played to perfection – but after that tour de force Goode gives an inexplicably laboured account of the Menuetto. Brendel is measured here, too, treating the Menuetto (almost) as a surrogate slow movement; but Brendel brings real gravity to the music, especially to the solemn-sounding Trio from which Saint-Saens was later to derive a set of variations.
It is typical of Kovacevich that he finds a middle way in this Menuetto that seems effortlessly right. The tempo is more or less exactly what one imagines a moderato e grazioso should be, and it serves Minuet and Trio equally well. The preceding Scherzo is a touch fiercer than Goode's or Brendel's, the finale a show-stopping Presto, con fuoco which Goode attempts and which Brendel rather capriciously avoids.
Brendel's performances of the G major and E flat Sonatas offer a fine mixture of caprice and intellectual rigour. There are more fluctuations of pulse than with Kovacevich and a much greater use of diversionary tactics. There are more zig-zags of emotion, too, in the Tempest, which Brendel plays in a fit of high passion that borders on outright anger. Kovacevich's playing can be just as angry but it is always terrifically focused – the first movement of the G major Sonata is Beethoven-playing after the manner of Toscanini in his NBC phase. Yet rarely does it threaten to descend into monomania. Kovacevich sounds the mysterious arpeggios at the start of the Tempest as finely as Goode (which is saying something), and there are many moments of arresting beauty – the sudden quiet act of retrospection on the penultimate page of the Tempest is finely done. It is also typical of the fine grain of Kovacevich's playing (a reminder of his longstanding debt to his teacher Dame Myra Hess) that though he adopts a fairly brisk pace in the G major Sonata's rococo Andante grazioso he realizes the lovely transitional idea at bar 17ff. more hauntingly perhaps than one ever dared imagine it away from the page.
EMI, like Philips, have been obliged to take on board some pretty ferocious playing. The dynamically wide-ranging Philips recording seemed custom-built to withstand Brendel's reading of the Tempest, but there are times when even it judders and shakes under the impact of the playing. The EMI recording – the last to be engineered by the late Mark Vigars – occasionally threatens to fray at the edges but never quite does. War-weary and battle-hardened it bears these marvellous performances triumphantly home.
-- Richard Osborne, Gramophone [11/1995]
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