Notes and Editorial Reviews
Overall, I’d certainly strongly endorse the complete Nimbus set for reliable performances.
The arrival on the scene of a bright new talent in the Beethoven Piano Sonatas in the form of the young Korean pianist HJ Lim (EMI Classics 50999 7041855 2) has prompted me to return to the Nimbus set. The virtues of complete sets by the likes of Alfred Brendel (Philips 438 1342 – see June 2011/2 Download Roundup) and Wilhelm Kempff (DG – see below) are well enough known but, for some reason, we seem never to have got around to reviewing the Nimbus set with Bernard Roberts. Not the least of its virtues is that, with some ingenious organisation, the CD set is far less bulky than you might imagine: the 11 CDs come in two double-size
cases, holding five discs plus booklet and six discs respectively, all housed inside a cardboard slip case.
I actually started to write a review of the complete Nimbus set a year ago, and lost what I’d written, apart from some notes and jottings, when my computer crashed. I was able to piece some of these together in time for the November 2011/2 Download Roundup, but fortunately, when I lost what I’d written, my friend Geoffrey Molyneux, who knows a great deal more about pianism than I ever did and has owned the Nimbus set for some time, came to the rescue. I promised then to patch my notes back together to finish that review but got around only partially to doing it.
Whereas Roberts’ recordings arose from mature consideration, HJ Lim has committed the whole
œuvre to disc at an early stage in her career, whether from brave assurance or youthful bravado I was very interested to find out. You can do so for yourself from the Naxos Music Library if you have access to that extremely valuable service. They offer both the first two 2-CD single volumes and the complete set. As they also have the Roberts recordings, that’s a good way to compare for yourself.
Volume 1 from Lim contains Sonatas 29
Hammerklavier, 11, 26
Les Adieux, 4, 9, 10, 13
Quasi una fantasia and 14
730092, 2 CDs for around £12.50). The complete set (omitting the Op.49 sonatas because Beethoven didn’t intend them for publication) comes on 8 CDs for around £40 (
4649522). Those willing to download can obtain Volume 1 for £6.99 from sainsburysentertainment.co.uk. They also have the complete 8-CD set to download for £10.99, though you may prefer to obtain this from amazon.co.uk for £12.99, complete with the pdf version of the booklet.
Lim opens both Volume 1 and the complete set with the
Hammerklavier Sonata. She takes the first movement at a cracking pace – 10:24 against Roberts’ 11:42, making her performance commensurate with Earl Wild, at 10:20 one of the fastest ever accounts (Ivory Classics 76001). I was impressed by her technique; it makes a barnstorming opening to the set, but it’s all a bit too much unvaried and ‘hell-for-leather’; at his slightly slower tempo Roberts achieves much more light and shade in this movement and throughout the work, not least in his reading of the slow movement, where his 17:58 allows him to achieve
Innigkeit without sounding portentous. At 12:50 Lim is certainly
appassionato; she doesn’t sound as rushed as I might have expected from the different timings, but she doesn’t quite achieve the affective quality demanded by the marking
con molto sentimento.
Artur Schnabel’s recording of this sonata may come on an album subtitled ‘Scholar of the Piano’ (EMI Icons 2650642) but there’s much more than scholarship involved in his performance. This remains my benchmark, especially for the slow movement: his tempo almost exactly matches that of Roberts, but he captures the affective qualities even more without ever sounding ponderous. His recording comes with a degree of light surface noise, but it’s never excessive and the piano tone is truly remarkable for its age. Nevertheless, Roberts offers a better-recorded modern alternative that I can certainly live with.
I should add that reviewers have been very much divided about Lim’s performances; some have seen a great deal more of value in them than I have. In the finale of the
Hammerklavier I hear some of the qualities that her admirers postulate – she’s actually very little faster overall than Schnabel and her playing is certainly
risoluto – but my own ultimate judgement hinges on whether I would wish to add her complete recording or Volume 1 to my over-crowded collection. I have to say that I wouldn’t, even at the attractive prices that I’ve mentioned.
On the other hand, I would certainly have considered purchasing the Roberts set, especially at the special price of £28 post free for which it’s offered by MusicWeb International. You won’t even find them as a download for less. I know that I’m effectively blowing our own trumpet, but I dipped into sonatas from every period of Beethoven’s working life, comparing what I heard with other versions that I knew, and found that Roberts stood up well to the competition in every respect. He is not always top dog in a particular sonata, but nearly always close. The whole set is so inexpensive that I would recommend beginners to buy it and to add individual recordings later.
CD 1 of the Nimbus set gets off to a quiet start with Sonata No.1 from 1795. Though there are signs of the distinctive Beethoven manner to come here, Roberts doesn’t stress these by over-egging the pudding; he gives a very satisfying, neat, tidy, but not too delicate account, taken at a fairly brisk pace throughout, though never sounding rushed. The same is true of No.2 and No.3, which open CD 2 and CD 3 respectively.
You might expect Lim to do particularly well in these youthful sonatas, so I turned to her account of No.1 in expectation. Predictably her tempi are consistently a little faster than Roberts’, but not to a huge extent. There’s certainly lightness of touch but it’s allied with underlying strength and I enjoyed this performance.
Nimbus CD 1 closes with the
Appassionata Sonata, from Beethoven’s middle period. Roberts gives this, right from the start, the soulful treatment which its name implies. In the opening movement he takes Beethoven’s marking
allegro assai with a pinch of salt, perhaps thinking, as I have seen suggested, that Beethoven sometimes confused the French
assez (fairly) and the Italian
assai (very). Whatever the reason, 10:13 – almost a minute longer than most performances – seems to me to be reasonable for this movement, especially as Roberts indulges in a degree of
rubato (not excessive) to achieve it. I’m with Roberts and his slightly weightier tempo here, but if you are looking for a compromise, Jenö Jandó on Naxos (8.550294, with No.21 and No.23) – as usual reliable without being exceptional – splits the difference between Roberts and the ‘mainstream’, as does Alfred Brendel on his early Vox recording (CDX-5042, 2 CDs: Nos.16-19, 21-23 and 26 – or Alto ALC1016, Nos.8, 14, 23 and 26). In his recording of the
Appassionata with the
Emperor Concerto (Philips 468 6662, with VPO/Rattle), Brendel is even closer to Roberts in this movement.
There’s respect for the marking
andante con moto, too, from Roberts in the second movement, though I might have welcomed a slightly faster pace at the outset. In the finale he observes both parts of the marking (
allegro non troppo), so there’s nothing headlong, but there is plenty of power and emotion and the concluding bars are taken at a virtuoso pace. Overall I found this a very satisfying account, bringing a degree of new light to a well-known work without being at all quirky. Listening to it a second time was even more convincing.
Predictably, Lim allies herself throughout with those who take a faster view of this sonata, though her tempi are not extreme she actually takes the opening movement slightly slower than Angela Hewitt on the first volume of her Beethoven recordings. Lim takes the finale at quite a lick but so, for example, does Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca Eloquence 480 1309). Though her version certainly works for me, so too does Roberts’.
If HJ Lim has set her interpretations down at an early stage in her career, David Wilde is something of a wonder for the opposite reason – though well into his seventies, he’s only just entered the limelight, yet he plays with a combination of the technique of a young virtuoso and the maturity of a seasoned practitioner on his recording of Nos. 21
Tempest and 31 (Delphian DCD34090: Recording of the Month and November 2011/2 Download Roundup.)
The d minor Sonata, Op.31/2, the
Tempest, dates from the transitional period between the earliest works, such as the Op.18 Quartets, and the very productive middle period. This was the period of the Third Piano Concerto when Beethoven’s music was beginning to break away from the influence of the previous generation of Haydn and Salieri. Wilde takes a more expansive view of the first movement, adopts roughly the same tempo as Roberts for the
adagio, and is slightly faster in the
allegretto finale. I thought Roberts somewhat routine in this sonata, especially in the
adagio, which sounds ponderous rather than affective.
I certainly preferred Wilde in the finale, though Brian Reinhart, for all his admiration of the album as a whole, had some reservations here. Roberts’ finale offers us the letter of the music with exemplary technique, but it seems to miss the last degree of joy. I appreciate that it’s
allegro, but I felt that Wilde’s 7:05 was more in the spirit of the music than Roberts’s 7:26. The latter seems to offer a view of a composer who is not yet completely his own man, not yet what Roberts himself describes in the brief notes as ‘dynamic, deeply expressive and visionary’. Lim rattles through this movement at an unbelievable 6:01; that’s preferable to Roberts and I can only marvel that none of the phrasing is slurred at this speed, but Wilde’s is the version of this sonata to have.
Though my recommendation of the Nimbus set overall holds, therefore, this illustrates the hazards of relying on just one artist throughout; for this sonata I’d certainly add another version. Though I listened to Roberts on CD and to Wilde from an mp3 download (albeit at the full 320kb/s rate, from classicsonline.com), which ought to give Roberts an edge, Wilde sounded more dynamic from the very opening of the first movement, the slow movement a little more expressive and the finale a little more joyful. Both Wilde and Roberts are preferable here to Thomas Sauer, whose recording of the Op.31 Sonatas I found somewhat wanting (MSR Classics MS1284).
David Wilde offers the middle-period
Waldstein Sonata, No.21 on his new recording, one of the works also available separately from Nimbus. Wilde, who takes both sections very slightly faster than Roberts, is closer to the general consensus and on the whole slightly preferable. This time I think the contest between the two pianists a little less weighted in Wilde’s favour, though generally agreeing with Brian Reinhart, who thought this probably the highlight of the disc.
Lim plays the
Waldstein on the second disc of Volume 2 – CD4 of the complete set. Here again, the tempo of the first movement is too hectic: at 9:58 against Wilde’s 10:48 and Roberts’s 11:05, the music doesn’t have time to breathe. The same is true of the
Introduzione, here tracked as a separate movement, as on the Wilde recording. The final
Rondo is a real
tour de force combined with real delicacy in the slower sections, though the transition between the two can sound a little abrupt and brutal.
BR was slightly less impressed by Wilde’s take on the late sonata, Op.110. These late works are as difficult to bring off as the Late String Quartets with which they are contemporaneous; both perplexed Beethoven’s audiences and both can provide difficult listening even for modern ears.
There’s one set of the late sonatas that remains my benchmark: Wilhelm Kempff on DG E453 0102, an inexpensive 2-disc set of Nos. 27-32 from his 1960s stereo recordings. I didn’t consult him in the case of the
Hammerklavier for fear of seeming to be unduly influenced by nostalgia, but I can’t resist calling Kempff into comparison for No.31, Op.110. Jens Laurson, writing about Kempff’s recordings in a survey of what was available at the time (2009) finds it hard to pin down exactly what it is that makes Kempff’s Beethoven so superb. Overall I can’t better his summing up – ‘Solid, in the best, most empathetically positive sense of the word.’
Kempff and Roberts adopt almost exactly the same tempo in each of the opening movements of Op.110, with Wilde just a little slower than either. All three combine the
molto espressivo aspects of the first movement very well. Wilde is a little faster in the
fuga but, again, there’s very little in it. Kempff, on whose recording DG run these last two sections together, takes just 9:44 overall against Roberts’ 11:24 and Wilde’s 11:15. Both sections from Kempff are faster: his
adagio is certainly more
non troppo than from Roberts or Wilde, without losing any of its emotive power, and his fugue is certainly
allegro without losing sight of the
non troppo marking and without sounding hurried. As good as Roberts and Wilde are here, I’d certainly also want Kempff’s recording as an alternative.
Lim is even faster in the
fuga – tracked together on her recording, as with Kempff, and coming in at just 8:34. She starts the
adagio portentously and she’s generally both affective and effective in this section; by the clock she’s the fastest of all the recordings that I compared without seeming unduly hasty. Indeed, though she’s a minute faster overall even than Kempff, I enjoyed her take on this sonata more than I had expected.
Lim ends volume 1 with the
Moonlight Sonata. In the first movement she’s notably faster than Roberts and at least some of the magic is lost thereby; a good deal less than you might imagine from the comparative timings, but Roberts captures the
fantasia and allows us much better to see that the nickname is apt. I didn’t enjoy Lim’s tentative account of the second movement; it’s as if she were thinking out her approach on the spot where Roberts knows where he’s going from the start. Lim’s finale is sufficiently
agitato but here again there’s too much of a scrabble, even at a basic tempo not much faster than that of Roberts, and I thought her less than fully involved with the music.
One advantage of the Delphian recording concerns the inclusion of Wilde’s own notes, which are informative not only about the music but also about some of his decisions in performance. Even at the extremely advantageous price, I could have wished that Nimbus had also offered more detailed notes; you get just the playing times plus two pages on the music and a page on Bernard Roberts. If you purchase the Lim complete recording as a download from amazon.co.uk, the booklet of notes comes as part of the deal; I haven’t seen this, but I understand that some of HJ Lim’s thoughts are a little bizarre.
Overall, then, I’d certainly strongly endorse the complete Nimbus set for reliable performances – often much than that – a decent quality of recording and sheer value. I’d want to supplement it with individual recordings from some of the artists whom I’ve mentioned. Regrettably, despite their availability at a most advantageous price, neither of the individual twofers from HJ Lim’s new recordings nor her complete set would be among them. Give her Beethoven a few years to settle down and a complete set from her may well be well worth hearing. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to supplement Roberts with performances from a young pianist on top form, try Ingrid Fliter in Nos. 8
Pathétique, 17 and 23
Appassionata (EMI 045732: Bargain of the Month and September 2011/2 Download Roundup).
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International
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