Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 11 in B?,
No. 21 in C,
op. 53 “Waldstein”;
No. 29 in B?,
op. 106 “Hammerklavier”;
No. 30 in E,
Christian Leotta (pn)
ATMA ACD2 2487 (2 CDs: 126:10)
Born in 1980, Italian pianist Christian Leotta studied with Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Artur’s son and a revered
teacher and pianist in his own right. The musical legacy that extended back in a teacher-pupil line from Karl Ulrich to his father to the elder Schnabel’s teacher, the famous Leschetitzky, to Czerny, and finally Beethoven is significant in its communication of styles and ideas. Christian Leotta, in his musical interests and ability, seems to have benefited from this heritage (he is one of many of today’s most admired pianists—e.g., Richard Goode and Peter Serkin—who studied with K. U. Schnabel). Leotta’s devotion to Beethoven can be seen in his many performances of the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas; also of interest is that he is the youngest pianist since Daniel Barenboim to play the complete cycle in concert over a period of less than one month; this is not a project for the faint of heart! Since his first such series he has repeated it more than a dozen times in cities around the world.
It is a given that a traversal of the Beethoven sonatas requires a prodigious technique, and like his compatriot Maurizio Pollini, Leotta certainly has one. But a good technique encompasses more than agile fingers—it requires also a good deal of finesse: a variety of keyboard touches, an ear for the nuances of dynamic and thematic changes. As I followed his performances with my score, I was struck with the fidelity of his readings, including the specific pedaling indications given by the composer. He comes close to Beethoven’s metronome markings for the “Hammerklavier,” although they have been declared virtually unplayable by many pianists, and succeeds in producing a clear and lucid account of the final fugue without sacrificing its underlying power and drive. His tempo for the great F?-Minor slow movement—marked Adagio sostenuto—is a little slower than Schnabel’s, but has an intensity that propels it through its extended length. He is sensitive to those heart-stopping changes of harmony heard in the theme (and in its repetitions throughout the movement), where Beethoven unexpectedly modulates from C?-Major to G Major before returning to F?-Minor.
I find Leotta’s forceful energy completely compelling in the demanding opening movements of both B?-sonatas, op. 22 and op. 106. The repeated notes of the opening of the “Waldstein” sonata unfold with suppressed energy waiting to explode. Leotta digs deep into the keyboard for his
but does so without banging. The serenity of the opening theme of the finale, with Leotta following Beethoven’s indications to pedal over tonic and dominant harmonies, is perfectly executed, so that the melody rings out softly but clearly beneath the gentle blurring of the accompaniment. The tempo is on the slow side, but has an appropriately serene and magisterial feeling to it. In the first movement of op. 109, the changing character of the music demands flexibility from the player in terms of sound and expressiveness, which Leotta provides beautifully in the shaping of the movement. In the final (variations) movement, the pianist sometimes hesitates before the final beat of a phrase, which although surely meant as an expressive device, becomes something of a mannerism. But in technical matters the variations are brilliantly played.
The excellent recording was made in the Gustav Mahler Auditorium in Dobbiaco, Italy, on a magnificent-sounding instrument—not identified (although, oddly enough, the name of the piano tuner is). However, since the sonatas in both the first and third volumes were recorded on Hamburg Steinways, one can assume the same for this second disc in the series.
Christian Leotta is an intelligent and vivid pianist who brings a deft keyboard technique and a musical mind to the challenge of playing Beethoven. The remaining sonatas of the cycle, as he continues to record them, are eagerly anticipated.
FANFARE: Susan Kagan
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