Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonata No. 2. Scherzo,
Eric Le Van (pn)
GALLO 1203 (60:56)
From an early age, the American pianist Eric le Van has been drawn to Brahms’s music, and it appears that he may be recording a cycle of the solo piano works. I hope so. Much time has elapsed between the appearance of this release, recorded in 2009, and his well-received, earlier recording of the sonatas Nos. 1 and 3.
He’s a master of this repertoire, and I’d be eager to hear him in Brahms’s later works, particularly the sets of variations, sooner rather than later.
Le Van meets Brahms’s technical and musical challenges so completely that one is able to concentrate wholly on the powerful, unsettling music presented here. The Second Sonata, a work composed before Brahms was 20, predates the First, and has a strain of wildness and excess that’s missing, or tamed, in Brahms’s subsequent music. The Sonata is a fascinating example of a bold, experimental manner that may have been characteristic of the many early works that he destroyed. Along with passagework and keyboard display that remind me of Liszt—sequences of diminished chords, rhetorical repetitions, grandiose chordal perorations—there’s also an obsessive economy of means in the strict use of a concise melodic cell that interrelates the movements’ themes. The angrily striving quality of most of the Sonata’s music makes it a work more admired than loved. Its slow movement, a theme and three variations, is portentous, never soothing or ingratiating, and lacking the mellow loveliness of the
that makes the otherwise unwieldy Third Sonata a much more popular work.
If passages in the Sonata No. 2 bring Liszt to mind, the Scherzo, op. 4, is indebted to Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, specifically its opening theme. Despite the similarity of the two scherzos’ formal construction, Brahms’s work has none of Chopin’s suavity, just a fierce, turbulent energy that Le Van delivers powerfully. In the Ballades, which are more technically manageable than the earlier music, he well captures the stark, foreboding quality of much of the music in the first three, and winds down the set (and the CD) with a sensitively voiced reading of the much gentler Fourth.
Among the better-known recordings of the Sonata—those of Richter, Arrau, and Zimerman (a classic)—Eric Le Van’s playing holds its own. The steely precision of his octaves and chords in the Sonata, Scherzo, and the scherzo-like Third Ballade is second to none. His authoritative interpretations bring coherence to music that can easily sound sprawling or aimless in performances with less purposeful delineation of structure, or less precise rhythmic control.
The sound of the piano is clear and a little edgy, which suits the music. Le Van’s extensive, scholarly booklet notes on each work, as well as general matters of interpretation, contain writing of uncommon depth and interest, whether he’s comparing Brahms’s early piano music to Edmund Burke’s definition of the sublime, or supporting Wagner’s arguments for a flexible approach to tempo.
FANFARE: Paul Orgel
Works on This Recording
Ballades (4) for Piano, Op. 10 by Johannes Brahms
Eric Le Van (Piano)
Written: 1854; Germany
Venue: Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA
Length: 23 Minutes 12 Secs.
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