Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 4 in E?,
No. 5 in c,
No. 21 in C,
op. 53, “Waldstein”;
No. 27 in e,
Timothy Ehlen (pn)
AZICA 71261 (78:52)
Piano Sonatas: No. 5 in c,
class="ARIAL12b"> No. 6 in F,
No. 7 in D,
No. 17 in d,
op. 31/2, “Tempest”;
No. 18 in E?,
No. 19 in g,
No. 20 in G,
No. 22 in F,
Garrick Ohlsson (pn)
BRIDGE 9274 (2 CDs: 137:37)
Piano Sonatas: No. 21 in C,
op. 53, “Waldstein”;
No. 22 in F,
No. 23 in f,
op. 57, “Appassionata”
Michael Korstick (pn)
OEHMS 661 (SACD: 57: 48)
Here are the latest installments in three Beethoven sonata cycles, at various stages of completion: the final volume (9) of the Ohlsson series; Vol. 8 of the Korstick cycle, a little over halfway through a series that seems to be including the variations as well as the sonatas; still quite early days for the Ehlen cycle, at Vol. 3. All three cycles are new to me.
The caliber of Garrick Ohlsson’s artistry has been well known for the past 40 years. Coming in at the end of his Beethoven cycle, on this evidence it’s a crowning achievement to set alongside his complete Chopin traversal for Arabesque (Hyperion). This is magisterial Beethoven playing, of sculpted, marbled splendor and spacious deliberation. Allegros are consistently a little slower than usual (is the first movement of op. 10/1 really
Allegro molto e con brio
?), though this emphatically does not translate to greater relaxation (see the finale of the same work, weighty and intense, with icy control). The outer movements of op. 10/2 have great brilliance and precision (the second-half repeat omitted on both occasions); those of No. 3 in D have a stringent rigor and concentration stressing ruthless logic, their element of improvisatory fantasy minimized. Phrases are sculpted in high relief—in the first movement of No. 1 in c, hear his precision of articulation in the second theme, spaciously molded with long, deliberate melodic turns; in the slow movement of the same work, listen to his eagle-like pouncing on the downward arpeggios at bars 17 ff. The deliberation can occasionally seem overdone: The central F-Minor Allegretto of No. 2 is somber, literal, and rather impersonal; and the provocatively slow tempo for the Minuet of No. 3 comes across as pedantic.
The “Tempest” has a spare quality, of formidable concentration and coiled-spring tension, along with extreme refinement in the inner world of the first-movement recitatives. In the finale, Ohlsson’s unusual deliberation takes on a bitter edge, imparting a doggedly prickly quality to the restless
—those melodic embellishments at bars 43 ff. really sting (though they’re also artfully varied). The slow movement has great purity and intensity, its lyricism projected with chiseled clarity. Op. 31/3 in E? is all objectivity and control, the measured tempos in all four movements missing something of the music’s high spirits. In the first movement of the “red dwarf” op. 54, the pervasive iron control similarly shortchanges the sense of fantasy in the successive reprises’ ever-proliferating embellishments. On the other hand he makes good use of his slower-than-usual tempo for the finale, really taking the time to savor the music’s extraordinary harmonic richness, and also leaving room for an extreme tempo increase in the last page’s
, which really takes off. The little op. 49 sonatinas are played with an unusual weight and sharpness of focus.
Malcolm MacDonald’s notes are surprisingly sub-par for this writer: B? is not the relative of D Minor; the finale of the “Tempest” is not a sonata-rondo; there is no modulation in the second half of the Minuet of op. 31/3; and he misunderstands the form of the same work’s second-movement Scherzo—the passage in F (bar 64) is not the reprise; a full reprise in the tonic does occur later, at bar 106. If note-writers insist on addressing such matters, they should make sure they get them right. But the playing’s the thing, and these discs make me want to hear the whole cycle.
On the evidence of the Oehms disc, German pianist Michael Korstick’s is an uncommonly interesting one, too. His “Waldstein” immediately commands attention in its uncompromising, even machine-like perfection—one tempo strictly maintained through the entire exposition, with no yielding whatsoever for the chorale-like second theme. His tone is dark, glinting, of diamond precision and limpid beauty. At first I was put in mind of the chilly, detached perfection of Pollini, but on closer inspection Korstick turns out to be temperamentally quite a different animal, more mercurial and assertive. His dynamic sensitivity is extraordinary—hear the ferocious contrasts brought out at the beginning of the coda (bars 249 ff.), and the wicked, whiplash accents a little later (272 ff.). His controlled tension from the end of the development leading into the recapitulation is phenomenal. The extended introduction to the finale is very slow and concentrated, with a positively agonizing subtlety of nuance that put me in mind of Curzon (who never recorded this work—or indeed any Beethoven sonata, more’s the pity). His playing of its central tune, absolutely straight with no improvisatory feeling, manages to combine tonal richness with a quite monastic sense of cerebrality; in context, the off-beat accents in bars 14–15 are shocking in their sting. The finale has an immense dynamic, coloristic, and articulative range; the virtuoso writing is incandescent and the “Hungarian” episodes in A- and C Minor are delivered with a vicious bite and kick. Ultimately, his sheer control can start to feel a little reined in, overly objective—in the retransitional passages, I miss the sense of vast distances opening up, particularly in bars 239 ff., in that long, slow journey back from D?-Major.
The first movement of op. 54 again finds him relishing accents and dynamic contrasts, in a reading of tremendous brio and crackle, although the tone has a tendency to harden in those moss-gathering accretions to the main theme (e.g., bars 118 ff.). The finale is formidable but a little brutal, a remorseless juggernaut lacking something in light and shade. The first movement of the “Appassionata” is played with formidable technical élan, the dynamic contrasts cleanly sculpted in high relief, and with some ear-catchingly novel pedal effects (e.g., his impressionistic blurring of the descending scale at bars 47 ff.). It’s highly effective in its way, but in the last resort perhaps a little one-dimensional—compare Korstick’s remorseless assault on the main theme’s
restatement (bars 17 ff.) with the richly pliable, shaded chiaroscuro of Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi). In the Andante con moto, his aggressive, disruptive accents (bar 5 etc.) really take one aback; indeed as the movement progresses, it takes on a stubborn, inflexible, angry quality that is most unusual. The finale possesses a cyclonic fury at an uncompromising tempo, superbly sustained; here, the lacerating accents do not disappoint (e.g., bars 142 ff. of the development section). Overall, this is uncommonly stimulating—if not always completely convincing—Beethoven playing, and I look forward to hearing more from this exciting pianist.
Timothy Ehlen is on the faculty of the University of Illinois, and was a new name to me. One always strives to approach reviews without preconceptions, of course, but I must admit to being taken aback by the sheer personality of this playing—consistently characterful, richly detailed, with the kind of minutely sensitive imaginative response exemplified by Andras Schiff (ECM) among contemporaries, and perhaps his great compatriot Annie Fischer (Hungaroton) from an earlier generation. Op. 7 opens with a tempo slightly leisurely for an
Allegro molto e con brio
—if he misses a little of the manic, headlong quality others find here, he uses his extra time well to savor details, with phrasing of real shape and direction. (His own booklet notes go into a detailed argument concerning
in the development section—the point is unclear, though, without reference to bar numbers; and he conspicuously neglects to address the question of his decision—unusual in this day and age—to omit the exposition repeat both here and in the “Waldstein” first movement.) The Largo is played with considerable (and very convincing) rhetorical freedom, with a spontaneous narrational quality that is highly compelling, enhanced by light, precise pedaling. I am less convinced, though, by his pronounced de-synchronization of hands in the middle section. In the Minuet, his plastic rhetorical shaping is again very characterful, though the impatient hurrying through bars 5–6 becomes a mannerism on its numerous returns. The stormy E?-Minor Trio is very well done, with an ear-catchingly imaginative response to the
markings. The finale has a graceful lyricism on an intimate scale.
In op. 10/1, his outer movements are immensely characterful—there is an impulsive edge to the playing, which can really live dangerously (in a way the imperiously controlled Ohlsson never does). His acute response to dynamics and accents is consistently stimulating, and at times very exciting. The Adagio has a marvelous sustained lyricism, with a plastic rhythmic flexibility—pulsating, breathing life in the accompanimental figuration (e.g., in the main theme’s consequent phrase, bars 9 ff.), and a singing vitality to inner-voice lines (especially in the coda).
Ehlen’s “Waldstein” is more classical in scale than Korstick’s, eloquent and vital, with an exciting surging momentum through the first-movement development section. The slow introduction is hushed and inward, with that spontaneously improvisatory feeling I missed in Korstick’s version. The finale is notable for his scrupulous observance of the long-held pedal effects (tricky on a modern piano, and well managed). There is exciting rhythmic vitality as well as the kind of supple expressive shaping over long spans that I missed in Korstick. In op. 90, Ehlen’s first movement catches to perfection the improvisatory, “speaking” style he alludes to in his notes. The finale is taken at a slightly faster tempo than usual, with an intimate, confessional tone that is quite special, imparting a hint of urgency as a welcome corrective to the cozy domesticity too often on offer here.
The intimate scale of the playing is enhanced by the recording’s impression of a small room, with an attractively “woody” tang to the piano tone, along with a surprisingly clangy bass at times, though I don’t find it inappropriate for the music. (The instrument is not identified; the notes tell us Ehlen is an “International Steinway Artist,” but it doesn’t sound like one to me.)
In short, the three discs (or four, counting Ohlsson’s two) offer ample evidence that there’s still plenty left to say about these sonatas. While I can recommend all of them with confidence, I have the feeling that the cycle with the richest rewards will turn out to be the Ehlen. I eagerly look forward to following the rest of it.
FANFARE: Boyd Pomeroy
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