Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 29 in Bb,
No. 28 in Ab
Mari Kodama (pn)
PENTATONE 5186391 (SACD: 60:14)
With this final volume Mari Kodama sets out to scale the Everest of Beethoven’s sonatas, the “Hammerklavier.” This is no undertaking for the physically weak, the psychologically timid, the musically unprepared, or the spiritually irresolute. Happily, I can report that Kodama is none of these. Hers is an exceptionally lucid reading of the
piece, one that lacks for nothing in determination and true grit, or in concentration.
She sets a good, solid, middle-of-the-road, no-nonsense tempo for the opening
movement—not as fast Pollini (10:45 in 1976) or as slow as Gilels (12:24 in 1983), both of whom deviate from the median, which is 11:06 among those I compared. András Schiff, in his live 2006 recording for ECM, amazingly hits that magic number right on the head; and closest to him, just five seconds off the mark at 11:11, is Kodama. Next closest is Craig Sheppard at 11:12. Alfred Brendel comes in second to last in his 1970s cycle for Philips, but at 11:41, he’s still several noses ahead of Gilels. I’m leaving out of this first-movement equation recordings by Schnabel and Kempff because neither of them takes the repeat.
Timings for the Scherzo between those I compared are so close as to be negligible. But in case you’re curious, the median is 2:42, which this time is hit by two players, Schnabel and Pollini. Schiff and Kodama are both one second faster at 2:41, while Kempff and Ashkenazy are both two seconds slower at 2:44. Once again, Gilels brings up the rear at 2:52, but this time Brendel comes in second to first at 2:39, with Sheppard beating him by six seconds, at 2:33.
It’s when we come to the expansive
that what I’m about to say will no doubt be objected to by some readers and perhaps one or two colleagues. Of the Sonata’s four movements—indeed, quite possibly of any movement in Beethoven’s entire output—this massive
invites the widest range of interpretive approaches in matters of tempo; yet, the irony of it is that the “Hammerklavier” is the composer’s one and only piano sonata for which he provided his own metronome markings, and the
is marked 92 to the eighth-note, the meter being 6/8. One wonders then how timings can vary by 4:21 between the fastest (Schiff at 15:29) and the slowest (Gilels at 19:50), and that’s only among the nine I compared.
Here’s where the median becomes a useless measurement, because due to the spread in timings between slowest and fastest, it leads one to believe that 17:12 (the median) is the “just right” tempo. But it’s not, not even close, if you factor in Beethoven’s metronome marking. At a setting of 92 to the eighth-note, the
should take no more than about 15-and-a-half minutes, which means that out of the nine performances I listened to for this review, seven of them are simply way too slow. If you accept that Beethoven’s metronome wasn’t defective and that he knew what he wanted, I’d go so far as to venture that almost every famous pianist that has ever played the piece—at least within the modern recording era—has played it too slow. We’ve somehow projected onto this
meaning of such profound spiritual and cosmic significance that its message can only be communicated in a trance-like state of stillness. Beethoven would probably be amused, if not enraged, that anyone would drag this movement out for almost 20 minutes.
Now, as I said above, of the nine performances I compared for this review, seven were too slow. Care to guess which two weren’t? Schiff, at 15:29 matches Beethoven’s metronome marking of 92 nearly to the nanosecond of a beat, and almost as close is Mari Kodama at 15:53. Judgments of right vs. wrong should never, of course, be made in matters of musical interpretation based on a single factor—in this case tempo—for many other performance factors are involved. But I can say that in addition to taking Beethoven at his word on the matter of tempo, Kodama is scrupulously attentive to the score when it comes to observing dynamic and expressive markings. Aided by her Steinway D-274 and PentaTone’s magnificent SACD recording, Kodama also gives us a powerful and exceptionally transparent fourth movement with its convoluted fugal writing.
I know there will be those who will ask, “How can you rate Kodama in the same league as Schnabel, Kempff, Pollini, and other giants of the keyboard?” To which I would reply, “Buy the disc, listen to Kodama’s ‘Hammerklavier,’ and answer the question yourselves.”
Kodama’s Ab-Major Sonata is as lovely, lyrical, boisterous, and joyful as her “Hammerklavier” is suffused with majesty, nobility, and dignity. This earns a well-deserved place in the winner’s circle.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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