Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 4 in E?; No. 5 in c; No. 6 in F; No. 7 in D; No. 8 in c,
No. 9 in E; No. 10 in G; No. 11 in B?; No. 12 in A?
, “Funeral March”;
No. 13 in E?; No. 14 in c?
François-Frédéric Guy (pn)
ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES 111101 (3 CDs: 216:42)
Though not so designated, this three-disc set
appears to be the opening act in yet another complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle. François-Frédéric Guy has previously recorded the “Hammerklavier” twice, once in 1998 coupled with the Sonata No. 30 in E Major, and again in 2007, coupled with the G-Minor Sonata No. 19. Both were for different labels, Harmonia Mundi and Naïve, respectively, and both were enthusiastically received by Charles Timbrell, the first in
21:6, the second in 30:4. My own one and only previous encounter with Guy was not so positive. In a 28:1 review, I found his live recording of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with Paavo Berglund and the London Philharmonic disappointing. But then Beethoven and Brahms are two very different composers, and from reviews of Guy’s performances I’ve read elsewhere, it seems that he has become something of a Beethoven specialist.
Speaking of which, a review of a Guy recital that appeared in the
Sydney Morning Herald
mentions that the pianist is recording the complete Beethoven sonatas for Naïve, and indeed that was the label of record for Guy’s 2007 “Hammerklavier.” Obviously, between then and when these current recordings were made in late 2010 and early 2011, the Guy-Naïve project must have fizzled and was picked up by Zig-Zag Territoires.
As good or back luck would have it, I just finished reviewing a CD of Beethoven sonatas performed by Jonathan Biss, and three of the four sonatas on his disc—Nos. 5, 11, and 12—happen to be duplicated in this Guy set. The Biss review took me longer to write than usual, because he’s an artist I’ve been previously impressed by, so I found myself really wanting to find the positive aspects of his latest effort when, in truth, I just wasn’t that excited by his readings.
Now that I’ve been able to compare Biss and Guy side-by-side in the same sonatas, I have to say that there’s quite a difference and it doesn’t lean in Biss’s favor. Listening to Guy, I am immediately struck by how alive, animated, and full of fantasy his playing is. It’s not a question of tempos or dynamics, which are roughly comparable between the two pianists, but a matter of phrasing, inflection, articulation, connections between notes, and the communicativeness of silence in the rests. I hesitate to say that Guy milks the music for every last drop of expression because that would suggest his readings are overly fussy and too romanticized. But it’s true that he does seek and find subtle ways of delivering a phrase here and a passage there that endow it with some special import.
Objectively, if you listen to both Biss and Guy while following the scores, you would probably concede that Biss is the more observant of the holy writ, while Guy sees the notes as living, breathing organisms that can adapt and evolve and, as a result, come alive for him in a way they don’t for Biss. Take, for example, just the two opening bars of the Adagio molto from the Sonata No. 5. Guy takes an almost imperceptible breath on the last beat of each measure leading into the next. It’s very subtle, but it’s there, and it impregnates the phrase with a feeling that’s quite inexpressible.
This is just one tiny example of the continuous shading and shaping of details with a whole array of various techniques that gives Guy’s readings a sense of breathing, of dancing, of laughing and sobbing, and of a complete and utter spontaneity so natural that you know if he sat down to play the same piece again it would be different. This is the mark of a great Beethoven interpreter and of a great artist. I can honestly say that I can’t recall when I’ve taken as much pleasure in listening to a collection of Beethoven sonatas as I have in listening to Guy’s. I may not be quite ready to advise you to throw out every recording of the sonatas you have on your shelf, but when Guy’s cycle is complete, it will be the one to have.
The recordings, made in France’s Arsenal de Metz, are magnificent. However, there is one last thing I need to report that may be an issue for some listeners. The booklet does not make clear whether some or all of these performances were recorded live. But unexplainably, applause is included at the ends of the sonatas nos. 7, 11, and 4, which happen to be the last sonatas on each of the three discs. It’s highly doubtful that just these three sonatas were recorded live and the rest weren’t. So, my guess is that the production team, for whatever reason, edited out the applause at the ends of all the sonatas, except for the ones that come at the ends of each disc. Either that or the audience held its applause until the end of each group of sonatas. Either way it seems very strange, and it’s a bit unnerving. If it’s technically feasible, I would urge Zig-Zag’s engineers to edit out the three applause points in subsequent runs of the set. Other than that, Guy’s Beethoven gets my highest recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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