Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 7 in D; No. 15 in D,
No. 17 in d,
Luisa Guembes-Buchanan (pn)
DEL AGUILA 55307 (66:37)
As readers are well aware, the same CD sent out for review to two different critics very often elicits very different opinions; and thus it is with this one. In my first encounter with Luisa Guembes-Buchanan back in 29:4, I reviewed her three-disc set of Beethoven’s last three sonatas and
, commenting that to my ear her approach most closely resembled that of Alfred Brendel. Then, in the much more recent 36:1 issue, colleague Radu A. Lelutiu had the opportunity to review Buchanan’s latest Beethoven album—the one under review here again, this time by me—containing the composer’s three sonatas in the key of D. Lelutiu, in his review, disagreed strongly with my earlier assessment, claiming to hear in Buchanan’s playing none of Brendel but much of Wilhelm Backhaus.
Now it’s my turn to disagree with Radu, for I hear in Buchanan’s playing none of the qualities he ascribes to Backhaus, namely, angularity, impulsivity, and virtuosity. It’s as if Radu and I heard two entirely different recordings. In fact, even without having read Radu’s review, I’d have characterized Buchanan’s performances of these three sonatas in exactly the opposite terms. When I listen to Backhaus, I do indeed hear a pianist who “emphasizes the angularity, impulsivity, and virtuosity of Beethoven’s scores, approaching them with a kind of militancy that favors the whole over its parts,” just as Radu describes. But when I listen to Buchanan, what I hear is a pianist who emphasizes sustaining of the line through a more legato touch and a mellower tone, and who appreciates that you cannot have a forest but for the individual trees.
I’m also at a loss to understand Radu’s impression that Buchanan’s tempos, like Backhaus’s, are on the swift side. It’s said that perception is reality, so perhaps Radu perceives Buchanan’s tempos differently than I do. But when it comes to reality, fact trumps perception, and a direct comparison of the timings between the two pianists reveals that with the noted exception of the
Largo e mesto
movement in op. 10/3, Buchanan’s tempos are in fact slower than Backhaus’s, though, admittedly, not by that much. Overall, Buchanan takes 22:10 to Backhaus’s 19:11 for the “Pastoral” Sonata, and 22:28 to 21:10 for the “Tempest.” I will concede, however, that Buchanan’s tempos are generally faster than Brendel’s, the pianist to whom I previously compared her.
As for the
Largo e mesto
, I would just point out that modern views of Beethoven have changed since the pianists Radu mentions—Backhaus, Schnabel, and Arrau—set down their Beethoven cycles. Maurizio Pollini, for example, makes even shorter work of the movement than Buchanan does, 8:18 vs. 8:29; and faster still is Craig Sheppard at 8:07.
You’d think that Beethoven would have provided metronome markings for his piano sonatas, but with the exception of the “Hammerklavier,” he didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s probably not unreasonable to extrapolate from the quite brisk metronome settings he did indicate for many of his other major works that he would have expected his slow movements to be played at more moving tempos than were generally taken by many famous mid 20th-century pianists, not to mention some fairly recent ones. I suspect, though I wouldn’t want to make a generalized statement about it, that performers playing period instruments also adopt a quicker pace. Ronald Brautigam, for instance, makes his way through the
Largo e mesto
While a review is not the appropriate place to take issue with opinions expressed by another critic, I feel it necessary to address Lelutiu’s vehement disagreement with my comment in 35:3 that the
to Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata is one of the composer’s weakest slow movements. When I use the word “weak” in reference to a piece of music, or point to the “weakness” in a work, I’m not speaking of its surface appeal, and this is something I need to clarify for Radu as well as the reader. “Weakness,” as I define it, has to do with form or structure, and usually some shortcoming in continuation and/or development. The problem with this particular
, as I see it, is that it’s static in its harmonic ambiguity, much in the way the Introduzione movement is in the “Waldstein” Sonata; but unlike in the latter, the “Tempest’s”
is not anticipatory of anything. It poses a mystery, but then simply ends without fulfilling the promise of that sublime revelation which dawns with those first quiet, exalted strains of the “Waldstein’s” last movement. It’s not uncommon for Beethoven to experiment with a new idea or technique early on in a way that’s not entirely satisfactory, only to perfect it in a later work in which its effect is miraculous and magical. In isolation, the “Tempest’s”
is entirely adequate to its purpose, but you can’t know all of Beethoven and not recognize that it lacks that special spark of what’s to come.
Which brings me back to Luisa Guembes-Buchanan and the three sonatas on this disc. If it’s a Category 5 hurricane you’re looking for in the “Tempest” Sonata, I suggest you turn to Fazil Say. His performance on a 2005 Naïve CD (5016) initially left me speechless—not something easily achieved—but on repeated hearings, as I suspected, it hasn’t worn well. Its speed and ferocity yield the shock effect of a concussive blast and little else, leaving the fabric of the music, not to mention one’s nerves, torn to shreds. Guembes-Buchanan’s storm is ultimately more effective, and more musical, for its cumulative gathering of force as it proceeds through the first movement. How she accomplishes this is not through sudden tempo adjustments or lunging forward into the more animated passages, but rather through subtle gradations of dynamics, where no two fortes are given quite the same weight. As a result, one receives more of a sense of the eddying currents of the winds, which don’t necessarily blow unabated with the same strength, but vary in the intensity of their gusts.
If Beethoven shared Mozart’s sensitivity to the nexus between key and affect—i.e., the existence of emotional or character trait specificity among keys—you’d never know it from the two D-Major sonatas on this disc, for no two works in that key could present as different a character profile as the Sonata No. 7, op. 10/3, and the Sonata No. 15, op. 28, dubbed the “Pastoral.”
It’s clear from the earlier of the two that Beethoven was not just in a rambunctious mood, he was intent on dazzling his audience with his virtuosity and compositional cleverness. In explaining the over 50 repetitions, inversions, and permutations of the sonata’s opening motive, Guembes-Buchanan, in her self-authored album note, quotes Charles Rosen, who said, “Rarely has so much been made of so little.”
But clearly Beethoven was in a mood to push the envelope of the piano’s workings as well; for as Luisa points out in her note—verified by other sources I checked—the high F? in measure 22 of the exposition and the low E and D in bars 271–272 did not exist at the time Beethoven composed the three op. 10 sonatas between 1795 and 1797–98. Indeed, in Oliver Ditson & Co.’s 1876 edition of the score, the F? is printed above the staff in smaller size than the rest of the notes, with a footnote explaining that it would have been added by Beethoven had the compass of his piano admitted it. This may be taken to mean one of two things, or both: (1) that the note didn’t exist at the time, but Beethoven wanted it; and/or (2) that it was a brand new innovation found on newly built instruments but not on older ones, and that on those new instruments Beethoven would have expected the note to be played.
The “Pastoral” Sonata, written in 1801, not long after op. 10/3, shares with the earlier work the same key signature but is of a D Major completely different in means and expression. Where op. 10/3 was primarily motivic and triadic in construction and concentrated on rhythmic manipulation, op. 28 is primarily thematic and conjunct in construction and concentrated on harmonic manipulation. The “Pastoral” is also unique in another way. Excluding the two early three-movement sonatas, op. 14/1 and 2, dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun, and the three-movement middle sonata of the op. 10 set, op. 10/2, dedicated to Countess Anne Margarete von Browne, the “Pastoral” Sonata is the first of Beethoven’s mature sonatas to contain no real slow movement. The second movement, marked
, is a strange, almost haunting thing that seems to recall the funeral march movement from op. 26, only in accelerated fast-forward mode.
Guembes-Buchanan proves herself expert at delineating the very different compositional methods and techniques Beethoven drew upon for these two D-Major works. She is exquisitely sensitive to the variety of colors and moods that can be found in scores not that chronologically far apart that share the same tonality.
The “Tempest” Sonata, of course, is a whole different piece of cloth. In the parallel rather than the relative key of D Minor, it may share the same tonic, but it doesn’t share the same key signature. Beethoven didn’t name it “Tempest”—that credit goes to Anton Schindler—but there’s no gainsaying that the sonata—at least its first movement—is tempestuous. Here again, Luisa demonstrates a profound, as opposed to superficial, understanding of the music’s intent. I mentioned earlier the performance by Fazil Say who tears into the piece like a kamikaze pilot on a suicide mission. The problem is that the kamikaze pilot only gets to do it once. Luisa understands that the essence of the music’s power lies not in the force of its gale, which in any event is intermittent and variable, but in its unwavering iron will. Her performance is one of durability.
Luisa’s tempos, as noted by Lelutiu, are on the fast side, but no more so, really, than Pollini’s, whose Deutsche Grammophon recordings I used for comparison. In fact, in a couple of instances—the last movements of the “Pastoral” and “Tempest” sonatas, Pollini is faster: 4:37 vs. 4:51, and 6:04 vs. 6:37, respectively. Again, my take on this is that, given what we know about Beethoven’s metronome markings in the works for which he provided them, Guembes-Buchanan’s faster tempos are more in keeping with modern interpretive thought on the subject than are the slower tempos favored by the mid 20th-century pianists Lelutiu cites.
Overall, this is a very satisfying Beethoven disc, the kind that has enduring value and that one will come back to for sustenance and satisfaction again and again.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins