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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonatas for Piano, Volume 3

  • Piano Sonata #3 in C Major, Op. 2 #3
  • Piano Sonata #9 in E Major, Op. 14 #1
  • Piano Sonata #10 in G Major, Op. 14 #2
  • Piano Sonata #25 in G Major, Op. 79
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Bridge BCD9207 DDD 73:38
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This is the third volume in Ohlsson's Beethoven series for Bridge. As I remarked in my review of Volumes 1 and 2 (BCD9198/BCD9201), I hope that this is a project he will take to its completion.

Last time around, I commented, "Ohlsson's Beethoven, while not really unusual, still has merit because of the things that he does that make these performances his… an unexpected tempo here, an intriguing bit of phrasing there, and so on. The listener is made comfortable, knowing that he or she is in good hands, but is not bored."

The same holds true here, although this disc is surprising in a way that its two predecessors were not. These are ultra-cool performances. Instead of giving in to Beethoven's rough humor and his mischievous propensity for shocking listeners, Ohlsson backs off even more than he did in Volumes 1 and 2. Initially, one gets the impression that these performances are almost sleepy. Tempos are very moderate. The central Allegretto of Sonata #9 sounds more like an Andante here. Similarly, the opening Allegro of Sonata #10 – to my ears, anyway – is really an Allegretto. Ohlsson's choices are almost off-putting until one has lived with them for a little while. Then one hears the humor of understatement in these readings. Rather than smacking you in the face with a banana cream pie, Ohlsson gently pokes you in the ribs over and over again, all the while maintaining the straightest of faces. What at first seemed almost dull then becomes devious. To that extent, these are very strange performances, and probably not for everybody, but I think they are completely valid. On the rare occasions when Ohlsson lets his poker face drop, it's almost unbearably funny. Take, for example, bar 44 in the second movement of Sonata #10. The dissonance on the third beat often passes by unnoticed, but here, Ohlsson makes it register with wonderful comic timing.

The pianist's technique is at his complete service. His touch and control are exquisite, and this also contributes to the (perhaps) calculating character of these readings. One or two less finely judged moments (bar 47 in the finale of Sonata #9, for example) would not register in many other performances; here, such revelations of humanity are touching. Or funny. I can't decide which.

As before, this disc has been produced, engineered, and edited by Adam Abeshouse with sterling results. This series is turning out to be noteworthy also for the number of pianos used. Volume 1 was played on a Steinway, and Volume 2 was played on a 1919 Mason and Hamlin concert grand. This time around, Sonatas #3, 9, and 10 were played on a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, while #25 was played on a Hamburg Steinway. Harris Goldsmith's booklet notes are fantastic little music-appreciation courses.

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle