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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonatas

  • Piano Sonata #5 in C minor, Op. 10/1 (1797)
  • Piano Sonata #6 in F Major, Op. 10/2 (1797)
  • Piano Sonata #7 in D Major, Op. 10/3 (1798)
  • Piano Sonata #15 "Pastoral" in D Major, Op. 28 (1801)
Stephen Kovacevich, piano
EMI 56761
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"Everything should be both surprising and expected." So said Beethoven* as I read in Reliable Knowledge this summer of '99. That notion really captures the essence of his work. I have called his Fifth Symphony the most perfect symphony ever written. This is not the same as saying it is the "best" but it is the most perfect. Everything in it flows with an inevitability that escapes being predictable because it is also surprising. The same is true of the music heard here.

I have never before heard Beethoven's earlier piano sonatas. I am happy to report that the insert notes, written by Robert Dearling, provide an excellent musical map to the ones presented here. His writing is not technical and provides relevant biographical asides to assist you as you follow the music.

Kovacevich is among my favorite pianists. In the past year I have been learning to discern the differences between pianists and develop preferences that I can articulate. For example, I have also learned to love the playing of Martha Argerich. At the same time I have come to find Rubinstein less involving. Where Argerich and Kovacevich seem to impart soul to the music they play, Rubinstein seems to be merely playing the music. Yes, he plays it damn well, but that is not enough for me. There is a recording of Argerich and Kovacevich in Debussy's "En Blanc Et Noir" that I would love to get my hands on.

Kovacevich's touch is liquid, like raindrops on a pond. The music seems to flow into itself, as though the notes end where they begin. Other pianists play the music so that each note is separate, distinct if you will, and that seems to disrupt the flow I like. The bottom line is that this disc, as all the others in the Kovacevich cycle, has brought Beethoven's Piano Sonatas to life for me. This is true not only with this disc, but in the other five that have been released so far.

As I said, the notes are really good, especially for the novice. So, I won't attempt to discuss the items in detail since it would largely be cribbing from Dearling. I will share a few notes I made during several nights of listening. The second movement of #5 is exquisite and tender. Now, those are words you might not think relevant to Beethoven, but by God it is there. Perhaps Kovacevich brings this out where others miss it, but I cannot say. In that sonata's last movement Beethoven uses (for the first time?) music that later is realized as the opening of his Fifth Symphony. While listening to the Pastoral, I found myself moving to the music (who says you can't dance to classical music?). Here I was able to make a comparison. I played Alfred Brendel's recording from his earlier Philips cycle. Nope. No swaying, no toe-tapping. It is all very nice, but Kovacevich captures just that extra essence that brings the music to another level.

At one point I wrote that "Kovacevich is the Stokowski of the piano". He seems to realize that music is more than black notes on white paper. His playing has roused my curiosity about the earlier sonatas. I now want to get other interpretations by other pianists of #5-7. I want to find out what other pianists feel in this music. I want to explore and learn more. If a recording can do this for you, then you can't ask for more. Kovacevich offers this.

I found the recording very good. The latest technology brings a warmth to the recording of all CDs and this is so here. I just realized that I still can look forward to Kovacevich's "Hammerklavier"! I have yet to hear a recording that brings this music to life for me, only Solomon has come close (EMI 64708). Then there is also "Les Adieux" etc., etc.

*Reliable Knowledge. John Zimer.

Copyright © 1999, Robert Stumpf II