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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonatas

  • Piano Sonata #12 in A Flat Major, Op. 26
  • Piano Sonata #13 in E Flat, Op. 27 #1
  • Piano Sonata #14 in C Sharp minor, Op. 27 #2 "Moonlight"
  • Piano Sonata #19 in G minor, Op. 49 #1
  • Piano Sonata #20 in G Major, Op. 49 #2
Stephen Kovacevich, piano
EMI 57131
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This is a fascinating release in more ways than one. Of course, there is the entrée, but the chef has a surprise for dessert. Let's examine the main course first.

Every once in a while you hear a piece of music for the first time. Now, you may have already had the music on the player before, but it didn't register for some reason or another. Then a musician makes the music "come alive" and you are never the same again.

I have the "Moonlight" by Rubinstein and Plentnev, both of which have had critical acclaim. I played them but nothing stirred me. Then I got this disc and now I know what I have been missing.

Let me take Rubinstein first. It takes only a few moments into the sonata before you can discern the difference. Rubinstein never did have much pianissimo and that is the case here. His fingering is sharp and there is no reverberation. The sound is almost clinical in its precision. It leaves me flat when it should be sharp. (Sorry about the pun.) Then there is Kovacevich. I have said elsewhere that I consider him to be one of the two finest pianists alive today (the other is Argerich and I treasure a disc that includes them playing Debussy's En Blanc et Noir). Kovacevich is not just playing the music, he is exploring it, finding nuances that Rubinstein just doesn't have. I found myself frequently going "wow" or muttering scatological comments of praise. His "Moonlight" haunts the moment and the memory. Others will disagree and likely prefer Rubinstein. So it goes.

As for Plentnev, I have always found his playing fleet and facile. Nuff said.

Now for the surprise. I am able to offer comparisons for the less-known Sonatas 12, 19 and 20. For comparison I will consider Kovacevich One. Actually, numbers 12, 19 and 20 were released earlier on EMI 56148 in 1996. That disc included #30 and the bagatelles. The recordings here, however, are from a different date, I assume, and you will note by just looking at the timings that there are serious differences here. The evidence is heard in variations 1 and 2, which in 1996 timed in at 1:47 but are at 4:47 three years later!!! Seriously, folks, EMI really screwed up the timings on the variations for this latest release. In fact the first two variations come in at exactly the same times of 1:47. While there are some minor differences here and there, the timings are pretty close. If anything, Kovacevich is a tad slower in 1999. For example, consider the funeral movement from the 12th Sonata. In 1996 Kovacevich played it in 5:16 by 1999 it went to 5:41. For example, the funeral march Well, okay, now what?

The funeral march offers an example of the differences. For one thing, the notes accompanying this latest release are more informative than the notes in three years earlier. In particular, I didn't know then that the slow movement of #12 (track 8) was played at Beethoven's funeral. It is a fascinating movement including drum rolls and "ritual 'gun shots" [thanks to Jeremy Siepmann's excellent notes, details that are new here]. It occurs to me that once you become aware of something, to paraphrase Einstein, it is never the same again. In fact, it has changed in the process of feedback and it is different than it was, or will be. While I The 1999 performance is sadder, more introspective. The recording adds to the ambience, being more resonant and warmer. It brings to mind the slow movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" very solidly. The 1996 performance, for some reason brings to mind Schubert. I don't know why, but it does. It is also less involving for me. You might feel that the 1996 Kovacevich was feeling much the young lion three years ago and has now mellowed to wisdom in his observations.*

The sound is excellent. I have read reviews by others that have panned the sound of some of his releases. I have never shared their opinion. This release is warm, yet with lovely detail. I find it more involving than the 1996 releases even though that one is not bad.

I cannot begin to tell you what a wonderful, educational experience this has been for me. I do wish there had been some discussion of the different recordings in the insert notes.

Okay! Let's have One through Three and the "Hammerklavier". I have high hopes that Kovacevich will help me better appreciate that Mt. Everest of piano sonatas. So far I have been let down by everyone, even "the greats". Solomon has come closest.

For those that skip to the bottom line, don't do that. It short-circuits the learning process.

* Looking back at my review of three years ago, I have to admit I feel that I can "see" evidence of my growth and learning about classical music. What I wrote then seems facile to me today. I look at what I have written above and wonder if I will have similar feelings about today's efforts in 2004.

Post Script: For those who are interested there is an interesting site that provides biographical detail about Kovacevich, including the reasons for his name changes over the years. The host of the site, Ethan Hoo, tells me that he believes the re-recordings are due to the poor sound of the earlier release. Check out:

Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II