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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

A Single Breath – Last Three Piano Sonatas

  • Piano Sonata #30 in E Major, Op. 109
  • Piano Sonata #31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110
  • Piano Sonata #32 in C minor, Op. 111
Beth Levin, piano
Navona Records NV5908 66m
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Any pianist taking on the challenge of recording Beethoven's sonatas – all of them or just some – is aware of the daunting prospects of finding something new to say. Well, "finding something new" is obviously not going to be an easy task, owing to the hundreds of previous recorded versions by the likes of Arrau, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Brendel, Goode, Korstick, Oppitz, Schnabel, and countless others. Some of these pianists have recorded the entire cycle three or more times, and with great distinction on each occasion. Thus, a pianist's objective should be to turn in artistically sensitive performances without necessarily attempting to distinguish the results from everyone else's just for the sake of staking out some supposedly new territory.

In these three great Beethoven sonatas Beth Levin, a former child prodigy who would go on to study with Rudolf Serkin and Paul Badura-Skoda, offers fairly conventional interpretations but with a wide range of emotion and philosophical discourse, with all manner of dynamics and nuance, with phrasing that always sounds tasteful and never calculated, and with ample technique to meet all the pianistic hurdles. If I can associate her style with that of a pianist prominently associated with Beethoven, I would mention Alfred Brendel, as both seem to exhibit a selfless, lean sort of approach.

Levin captures the sense of lightness and optimism in the first movement of #30 and fully conveys the deeper expressive character of the finale. Her tempos are well judged and tend to be centrist, and not a single note in the performance will strike you as a misstep but rather as an integrated part of Beethoven's grand scheme.

#31 is given the same kind of sensitive treatment, with judicious tempos, imaginative but always tasteful phrasing, and deftly employed dynamics of all shadings. Pianists like Barenboim and Buchbinder, to my ears, tend to play Beethoven very effectively but not quite with the dynamic range of Levin. Her pianissimos are very soft but always audible and her fortissimos are powerful but never over-the-top. That's not to suggest that Levin is necessarily superior to these two pianists, but I can say she aims for, and typically achieves, greater subtlety in her dynamics than most pianists.

Levin's performance of #32 is equally convincing. Her first movement is full of drama and mystery at the outset, and then the main theme comes on with a fateful, probing manner that brims with energy and dark portent. In the long second movement Levin effectively takes the music through various transformations before arriving at that final place, a sort of paradise of serenity and peace.

My only cavil here is the sound of Levin's instrument, which often comes across as a bit hollow or tinny in tone. Perhaps it's the recording techniques employed or the acoustics. Whatever the case, it is not a major problem, as one can easily adjust to the sound and fully enjoy the performances and music. In sum, those looking for fine performances of these three masterpieces will certainly find this disc a worthwhile acquisition.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings