John O'Conor is not one to get in the way of the music. His traversal of Beethoven's final sonatas is practically free of the hairpins and rouge that denote "style." That's not a knock on other pianists whose basic techniques stipulate a dressier performance; in fact, those are the players more often invited to record the complete sonatas: Brendel, Serkin, and going way back, Arthur Schnabel. O'Conor is not exactly aloof, but his approach is "not" a lot of things. Not pained, not majestic, not stormy. Not uneven, crass, or maudlin, either. He's blessed with fantastically balanced hands, a supple tone, and metronome-smooth phrasing. The union of these traits is his disassociate, anti-idiomatic playing - Beethoven in a vacuum.
I like it though, and I've fallen in love with his Op. 109 theme and variations. His cantabile line in the fourth variation, where the angelic sixteenths call and respond, is heartrending - and innocently so, as if O'Conor weren't aware of the effect. This self-effacing quality presides over the very next sonata, despite the indication maestoso. There's a nifty bass motif here that prefigures Wagner's Tannhäuser overture, a heroic descending scale that to Beethoven is hardly worth a second glance. Another Beethoven-as-futurist moment opens Op. 111; heightening the Pathétique flavor is a doleful, diminished interval, the hallmark knell of Liszt's B minor sonata.
I have a suspicion that this record will grow on me, and that O'Conor's motives gradually will be revealed. He has first-rate support from Telarc; his German Steinway is easy on the ear at all sound levels (try the sforzandos of the Op. 110 Allegro molto). Very good notes. Virtually bulletproof - technically and artistically.
Copyright © 1997, Robert J. Sullivan