No shortage of Beethoven sonata cycles


June 13, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven loom large in the history of music and even larger in the repertory of pianists. They are not simply the greatest sonatas for the instrument ever written by a single composer, they are also the way we measure how good a musician the pianist is.

Notice the distinction between "musician" and "pianist." The works that we generally measure pianists by are those of Frederic Chopin. We usually think of the great Chopin interpreters -- Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein, say -- as great pianists, while great Beethoven players, whether Serkin, Schnabel or Brendel, are customarily called great musicians.

There is something patently false about this -- it takes a greater musician to put across a successful performance of Chopin's B minor Sonata than it does Beethoven's "Waldstein" -- but the distinction persists. And Beethoven's reputation is still such that no matter how much acclaim a pianist receives (the young Evgeny Kissin is an example), questions remain about how good XTC a musician he or she is until we have heard his or her Beethoven.

That is why there will never be a shortage of Beethoven sonata cycles. At least eight pianists are engaged in climbing this Mount Everest -- or, more properly, because there are so many sonatas -- this Himalayan range of the repertory. The American Richard Goode (Nonesuch) and the Irishman John O'Conor (Telarc) are near the end of their respective cycles, and the Frenchman Jean-Bernard Pommier is midway through his. There are also the transplanted American Stephen Kovacevich, resident in London for more than 30 years, and the transplanted Englishman Ian Hobson, now living in the United States, who have just issued the first volumes in recorded cycles (EMI and Arabesque, respectively), and Alfred Brendel, usually thought of as the greatest living interpreter of this music, who has just started his third recorded cycle (Philips), with the first two volumes expected to be in shops this month. Then there are the fortepianists, at least two of whom -- Melvin Tan (EMI) and Steven Lubin (London) -- have already issued CDs in what are promised as complete cycles.

It must be said immediately that no pianist -- for a variety of reasons -- ever achieves equal success in all these pieces. There is, first of all, the difficulty of the music. The opening, for example, of Beethoven's early Sonata in D major (opus 10, No. 3) is more difficult than anything that had been written for the keyboard up to that time, and the composer's presto tempo marking makes it truly effective only in the hands of the best players.

Then there are the differing emotional demands of the music. No other composer -- except perhaps for Bach -- dwells in so many emotional universes. Beethoven can be dreamy (the opening of the "Moonlight"), unbelievably violent, angry and even tragic (the "Appassionata"), jocular (opus 31, No. 3), whimsical (opus 79), visionary and prophetic (the three last sonatas) or just downright peculiar (opus 90).

And, finally, there is the intellectual challenge. Some sonatas -- the "Waldstein" and opus 31, No. 3, for example -- practically play themselves in that almost any good pianist and musician can have success with them. But some of them -- particularly the 50-minute opus 106 (the "Hammerklavier") -- have an abstract quality and a grotesquerie of tone that puts them beyond a mere handful of players.

Of the cycles that are just about to be completed -- Goode's and O'Conor's -- I much prefer the former. O'Conor enjoys lovely recorded sound, and he always plays well, but he rarely makes an experience out of any of these pieces. Goode, on the other hand, often makes the music a matter of life-and-death importance. His is not a great technique -- he is rather like Brendel in this regard -- but it is always sufficient to the composer's challenges -- whether of the trills of opus 111, the gunpowder explosions of the first movement of opus 10, No. 3, or the stamina required by the "Hammerklavier" fugue.

No complete recording will ever replace the first, pioneering effort of Artur Schnabel (EMI) -- which, despite occasional technical glitches, remains unique -- but Goode's cycle deserves to be in the collection of most people who care deeply about this music.

I am also impressed by Pommier's performances on Errato. Why this Frenchman, now about 50 years old, has never had a bigger career is a mystery. He has it all -- a big technique, a beautiful tone and thoughtful musicianship. His two volumes of CDs comprise the first 20 sonatas, and most of his playing is satisfying. There may be no revelatory surprises -- maybe those will come later when he gets around to the last sonatas -- but his playing represents the thinking of someone who has lived with this music for a long time.

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