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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 (1797) [16:45]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2 (1797) [14:37]
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3 (1798) [20:26]
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique" (1798) [17:33]
Maurizio Pollini, piano
Recorded Herkulessaal, Munich, September 2002. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 810-2 [69:35]

Comparisons: Op. 10 Sonatas - Brendel/Philips, Goode/Nonesuch; Op. 13 - A. Fischer/Hungaroton

Maurizio Pollini has been taking a leisurely pace through the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, having started recording them in the 1970s. His newest release is of the three Opus 10 Sonatas and the highly contrasted Opus 13 "Pathétique". This adds up to almost 70 minutes of music, a strong departure from the typical Pollini disc which often has less than 60 minutes.

The Opus 10 Sonatas are never mentioned when Beethoven's greatest piano works are being discussed, largely because of their relative lack of profundity. Generally, the music is informed with humor, mischief, and abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics. Yet, there is a fair share of poignancy and even tragedy and pathos as in the 2nd Movement "Largo e mesto" of the Sonata in D major. The challenge for the pianist is to blend these disparate elements of youth and life experiences into a coherent musical entity.

With just one exception, Pollini gives a sterling performance of the Sonata No. 5 in C minor. The exception concerns the middle section of the 1st Movement which requires some degree of rapture. Instead, Pollini offers it as a matter-of-fact reading not needing any urging or supplication. On the plus side, he fully captures the music's youthful vigor, excitement, and sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics. His performance of the 2nd Movement "Adagio Molto" is on the quick side but imbued with heroism and confidence. In his 1995 recording, Alfred Brendel is much slower in the 2nd Movement than Pollini, allowing for a full exploration of the music and deeper meaning than Pollini musters. Both interpretations are very rewarding, and it is best to simply state that Brendel takes the more mature and conversational approach.

Overall, my loyalty to the Brendel version of the C minor is not shaken. He is just as exciting and propulsive as Pollini with more extensive emotional breadth. However, Pollini is a major improvement on Richard Goode who offers a tame and overly polite performance that I consider at odds with the composer's musical personality.

The Sonata in F major has free-wheeling outer movements with the 3nd Movement's fugato elements particularly enjoyable. Pollini, as in the Sonata in C minor, incisively conveys Beethoven's impetuous demeanor; further, his fast and determined 3rd Movement sounds as if he's been 'shot out of a cannon' and is a thrilling listening experience. The 2nd Movement "Allegretto" is a different matter. Pollini's performance reminds me of the middle section of the C minor's 1st Movement: uninvolved and cool.

The Sonata in D major is distinct from its two partners in having four movements, and the work starts off with a 1st Movement Presto exuding brilliance and good cheer. The 2nd Movement Largo is thoroughly bleak and tragic with its thick chords, quite a departure from the range of emotions previously encountered in Opus 10. The 3rd Movement is a graceful and upbeat Menuetto with a little frenzy thrown in for contrast. The 4th Movement Rondo finds Beethoven playing tricks through sudden pauses, off-the-wall variations, and a conclusion that resolves nothing.

Pollini is again fantastic in the speedy outer movements, but the inner movements do not fare as well. Brendel's 10 minute Largo is stunning in its concentration and almost painful to listen to, while Pollini shaves 2 minutes off Brendel's version with a moderate level of tragedy and loss of hope. In this case, the difference between excellence and superiority is immense, Concerning the Menuetto, Brendel offers a more loving touch than Pollini.

Pollini concludes his program with the famous "Pathétique" Sonata that expresses the tremendous ability of humankind to rise up against severe obstacles. In the 1st Movement, Pollini takes the opening Grave in heroic fashion but then employs a casual right-hand cadence that weakens the musical argument [tr. 11 0.34]. Pollini's Allegro is a powerful and slashing affair, although he inexplicably slackens the momentum for a short period [tr. 11 1.56].

I have no reservations at all about Pollini's interpretation of the 2nd Movement "Adagio cantabile". I have always found Pollini at his best in Beethoven's music that lends itself to an heroic projection, and the 2nd Movement easily accommodates the approach. With the 3rd Movement Rondo, Pollini uses his outstanding virtuosity to unleash a torrent of energy; however, the affectionate middle section could be rendered with greater feeling.

In conclusion, Pollini's new disc is rather short on Beethoven's warm-hearted music, and the condition does take some of the glow off the performances. Fans of the composer will certainly want the recording, but others should look to the Brendel disc for a more complete set of interpretations. Also, I find the Brendel soundstage superior to Pollini's which is slightly glassy in the upper registers. Of course, there are also versions by Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels that match the excellence of the Brendel performances. Pollini does not hold up well to these exceptional interpretations, his reputation for being on the cool side having some validity in his new release.

Don Satz

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