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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

 

 

 

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas

No. 8 in c, Op 13 Pathétique (1798) [18.14]
No. 9 in E, Op 14, No. 1 (1798) [12.46]
No. 10 in G, Op 14, No. 2 (1799) [14.19]
No. 11 in Bb, Op 22 (1800) [22.25]
No. 12 in Ab, Op 26 (1801) [18.24]
No. 13 in Eb, Op 27, No. 1 (1801) [15.09]
No. 14 in c sharp, Op 27, No. 2 Moonlight (1801) [14.01]
No. 15 in D, Op 28 Pastorale (1801) [22.37]
No. 16 in G, Op 31, No. 1 (1802) [22.12]
No. 17 in d, Op 31, No. 2 “Tempest” (1802) [22.05]
No. 18 in Eb, Op 31, No. 3 (1802) [21.39]
No. 21 in C, Op 53 “Waldstein” (1804) [25.02]
No. 22 in F, Op 54 (1804) [12.58]
No. 23 in f, Op 57 Appassionata (1805) [24.40]
No. 24 in f sharp, Op 78 (1809) [10.23]
No. 25 in G, Op 79 (1809) [9.29]
No. 26 in Eb, Op 81a Les Adieux (1810) [16.21]
No. 27 in e, Op 90 (1814) [13.09]
David Allen Wehr (piano: Yamaha CF111S)
Piano technicians: Frank Dillingham, Mike Miccio, Kasuya Tsujio.
rec. Music Hall, Tarrytown, New York, USA, 12-13 June 2003 (8-15) 23 December 2003 (23-26), First Presbyterian Church, Utica, New York, USA, 14 July 2004 (16-18, 21, 27),
CONNOISSEUR SOCIETY CD4262 (Vol. 2) [78.15 + 79.40]; CD4263 (Vol. 3) [79.05 + 79.10]
 


Comparison recordings:
Paul Badura-Skoda: Astrée Auvidis (CD 8691-8699)
Daniel Barenboim: DG and EMI Classics.
Wilhelm Kempff: DG, Hänssler (CD 94.046, etc)
 
As you can see from the comparison recordings, I like my Beethoven piano sonatas fresh and cool, and David Allen Wehr is fully in that mold. Although the name may not be familiar to you, Mr. Wehr is a stupendous pianist. His technique, aside from his interpretive style, is only comparable to Murray Perahia. One can forget the music and simply listen to the incredible beauty and precision of the notes he plays; it’s enough to make a piano teacher sob from pure joy. One ought to note that these Beethoven sonatas were recorded in a remarkably few hours in the studio; Mr. Wehr really sounds that good, he doesn’t need fifty takes and 100 hours of editing to come out on top. Wehr is the pianist Glenn Gould should have been, the pianist he thought he was.
 
The sound on this recording — 96kHz digital recording with Sony Super Bit Map mastering — is a thin hair away from an SACD in clarity and definition. Added to the magical skill of E. Alan Silver, one of the truly legendary great recording producers of our time,* this is a recording to cherish purely for the sound. You will never come a lot closer to actually sitting next to a piano. Connoisseur Society recordings have been setting a critical standard for many decades, and it is exciting to see new recordings from them with all of the traditional quality, but also using the latest advances.
 
The early sonatas Mr. Wehr plays with a classical directness and transparency. It is only with Op. 57 that he begins to flail and shriek with the best of them, while never losing his control and clarity. While no pianist is or ever will be directly comparable to Wilhelm Kempff — and the tragedy for us is that Kempff needed an audience to really play to his limit, that is, his studio recordings never quite measured up** — Wehr has certain qualities of technique and style in common with the great German master. Of course Kempff was a profoundly mystical man and had the genius of conveying that sense to us. Wehr does not convey mysticism, but solid musicianship, drama, and poetry. It is certainly telling that the only other recording by Wehr in my collection is the music of the “American Ravel,” impressionist Charles Tomlinson Griffes. He brings the same precision, grace and clarity to his Beethoven, something Beethoven surely needs and doesn’t often get.
 
This selection, this bite out of the middle of the Beethoven sonata opus, is a good sampling. We can assume - yes, that’s dangerous, but stay with me - that the earlier sonatas will be played, as these early sonatas are, in full view of the fact that Beethoven made his public reputation playing Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier in a world where Haydn and Mozart were the standards to be met. It is reasonable to expect, as we find here, that every note matters, every note should be heard, and that the movement of the several voices should be clear and to the fore.
 
The later sonatas in this set do not really tell us — nothing could — just how Mr. Wehr will play the very last sonatas, the ones Leschititsky advised his students never to play. Beethoven was mad when he wrote them and a pianist who tries to remain sane while playing them just may not make it — either he won’t bring them off, or he won’t be able to come back afterwards. The Waldstein Sonata, Op. 53, exactly halfway to the Hammerklavier, utilizes a few of the stylistic devices Beethoven will later amplify and use in the construction of his last works, and Mr. Wehr here plays this sonata exactly as he should, in view only of what has come before, not, as most pianists do, with full knowledge of what came after. Hence this is a rather tame Waldstein in comparison, but a beautiful and poetic Waldstein nonetheless.
 
The performance of the Moonlight Sonata is particularly excellent, so if you’re seeking a gift for a friend who loves the Moonlight and might enjoy having his or her horizons broadened, this set is an excellent choice. Lest I have given you the impression that these are namby-pamby performances, let me put that aside. Played in Vienna for an audience that knew the keyboard works of Haydn and Mozart, they would be perceived as rude and shockingly barbaric, as were Beethoven’s own performances.
 
Badura-Skoda’s complete set of the sonatas from 1988 is played on surviving examples of Beethoven’s pianos contemporary with the times of each sonata, and the authenticity extends to the pianos being slightly uneven in regulation and not perfectly in tune. Beethoven probably allowed his instruments to slide into disrepair since he could no longer hear them in detail, but could feel the sound vibrating through his fingers. Badura-Skoda’s interpretation, matched exactly to the instrument, illuminates many vital things about the sonatas even as some of them are a little annoying to listen to, but any Beethoven scholar or aficionado is well advised to hear this invaluable contribution to Beethoven scholarship. His version of No. 23 is particularly fascinating.
 
Barenboim, an artist who in my book can do no wrong, has recorded the Beethoven sonatas regularly throughout his long and exemplary career, and is still recording them. He currently has complete sets available from both EMI and DG. The critics, as one might expect, are either hot or cold, rarely in the middle, but the general consensus seems to be that the youthful earlier set on EMI, which I have not heard, is better. The DG set, which I know, has been my standard for modern recordings for some time. Whether Barenboim intends that his later recordings should supersede his earlier ones is not known to me. All his performances are exciting and vitally interesting but some critics feel they are over-interpreted and naive. He received excellent recordings from Westminster, EMI, and DG, but, regrettably, nothing quite so good as Connoisseur Society could do.
 
There are those who argue passionately that the historic and fascinating Artur Schnabel recordings of Beethoven sonatas stand as absolutely definitive and nobody else should ever be allowed to record this music. People who say that already know all there is to know and no discussion is possible.
 
*For the most part practice limited to the pianoforte.
 
**There is his complete set on DG, but time spent searching out live recordings and historic recordings is time well spent. I heard him in concert, and spoke to him afterwards, a high point of my musical life.
 
Paul Shoemaker
 
Also available
CD4261 Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas, Volume 1 (2 CDs): Op.2 (Nos. 1,2,3), Op.49, (Nos. 1,2), Op.7, Op.10 (Nos. 1,2,3)



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