Badura-Skoda: Astrée Auvidis (CD 8691-8699)
Barenboim: DG and EMI Classics.
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.
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)