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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1 [76:54]
Piano Sonata in C minor Op. 13, “Grande Sonate Pathétique” (1798-99) [18:35]
Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 Sonata quasi una Fantasia, “Moonlight: (1801) [15:49]
Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 28, “Pastorale” (1801) [22:44]
Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [19:30]
CD 2 [73:58]
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 53 “Waldstein” (1803-04) [23:21]
Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” (1804-05) [24:16]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [26:11]
CD 3 [79:12]
Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 “The Tempest” (1801-02) [22:16]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81a, “Das Lebwohl” (“Les Adieux”) (1809-10) [15:38]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106. “Für das Hammerklavier” (1817-18) [41:10]
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
rec. Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall and No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Opp. 31/2, 53, 110) 1992 (Opp. 53, 110); 1994 (Op.31/2); 1997 (Op.13); 1998 (Op.28); 1999 (Op.27/2, 57); 2001 (Op.106); 2002 (Op.81a); 2003 (Op.111)
EMI CLASSICS 2153142 [3 CDs: 76:54 + 73:58 + 79:12]


Experience Classicsonline

As is well known Kovacevich’s recording of the cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas was a protracted affair. This box forms a core selection and sports recordings dates over a decade apart, the earliest dating from 1992 and the most recent from 2003.

Critically speaking this cycle came in for an uneven reception. Listening to these particular sonatas again confirms one in the belief that Kovacevich veers from tranluscence and tonal beauty to a powerful straining at the leash that more than once causes unsettling things to happen. Whatever else may be true these are performances that are never dull.  

The Moonlight is a emblematic case study. It opens very slowly though not in a way that seems either especially nuanced or indeed very expressive. But Kovacevich, after negotiating the Allegretto with sang froid, then reveals his schema for the work, which is a sting in the tail – a daemonically driving, helter skelter finale unleashed with ferocious force. 

When we reach the Appassionata we encounter a less overtly fearsome presence but one that remains palpably insistent, chordally tenacious, and a performance that gives us a broadly externalised texture. It’s immensely impressive but rather one-sided. The Hammerklavier opens a touch under the mark but is architecturally cogent. The scherzo can be a little heavy, whilst the slow movement is a rather aloof, perhaps, tonally refined but not overtly expressive. I must admit I find Les Adieux far preferable, indeed one of the very best played and interpreted of the examples in this three CD set. It’s a powerful traversal but along with the clarity and directness we find an expressive depth and a taut rhythmic profile that is not the product of Kovacevich’s sometimes too powerful attacks.

The sense of unceasing attack can be felt in the opening movement of the Waldstein sonata – some indeed may find it too unyielding. I think the same may be the case with Op.111 which shares something of this gargantuan quality and in addition to which, the Arietta never quite takes flight. Op.110 however does attain a cathartic power that isn’t predicated merely on tensile strength.

The recordings are necessarily variable given the wide span of time and the two locations involved. As a core selection of Kovacevich’s Beethoven this set reveals exceptional pianism though the results are somewhat more ambivalent.

Jonathan Woolf 




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