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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”a (1817-1818) [45:20]; No. 31 in A, Op. 110b (1821) [20:02]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, a13 May 1968; b16 June 1971. amono. ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42412 [65:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Perhaps it is the sheer dignity of Serkin’s Beethoven that shines through most strongly here. At times, there is an objectivity that recalls Gilels rather than the more glacial but no less impressive Pollini – both on DG. Chris de Souza’s notes refer to Serkin’s technical failings, and certainly around 7:20 in the first movement things begin to get uncomfortable – the impression is that Serkin is feeling around for both notes and direction. The sense of structure is not as firm as Pollini, either.

Serkin’s Scherzo sits with the best of them, however. Capricious to the hilt, Beethoven’s humour is projected faithfully and with elan, in full contrast to the towering stillness of the great Adagio sostenuto. The transition to the finale is captivating from first to last – Serkin makes one aware of the truly exploratory nature of the writing, emphasised by his sparing use of the pedal. The fugue is laid bare with a surgeon’s precision in terms of voice-leading; also, Serkin’s pacing is masterly, with the effect that the climax approaches the overwhelming. The enthusiastic applause is fully justified.

The serene opening to Op. 110 is slightly held back, emotionally. Again, there is a sense of inevitable unfolding of Beethoven’s argument. The second movement (“Allegro molto”) comes as a shock, its roughness unhidden. Serkin surely is attempting to include the whole World in this sonata - a feat normally attempted with Op. 106 - and succeeding. This impression is continued by the fugue of the finale.

The recorded sound is focused throughout, enabling Serkin’s carefully considered detailing to shine through. 

In 2005, Music & Arts issued an invaluable Beethoven/Serkin twofer that deserves a place in every pianophile’s library. It shares space and holds its head high with not only the pianists mentioned above, but also with Schnabel and Solomon. These BBC Legends accounts flesh out the repertoire presented there, and act as further reminder of Serkin’s stature.

Colin Clarke 



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