> Beethoven 32 variations McCawley [TH] : Classical Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 80 (1806)
Andante WoO 57
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ (1798)
Six Variations on an Original Theme, Op.34 (1802)
Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ (1810)
Leon McCawley (piano)
Recorded at St. George’s Hill, Bristol, April 26-27 2000
BLACK BOX BBM 3003 [64.47]
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This recital of popular works by Beethoven has attracted some very positive critical attention, and it’s easy to see why. Leon McCawley’s fresh, direct approach pays real dividends in much of this music, and his youthful vigour and superb technique ensure that boredom never sets in, even in the most familiar pieces.

The ‘Pathétique’ (to start with the most familiar) gets off to a real no-nonsense start, with the dynamics of the bold introduction acutely observed; McCawley sees Beethoven’s ff marking in relation to the p marking, producing weight of tone rather than ugly distortion, as so often happens in this section. It is possible to argue that some of the contrast is slightly smoothed out, but I for one was convinced by his intelligent, lyrical approach. His unaffected, songful reading of the famous slow movement is never sentimental or maudlin. The crisp finale again slightly underplays the sforzando accents, but he waits patiently (as do we the listener) for the final page to be the correct climax, a stormy coda crowning the performance.

The great ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata receives a similarly well thought through reading. With its explicit programme, this piece is easily vulgarised. Not here. From the pensive, questioning opening motif (that so haunted Mahler) McCawley traverses the work’s many mood swings with consummate musicianship. The haunting slow movement, with its daring harmonies, is beautifully characterised, and there is no want of thrilling virtuosity in the finale, marked Vivacissamente and delivered with controlled abandonment.

The shorter items in this recital are also hugely enjoyable. The little Andante, once destined as the slow movement of the ‘Waldstein’ but famous in its own right as the Andante Favori, gets a suitably limpid, delicate reading, at least at the outset. As things hot up, particularly the athletic octaves at 5. 30, McCawley begins to open up the stops. Structure is obviously important to this artist rather than surface excitement, and this does make for satisfying listening, even when one yearns for a little more variety here and there.

Variation form was always one of Beethoven’s favourite compositional devices, and the two sets here make for marvellous listening, especially when so much is packed into so short a space. The superb 32 Variations in C minor last barely 10 minutes, but in McCawley’s hands become a real short ride in a fast machine. This is the boldest playing on the disc (which makes it an excellent opener), though again we never lose sight of the clear structural boundaries. The Six Variations Op.34 show us more of Beethoven’s dark humour, and are played here with a poise and clarity that is entirely winning.

I had originally found myself asking what the purpose of giving us such well known ‘war horses’ on a new label could be, and could only conclude that it was entirely to show the talents of a new or young artist. This often proves to be a disappointment, and one turns with a sigh of relief to old favourites. Whilst not displacing any of my ‘benchmarks’, Leon McCawley has certainly succeeded in making me listen to familiar music with fresh ears. He is well served by the engineers, who manage to tame a resonant acoustic, giving his well-voiced piano a satisfyingly warm ambience. Notes are virtually non-existent, though the website gives plenty of information and background. Recommended.

Tony Haywood

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32 Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 80

Andante WoO 57

Sonata for Piano No. 8 'Pathetique' in C minor...
Grave - Allegro di molto e con brio

Adagio Cantabile

Rondo (Allegro)

Six Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 34

Sonata for Piano No. 26 'Les Adieux' in E flat...

Das Lebewohl (Adagio - Allegro)

Abwesenheit (Andante espressivo)

Das Wiedersehn (Vivacissimamente)


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