Comparisons: Op. 10 Sonatas -
Brendel/Philips, Goode/Nonesuch; Op.
13 - A. Fischer/Hungaroton
Maurizio Pollini has
been taking a leisurely pace through
the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, having
started recording them in the 1970s.
His newest release is of the three Opus
10 Sonatas and the highly contrasted
Opus 13 "Pathétique". This adds
up to almost 70 minutes of music, a
strong departure from the typical Pollini
disc which often has less than 60 minutes.
The Opus 10 Sonatas
are never mentioned when Beethoven's
greatest piano works are being discussed,
largely because of their relative lack
of profundity. Generally, the music
is informed with humor, mischief, and
abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics.
Yet, there is a fair share of poignancy
and even tragedy and pathos as in the
2nd Movement "Largo e mesto" of the
Sonata in D major. The challenge for
the pianist is to blend these disparate
elements of youth and life experiences
into a coherent musical entity.
With just one exception,
Pollini gives a sterling performance
of the Sonata No. 5 in C minor. The
exception concerns the middle section
of the 1st Movement which requires some
degree of rapture. Instead, Pollini
offers it as a matter-of-fact reading
not needing any urging or supplication.
On the plus side, he fully captures
the music's youthful vigor, excitement,
and sudden shifts in tempo and dynamics.
His performance of the 2nd Movement
"Adagio Molto" is on the quick side
but imbued with heroism and confidence.
In his 1995 recording, Alfred Brendel
is much slower in the 2nd Movement than
Pollini, allowing for a full exploration
of the music and deeper meaning than
Pollini musters. Both interpretations
are very rewarding, and it is best to
simply state that Brendel takes the
more mature and conversational approach.
Overall, my loyalty
to the Brendel version of the C minor
is not shaken. He is just as exciting
and propulsive as Pollini with more
extensive emotional breadth. However,
Pollini is a major improvement on Richard
Goode who offers a tame and overly polite
performance that I consider at odds
with the composer's musical personality.
The Sonata in F major
has free-wheeling outer movements with
the 3nd Movement's fugato elements particularly
enjoyable. Pollini, as in the Sonata
in C minor, incisively conveys Beethoven's
impetuous demeanor; further, his fast
and determined 3rd Movement sounds as
if he's been 'shot out of a cannon'
and is a thrilling listening experience.
The 2nd Movement "Allegretto" is a different
matter. Pollini's performance reminds
me of the middle section of the C minor's
1st Movement: uninvolved and cool.
The Sonata in D major
is distinct from its two partners in
having four movements, and the work
starts off with a 1st Movement Presto
exuding brilliance and good cheer. The
2nd Movement Largo is thoroughly bleak
and tragic with its thick chords, quite
a departure from the range of emotions
previously encountered in Opus 10. The
3rd Movement is a graceful and upbeat
Menuetto with a little frenzy thrown
in for contrast. The 4th Movement Rondo
finds Beethoven playing tricks through
sudden pauses, off-the-wall variations,
and a conclusion that resolves nothing.
Pollini is again fantastic
in the speedy outer movements, but the
inner movements do not fare as well.
Brendel's 10 minute Largo is stunning
in its concentration and almost painful
to listen to, while Pollini shaves 2
minutes off Brendel's version with a
moderate level of tragedy and loss of
hope. In this case, the difference between
excellence and superiority is immense,
Concerning the Menuetto, Brendel offers
a more loving touch than Pollini.
Pollini concludes his
program with the famous "Pathétique"
Sonata that expresses the tremendous
ability of humankind to rise up against
severe obstacles. In the 1st Movement,
Pollini takes the opening Grave in heroic
fashion but then employs a casual right-hand
cadence that weakens the musical argument
[tr. 11 0.34]. Pollini's Allegro is
a powerful and slashing affair, although
he inexplicably slackens the momentum
for a short period [tr. 11 1.56].
I have no reservations
at all about Pollini's interpretation
of the 2nd Movement "Adagio cantabile".
I have always found Pollini at his best
in Beethoven's music that lends itself
to an heroic projection, and the 2nd
Movement easily accommodates the approach.
With the 3rd Movement Rondo, Pollini
uses his outstanding virtuosity to unleash
a torrent of energy; however, the affectionate
middle section could be rendered with
In conclusion, Pollini's
new disc is rather short on Beethoven's
warm-hearted music, and the condition
does take some of the glow off the performances.
Fans of the composer will certainly
want the recording, but others should
look to the Brendel disc for a more
complete set of interpretations. Also,
I find the Brendel soundstage superior
to Pollini's which is slightly glassy
in the upper registers. Of course, there
are also versions by Sviatoslav Richter
and Emil Gilels that match the excellence
of the Brendel performances. Pollini
does not hold up well to these exceptional
interpretations, his reputation for
being on the cool side having some validity
in his new release.