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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas, Op. 2 (1795): No. 1 in F minor [15’00]; No. 2 in A [22’07]; No. 3 in C [23’51]
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Rec. January 2003 (Nos. 1 and 2) and June 2002 (No. 3). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5 57730-2 [61’36]

Kovacevich continues his Beethoven Sonatas recordings on EMI with ‘Genesis’ (the three sonatas, Op. 2). There is much here to admire. Clearly EMI thought so too – production levels are of the highest, with a recording team comprising John Fraser and Mike Hatch, and informed booklet notes by the noted authority Joseph Kerman. The recording quality is simply superb, conveying all the character of a top-notch Steinway.

The F minor sonata, whatever its fiery quirks, remains firmly wedded to its Haydnesque models. Kovacevich seems intent on pointing this out, his brisk tempo and his tone seemingly imitating a fortepiano. Consistent with this approach are the stabbing sforzandi; a more assured way with the prevalent turn-figures would have clinched it (some of the difficult left-hand ones are awkward). A fast (‘authentic’?) speed for the Adagio means that it helps Kovacevich to sit on the surface of the music, although his expressive way with chromatic neighbour-notes is to be admired. Alas there seems to be a caveat to each of the middle movements – the Menuetto is robust and goes with a swing and he successfully invokes a four-part string quartet texture, yet the very opening could be more shifty. The finale brought about an interesting phenomenon. In my listening notes, I observed that in the Prestissimo last movement Kovacevich seemed to look forward to the F-minor of the Appassionata’s finale on the one hand, and simultaneously look back to the quirky world of C.P.E. Bach. Reading Kerman’s booklet notes later, I found him invoking a similarly Janus-like image for this Sonata, referring to the finale of the Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3 and forward to the finale of the ‘Moonlight’. There is no doubting that this is Kovacevich’s most successful movement, however. Taken at a true Presto, his left-hand is astonishingly nimble and pedalling is exceptionally carefully considered so that definition survives. Dynamic contrasts, it has to be admitted, could possibly have been greater, but Kovacevich nevertheless succeeds in bringing the sonata to a stunning close.

The A major, Op. 2 No. 2, brings a performance that just misses the cheeky wit that is part of early Beethoven’s persona. My affections here lie with Backhaus on Decca (which only seems to be currently available in a box of the complete Sonatas, 433 882-2, although it is from the ffrr LP that I remember it). Under Kovacevich’s hands, scales chase each other almost playfully, and he has an unnerving habit of slowing and indulging at every opportunity. Much better is the element of the processional brought to the Largo appassionato, and there is an appealing charm to his Scherzo. If he may initially seems over-brutal and brusque at this movement’s close, it soon becomes apparent this is to contrast with the suave arpeggio that opens the finale.

There seems very little gap between the second and third sonatas, surely a production error – the listener needs more time to savour the end of the second.

The C major sonata is notoriously tricky (all those white notes!). At 0’32, for example, the left hand sounds awkward – it is, assuredly, but at this level we should not hear it as such. It is true that there is a certain excitement to this movement in Kovacevich’s reading, but that seems to spring from the fact he is struggling with the notes rather than any pre-conceived notion of youthful verve. What this really needs is true effervescence, something Kovacevich seems unwilling to supply.

There is an appropriate courtly feeling to the Adagio, yet Kovacevich does not conjure up the required concentration, leaving us to skim on the surface of the music again. If there is an element of cheek to the Scherzo, is it not just that little bit under-tempo to truly capture the caprice of this movement?. A literal account of the finale confirms this as the weakest of the three performances on this disc.

There is much to admire here - Kovacevich has clearly thought long and hard about these works. Yet doubts creep in that, once there, never really go away.

Colin Clarke


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