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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas:-

Sonata in G major, Op. 31 No. 1 (1802) [24.20]
Sonata in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 ‘Tempest’ (1802) [21.57]
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 (1802) [21.23]
Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1 (1797) [8.12]
Sonata in G major, Op. 49 No. 2 (1797) [8.19]
Sonata in C major, Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’ (1804) [24.20]
Sonata in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [9.47]
Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’ (1804) [23.47]
Sonata in F sharp major, Op. 78 (1809) [10.06]
Sonata in G major, Op. 79 (1809) [9.35]
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ (1810) [17.22]
Kun-Woo Paik (piano)
Rec 30th April – 8th May 2005, Wyastone Quays, Monmouth
DECCA 475 6909 [3 CDs: 58.03 + 58.46 + 63.43]

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in the early 1790s, he soon made a strong impression with the musical public, but as pianist rather than composer. Contemporary evidence suggests that his improvisations at the keyboard abounded in brilliant ideas and featured sudden changes of mood. Yet despite his individuality Beethoven did not seek to break with the tradition of the Viennese classical style, the tradition which had drawn him to the city. Rather his intention was to modify the formal procedures of the time, in order to suit his own expressive needs. And nowhere can this development be more clearly traced than in the sequence of thirty-two piano sonatas that span the entire period of his years in Vienna.

This three CD set covers what might be described as the ‘middle period’ sonatas, by opus number at any rate. For the two sonatas of Op. 49 date from earlier than the remainder in this collection; from around 1797 rather than the early years of the new century. It certainly shows, since these are relatively simple pieces, of clear-cut classical dimensions, strongly influenced by the Haydn inheritance and perhaps less individual than that master’s later works. Not that they are weak compositions; far from it, particularly in these purposeful and dynamic performances, with clear articulation and dynamic attack.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the shorter, more direct pieces should come off best in this collection from Kun-Woo Paik. He excels at generating a frisson of pianistic momentum and articulated clarity of excitement. Witness the Presto opening movement of the G major Sonata, Op. 79. The tempo is perfectly judged for maximum effect; so too the balancing of textural detail. Moreover the Andante slow movement is a model of clear-headed articulation, with perfectly balanced Decca sound.

That quality of sound is a consistent feature, and that is to be expected both because of Decca’s pedigree and the fact that the recordings were made in the same venue (Monmouth) over a relatively short time-span.

If the shorter items – Opp. 49, 78 and 79 – are the highlights, some of the other performances raise questions as interpretations. It would be foolish to expect Kun-Woo Paik to imitate other fine pianists, such as Barenboim, Brendel or Perahia, but in the more complex works such as the Waldstein and the Appassionata the shadings of dynamic, the ebb and flow of tension and relaxation, seem too often to invoke thoughts of opportunities missed. For example the first movement of the Waldstein, so much a study in timbre and half-tones, is driven and one-dimensional. The slow movement does thoughtfully suggest the great theme of the finale to follow, but when that arrives the music does not quite gain the remarkable poetic flow that is its most potent characteristic.

Similar things might be said of the Appassionata, where they apply. Of course this sonata has its own distinctive personality, and Paik certainly generates a powerful head of steam as and when required. But the inwardness of the slow movement is barely hinted at, and the Presto coda to the finale is a wild dash that fails to convince in terms of dramatic release of tensions.

The other performances lie somewhere in between. The alternative approaches of drama and lyricism that mark the opening movement of the Tempest Sonata, Op. 31 No. 2, are well handled, and slow movement moves at a genuine Adagio, boldly and successfully using the piano sonority as the music’s mainspring. Likewise the Allegro vivace first movement if Op. 31 No. 2 gets the piece off to a dramatic and sparkling start, though the grazioso element in the second movement might have been more pronounced.

The celebrated Les Adieux Sonata is the latest among these works, dating from 1810. It has abundant subtleties and many pitfalls for the pianist. But Kun-Woo Paik undoubtedly has the technique to avoid these, and he chooses tempi well in order to create balance, flow and line in a successful and pleasing interpretation. Perhaps the sound, as elsewhere, is a little too close to generate an effective sense of atmosphere, and this encourages a certain ‘matter of fact’ quality in the interpretation, where more poetic insights might have been possible.

There are many interesting performances among this collection. While it is not a first choice recommendation to challenge the famous pianists of this and previous generations, there remains much to admire, particularly the clarity of articulation, the command of technique and the daring of attack. These were surely features that Beethoven himself saw as priorities. It is in the lyrical possibilities of these wonderful sonatas that one might ask for more; but it would surely be wrong to expect any single talented pianist to provide complete and seminal authority in this repertoire.

Kun-Woo Paik will reward the enquiring and sensitive listener, since he has interesting interpretations to offer and an abundance of technique to support it. The insights he brings are always worth hearing, though there are more to be found besides. Such, however, remains the challenge in performing and appreciating this great music.

Terry Barfoot

 

 



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