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van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas Volume II
Sonata in C op. 53 – Waldstein” [23:31]
Sonata in D minor op. 31/2 [23:32]
Sonata in E flat op. 81a - “Les Adieux” [16:33]
rec. 3-5 April 1987, Maltings, Snape, UK
I only recently worked my way through John O’Conor’s complete
Beethoven sonata cycle and I expressed the hope that
we might have his latest thoughts on this music. To tell
the truth, I requested the present disc supposing it to
be the beginning of a new cycle. Instead, the single discs
from the original cycle are just being made available again
(at mid-price). Even O’Conor’s curriculum is not updated
beyond 1987. Since I would not expect to revise my opinion
months I limit myself to extrapolating my comments on this
disc from my original review. This was a very uneven cycle
but I must say this is one of the more collectable discs,
not least for a rare demonstration that Beethoven’s long
pedal in the “Waldstein” finale can be made to work on
a modern piano:
Op. 53. Signs of Historically Informed
Practice here. The repeated chords of the opening theme,
so often pedalled to give
them a sort of orchestral throb, are rigorously clear,
the sound light and dry. As in the Appassionata [in Vol.
I], O’Conor keeps going in second subject territory. Despite
his avoidance of a great wash of sound, O’Conor finds plenty
of power and excitement. Most impressive.
In the Adagio molto O’Conor proves to have acquired
a greater ability [than in Vol. I] to suggest Beethovenian
meditation and gravity.
Coming after the extreme clarity of these two movements,
the opening of the finale creates a real shock. Beethoven
has provided some very long pedals here, requesting the
pianist to keep his foot firmly on the floor through several
changes of harmony. Conventional wisdom – as exemplified
by the "great" Sir Donald Tovey – has it that
this was possible on the lighter-toned pianos of Beethoven’s
own day but is intolerably messy on a modern grand such
as O’Conor’s Hamburg Steinway. Some pianists pedal conventionally,
changing with the harmonies, some try a compromise – Tovey’s
recommendation – retaining a part of Beethoven’s effect
with a bit of nifty half-pedalling. O’Conor’s takes Beethoven
at his word. The beauty of this almost Debussian sound,
in the context O’Conor has created so far, has to be heard
to be believed. Each time the theme comes back it is as
though a door is momentarily opened onto another world.
I should add that this is also made possible by the extreme
delicacy of touch O’Conor uses here – not everybody could
Op.31/2. There’s another famous pedal effect in the
first movement of this sonata – in the recitative passage
where the first theme is recapitulated. Beethoven asks
for the pedal to be held down right through this. O’Conor
once again obeys. He takes the passage very slowly and,
rather like an organist in a very long acoustic, you can
sense him waiting for the sound to clear sufficiently for
him to proceed with the next note.
For the rest, he is clean and clear. The drum taps in
the second movement are kept rigorously staccato. But sometimes
he has to compromise. I wondered if he was going to try
to play the filigree arpeggios accompanying the return
of the principal theme of this movement without pedal.
He doesn’t, wisely I should say. Altogether I find this
performance satisfying rather than inspiring. I entirely
agree, for example, with his steady Allegretto for the
finale, but I can’t get very excited about it.
Op.81a. And that’s about how it is with "Les Adieux".
The steady first movement is respectful more than anything
and I found this the least interesting of the three performances.
Most effective is the finale, which certainly goes as "Vivacissimamente" (Beethoven’s
Italian, not Manzoni’s!) as one could wish.
All the same, an advance on Volume I, with the "Waldstein" possibly
announcing a Beethoven player of stature.
Since writing the concluding sentence, I have of course
heard the rest of the cycle, and also the first volume of
the brand new cycle of Beethoven concertos which O’Conor
is currently setting down. On the whole, I think stature
is just what is missing from this amiable, civilized pianist.
Since this “Waldstein” seems to promise more than was subsequently
delivered, would he play it better or worse today?
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