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Ludwig 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]
John O’Conor (piano)
rec. 3-5 April 1987, Maltings, Snape, UK
TELARC CD-80160 [64:10]

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 after just a few 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 do it.

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.

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?

Christopher Howell


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