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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas

John O’Conor (piano)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts except where otherwise indicated (Volumes 1-2), 15-17 May 1985, St. Barnabas Church, London, V1; 3-5 April 1987, Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, UK, V2; 31 October, 1-2 November 1988, V3; 20-22 February 1989, V4; 5-27 September 1990, V5; 18-20 June 1990, V6; 10-12 June 1991, V7; 12-13 August 1992, V8; January 1993, V9
TELARC CD-80400 [9 CD: 57:11 + 63:57 + 68:49 + 67:13 + 72:35 + 65:13 + 77:37 + 72:55 + 70:10]



Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas

Volume 1 [57:11]
C minor op.13 – "Pathétique" [17:53]
C sharp minor op. 27/2 – "Moonlight" [15:13]
F minor op. 57 – "Appassionata" [23:58]
Volume 2 [63:57]
C major op. 53 – "Waldstein" [23:39]
D minor op.31/2 – "Tempest" [23:36]
E flat op.81a – "Les Adieux" [16:37]
Volume 3 [68:49]
D major op. 28 – "Pastorale" [22:50]
G major op. 31/1 [23:07]
E flat major op. 31/3 [22:45]
Volume 4 [67:13]
3 Sonatas op. 2: 1. F minor [16:22], 2. A major [24:26], 3. C major [26:19]
Volume 5 [72:35]
3 Sonatas op. 10: 1. C minor [17:18], 2. F major [12:46], 3. D major [22:41]
Sonata in A flat op. 26 [19:49]
Volume 6 [65:13]
Sonata in E major op. 109 [19:26]
Sonata in A flat major op. 110 [18:46]
Sonata in C minor op. 111 [26:57]
Volume 7 [77:37]
2 Sonatas op. 14: 1. E major [14:12], 2. G major [16:58]
2 Sonatas op. 49: 1. G minor [08:10], 2. G major [08:14]
Sonata in F major op. 54 [11:27]
Sonata in F sharp major op. 78 [08:22]
Sonata in G major op. 79 [10:05]
Volume 8 [72:55]
Sonata in E minor op.90 [12:42]
Sonata in A major op. 101 [20:40]
Sonata in B flat major op. 106 – "Hammerklavier" [39:30]
Volume 9 [70:10]
Sonata in E flat major op. 7 [28:48]
Sonata in B flat major op. 22 [25:05]
Sonata in E flat major op. 27/1 [15:12]

At least 22 of these performances were issued as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist CACD 8002-2 through to 8010-2 in 2003. See Appendix 1 for a fuller discussion.

While some of the "Hatto" pianists have disappeared into semi-oblivion, John O’Conor’s website shows his career to be still continuing. Records became rarer during the last decade but with a Beethoven concerto cycle now under way I look forward to judging him for what he is and not what he was.

At a level of pure convenience, the higgledy-piggledy order in which the sonatas appear is a little off-putting. It’s easy to see what happened. The young man was engaged to record the three most famous "name" sonatas and did so successfully enough to be asked to do more, then more again. In the meantime he was making a name for himself as a Beethoven specialist with cycles on both sides of the Atlantic and the magic name of Wilhelm Kempff in his CV. So when the decision was made to record the whole lot, the sonatas already issued militated against a "logical" order. I suppose Telarc could have recoupled them all at the end – thus depriving the kindly Hertfordshire couple of the opportunity to do it for them later on – but instead they just boxed them as they were.

I decided to listen in chronological order of recording, though I note only now that Volumes 5 and 6 were set down in inverse order. Beethoven’s own development is a known factor so I thought it would be interesting to follow O’Conor’s own pilgrimage through these works. Here are my notes. I will deal with the "Hatto" aspects when I reach the five sonatas of which I reviewed the fake discs.

CD 1

Op. 13. A somewhat low-key introduction. Anything like dramatic weight in the opening chord seems avoided and the dynamic range is small. But the main Allegro is splendid, terse and driving at a brisk but not headlong tempo. Real Beethoven.

The Adagio cantabile is unusually swift – 04:46 compared with Schnabel’s 05:55 – but the melody singles warmly over a gently murmuring accompaniment. Mendelssohnian comfort rather than Beethovenian gravity.

The Finale slips in innocently, but this is a movement which can wilt under too much weight.

Op. 27/2. Though Beethoven himself didn’t call this sonata the "Moonlight", O’Conor’s calm yet mobile opening movement, with the light hovering over every note, gives credence to the title. The Allegretto is gentle but makes its mark – this is a movement that often passes for nothing. The Finale has both clarity and splendid drive. A real Beethoven sound. I only missed the feeling that you get from the very greatest interpreters that some sort of elemental force is being unleashed as the music pursues its course.

Op. 57. The first movement is notably unindulgent. The second subject flows at pretty well the same tempo as the first. Plenty of power and drive here and in the finale. Again, I miss the sense that O’Conor is going beyond mere excellence, though excellence is not to be sneezed at.

Some reservations about the Andante con moto where he seems to be aiming for a Schubertian lyricism that only works in the later variations. The opening lacks profundity.

A disarming feature of Volume 1 is that the booklet has notes by the late Clive Lythgoe which imply a romantic vision completely at variance with O’Conor’s own approach. I am curious to know how a much older pianist came to be writing the notes for this disc and I wonder if Lythgoe, in one of his several attempts at a come-back, actually set down performances – complete with booklet notes – which Telarc felt unable to issue. Be that as it may, the notes are rather fascinating and their racy, discursive style and occasional name-dropping – "The great English pianist and interpreter of Beethoven, Dame Myra Hess, said to me …" – suggest they formed a blueprint for some later efforts supposedly written by Joyce Hatto. The rest of the cycle has good notes of a "normal" kind.

Despite reservations, a likeable record.

CD 2

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, 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 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.

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 1, with the "Waldstein" possibly announcing a Beethoven player of stature.

CD 3

Op.28. This whole sonata finds O’Conor at his most dead-pan. One admires the clarity and fidelity but that’s about all. The Andante is taken at a brisk two-in-a-bar which may be what the score says but it does seem to squeeze much of the emotion out. I respect O’Conor’s insistence on keeping the staccato bass absolutely clear, like an orchestral pizzicato, but this means that when the melody comes in octaves the legato is lost. Personally I’d rather retain the singing line with a touch of judicious pedal, even if this does compromise the staccato bass a little.

I also liked the recording quality less than the previous issues. While not entirely lacking in reverberation it is of a slightly padded cell variety. Still, in the other two sonatas, where the playing held me more, it didn’t worry me.

Op.31/1. This is extremely good. Cleanness and crispness are the order of the day in the first movement. Coupled with a good dose of verve, it sounds exactly right.

Very well judged, too, is the long Adagio grazioso, perfectly poised between grace and profundity. O’Conor is less dogmatic about the staccato bass here, allowing a touch of pedal when the right hand has its trills. The steady tempo for the final Allegretto is excellent except that he moves ahead here and there.

Op.31/3. Cleanness and clarity don’t seem to tell the full tale as they do in op.31/1. I feel a lack of the sheer generosity of phrasing in the first movement you get from players of the old school. The Menuetto is very slow to my ears, sounding rather like a Mendelssohn Song without Words. It’s actually very pleasant, but the trio stagnates at this tempo. Best is the finale which has real brio.

Despite the success of op.31/1 this disc left me wondering if this cycle is leading anywhere in particular.

CD 4

This was reviewed by me as Volume 1 of the "Hatto" cycle. Issues of this are dated 2003 and 2005. I have the former. At that time the rip-off was a fairly straightforward one. No time-manipulations: going by the actual music – net of any silence before or after – the timings are virtually identical. For the record, op.2/3 seemed to have an extra second in the 2nd movement, a second less in the finale. Since I am working manually, simply noting the starting and ending times on my CD counter, I tend to discount a difference of a mere second as manual error. However, evidence has been found on other discs that the Hattifiers, before they discovered time manipulation, occasionally lengthened or shortened pauses in the music, so a minute examination may reveal something of the sort here.

There has, however, been considerable intervention over the silences at the end of each movement, usually but not always to increase them, with the result that the "Hatto" produces a total timing exactly 10 seconds longer.

The sound picture has been softened for the first two sonatas, O’Conor’s pleasantly fresh "young man" image skewed round to suggest the calm distillation of years of experience, if you wish to set your imagination working that way. Oddly enough, for no. 3 the bass has been lightened, removing a touch of aggression here and there. There’s a fair bit of electronic crackle on the last track of the "Hatto" which I certainly didn’t comment on before. Perhaps this is one of WB-C’s homemade CDRs rather than a factory-made product and it’s beginning to go bad on me.

A correspondent has provided me with timings (from his computer) of the 2005 issue, and it looks as though some time shrinking has been applied. The overall timing is about a minute less. The first track lasts 3:32 instead of 3:42. Since the 2003 version (and the O’Conor original) contains exactly 3:32 of actual music, and since some sort of pause is required before the next movement begins, the music must have been shortened by 4 seconds at the very least and probably anything up to 10. Most of the other differences are smaller but I imagine the performances have been spiced up a bit all round.

Here is the original review:

Having spent much of my listening time over the past month in the company of Joyce Hatto’s Mozart, I might be forgiven for wondering if the warm, gentle songfulness which characterises her approach to the earlier composer might not translate well to Beethoven. But of course a real artist seeks the right style and sound for each composer and even though this is early Beethoven (to which a Mozartian approach might have been plausible) the firm rhythmic drive and clear cut sound-world with which the F minor sonata opens proclaims this Beethoven, and very good Beethoven too.

In Mozart, Hatto is often inclined to choose slower tempi than her colleagues. In Beethoven this is not the case, as can be seen from the following table drawn from comparisons I had to hand:

Op.2/1

Brendel (1994)

04:15

04:40

03:17

05:12

O’Conor**

03:42

04:37

03:04

04:59

Nikolayeva

03:53

05:47

04:04

05:11

Perahia

04:00

04:42

03:13

07:01*

Schnabel

03:18

06:02

03:24

04:41

Tan (fortepiano)

06:01*

04:11

02:49

07:19*

Op.2/2

Brendel

07:40

06:33

03:33

07:21

O’Conor**

07:12

06:56

03:17

07:01

Nikolayeva

07:09

06:50

03:17

06:30

Perahia

07:01

06:07

03:08

06:16

Schnabel

06:30

07:22

03:22

05:42

Tan

10:51*

07:02

03:32

05:59

Op.2/3

Brendel

10:21

07:15

03:12

05:40

O’Conor**

10:18

06:55

03:25

05:41

Nikolayeva

10:41

07:35

03:18

05:41

Perahia

09:43

08:00

03:15

05:05

Schnabel

10:03

07:45

02:51

05:21

Tan

09:48

06:04

03:18

05:52

* indicates the presence of a second repeat usually omitted.

** [the one change I have made is to substitute the real O’Conor timings. These are as shown by my computer, since Telarc’s printed timings are about as accurate as WBC’s].

Of course, timings can be misleading. For example, in the Adagio of op.2/1, both Hatto and Brendel (just three seconds between them) achieve a mixture and gravity and flow which suggests they have hit upon the ideal tempo; this would seem to be borne out by Tan, whose swifter tempo squeezes the expression out of the music, and by Nikolayeva who, while no doubt feeling every moment of her slower tempo, gets bogged down by her own weight. Then along comes Schnabel, the slowest of all, and the result is absolutely sublime; wonderful if you can do it, but very boring for your listeners if you can’t (as can be heard when Tan attempts something similar in the Largo appassionato of op.2/2).

Likewise, in the concluding Rondo of op.2/3 the timings do not reveal that both Brendel and Nikolayeva enunciate the great downward leap in the theme (which Tovey compared to a violinist’s or a singer’s "portamento") with a mannered rhythmic hiccup and an ungainly emphasis on the first of the lower notes. Nor do the timings reveal that both sound heavier-handed than Hatto even though one is apparently faster and the other apparently slower. However, while I feel on the whole that Nikolayeva smothers these early sonatas with excessive point-making, the robust humour (and staccato left-hand) with which she affronts the episode from b.26 suggests that she possesses certain insights into Beethoven that cannot be ignored. In this finale, though, I am not sure that Hatto’s middle way is ideal either, for both Perahia (beautifully poised) and Schnabel seem closer to suggesting Beethoven’s "Grazioso" marking.

Something similar occurs in the finale of op.2/3. Brendel may be only three seconds longer than Hatto, but his full-toned playing sounds slower and heavier, while Nikolayeva’s reading (one second longer still) is rather confused and actually sounds to be faster. Perahia, with his light finger technique, scampers away deliciously, but since he has applied the same lightness elsewhere, it comes as the finale to nothing very much. So once again we come back to Schnabel as the ideal (and, in spite of his reputation for catching crabs, he can be remarkably nifty in these early works).

The quirkiness of the first movement of op.2/2 seems to thrive on a more personalised approach – here Brendel and Nikolayeva come into their own. Whereas the more orchestral solidity of the first movement of op.2/3 inspires a more straightforward approach from all these artists; the differences between them are at their smallest here. The first movement of op.2/1 proves remarkably difficult to bring off and here Hatto’s sheer lack of fuss pays dividends.

However, at this point I have to register a certain ambivalence in my own reactions. I listened first to the Hatto disc, since this was the one I had to review. I then sampled parts of all twelve movements in the other recordings and I was left with the impression that the justness, the fidelity to the text and the well-chosen tempi of Hatto represented a sort of golden mean from which the others departed at their peril if with intermittently revelatory results.

Then I returned to Hatto and found that the lack of these intermittent revelations suggested a more limited emotional range (a pleasant but slightly recessed recording, more suitable for Mozart, does not help). I was reminded of a timid teenager (teenagers used to be timid once!) admitted to the adults’ table for the first time and eating with her elbows pinned to her sides for fear of jogging those to the right and left of her. A certain Beethovenian boldness is lacking; all the other artists (and many more, of course) give greater offence here and there, but their willingness to come down on one side of the fence rather than another provides moments of greater inspiration too. The ultimate value of Hatto’s Beethoven cycle, which is only at the beginning, will depend on her ability (and maybe that of her engineers) to increase her range as the music itself develops (is she deliberately holding something back in these early sonatas?).

So what are my conclusions? I don’t know! Unquestionably, the sublimity, warmth and humanity of Schnabel’s slow movements will remain as an inspiration for all time; studio nerves (and the ancient recording, though the latest Naxos transfer has done wonders for it) sometimes compromise the rest. From Hatto you will get a warm sound and a satisfying solution to all twelve movements. From the others, you will have to pick and choose. If you are tempted by Brendel’s or Nikolayeva’s first movement of op.2/2, for example, you will need Perahia’s finale to the same sonata to offset the heaviness of the other two. Best still to accept that an ideal solution will never exist, and try to buy as many versions of these sonatas as you can afford. Not forgetting Hatto.

Has anything changed? Well, if you listen to this as Vol. 4 of a cycle rather than Vol. 1, you know some of the answers. You know that this laid-back approach is going to continue into some of the early-middle-period works like op.31. You also know that there are some successes in the later-middle-period works, notably the Waldstein. Hearing the disc in its new – real – context, I am still wondering whether this Beethoven cycle is going to add up to anything very significant.

Although I referred originally to the differences between "Hatto’s" Mozart and her Beethoven, now I’m aware that two pianists are involved I am rather struck by the Hattifiers’ cleverness in choosing two pianists – Haebler and O’Conor – who, in spite of their generational and cultural differences, seem concerned above all to produce clearheaded, calm and faithful readings. I’ve never heard Haebler in Beethoven but I suppose her approach would not be so very different from O’Conor’s.

The "Hatto" was also reviewed by Jonathan Woolf.

CD 5

Op. 10. Hardly worth going into individually. The best thing is the slow movement of no. 1, which has a real sense of repose even though it is not particularly slow, and a soft, luminous tone quality. It is good to hear the Allegretto of no.2 neither dragged nor hurried, but the wide-ranging "Largo e mesto" of no.3, one of the greatest things Beethoven had done to date, is too cool. Elsewhere, appreciation of the neat, clear manner tends to dim as no very great statement emerges. The first movement of no.2 should be ideal for this particular style, but it actually comes out a little brusque and clipped.

Op. 26. Beethoven’s temperature may have risen, but not O’Conor’s. Again, one appreciates him mainly for what he doesn’t do. Maybe it is out of order to drag out the "Marcia funèbre" in a sort of Klemperer-conducts-the-Eroica style, but those who attempt such a thing might at least end up by saying something. This just sounds humdrum. Similarly, one welcomes in theory the reminder that the finale is "Allegro" not "Presto". Yet performances which find in this pair of movements a premonition of Chopin’s Funeral march followed by the wind whistling over the graves express so very much more. Finally, the minor-key variation in the first movement is interpreted so literally as to suggest blank incomprehension in the face of an episode which can sound as mysterious as the sphinx. More than Beethoven, this is anti-Beethoven. Let us hope that the sheer stature of the later works will drag something more out of O’Conor, as it seemed to a few years before in the "Waldstein" and as I seem to remember it did in the "Hammerklavier".

CD 6

Op. 109. The alternating tempi in the first movement relate well. No great spiritual depth in the "Adagio espressivo" but the overall impression is good. The "Prestissimo" second movement has excellent vitality. There is initially a certain flatness to the enunciation of the variation theme of the last movement. One doesn’t want it to be smothered with rubato but there is a feeling that he is playing the notes rather than the music. However, as the variations develop and the music acquires complexity O’Conor rises to the occasion with clear yet luminous textures. Overall, a more than worthy account of music that doesn’t exactly play itself.

Op. 110. This is better still. It is not easy to relate all the different ideas to one another in the first movement but O’Conor achieves much by simply taking Beethoven at his word. Also here, the "Allegro molto" second movement is very fine. The curious "Adagio ma non troppo" recitative section has a spiritual depth we don’t always meet in this cycle and O’Conor is one of the few who takes up – and resolves – the problem of the "Bebung". These are the repeated notes which Beethoven has tied, but over which he has also marked a change of finger. The idea is that the note has a second strike, but a scarcely perceptible one, inside its own echo, as it were. It was fairly easily managed on the pianos of Beethoven’s day, much more difficult on a modern grand, though possible, as O’Conor shows. On some inferior modern grands and many uprights it may not be possible at all. Why, though, did O’Conor ignore the "Bebungs" in his much more superficial account of op. 28?

The "Arioso dolente" (grieving aria) has the right gravity and the fugue sections are splendid. The tempo is broad but the momentum builds up powerfully. The part-writing is beautifully clear – should O’Conor perhaps be giving us some Bach? The return of the fugue, in G major with the melody inverted, is magical.

Op. 111. O’Conor completes the hat-trick with a superb op. 111. My only criticism of the first movement is that the opening dotted rhythms are not quite pointed enough – a sort of compromise between an single and a double dot. The main part of the movement, "Allegro con brio ed appassionato" has splendid clarity and drive. The enunciation of the "Arietta" has perhaps the same problem as we found in the variation theme of op. 109, but as the variations gain in complexity this elusive music, which even today looks pretty weird on paper, is unfolded with authority, lucidity and considerable magic as we enter the rarefied atmosphere of the trills.

Schnabel brought special spiritual insights to these last three sonatas but O’Conor’s achievement is considerable, all the more remarkable in view of the apparent doldrums into which this cycle was steering.

CD 7

Op. 14/1. Beethoven’s marking is "Allegro" but four-in-a-bar, though the music looks as if it should go in two. O’Conor takes Beethoven at his word, with an attractively gentle, proto-Schubertian lyricism. Others have found more brio, but this is convincing on its own terms.

The "Allegretto" brings another problem and few but Richter have had the courage to take the marking as applying to the crotchets (fourth-notes), which is what Beethoven seems to mean. This movement is often interpreted as a sort of lilting Siciliana. O’Conor takes a mid-way position, not degenerating into a Siciliana, but not giving the music as much space as I personally prefer. Others may feel he has found the golden mean.

In the finale O’Conor once again notes that Beethoven’s "Allegro" is qualified by the word "comodo" (comfortable) and he makes no attempt to hurtle us out of our seats.

Op. 14/2. If in op. 14/1 I could side with those who prefer a spot more temperament even in the gentlest Beethoven, I was completely won over by the way O’Conor begins its companion. He slips in very gently and tenderly, with a sort of golden glow over the playing. I found this little short of sublime. I could, perhaps, have wished for a more furrow-browed treatment of the one more dramatic moment in the development and, after a delightful reading of the "Andante" variation movement, I would definitely have liked more feeling, in the finale, that the young Beethoven is kicking the traces. But lovely, thoughtful playing.

Op. 49/1. The "Andante" first movement unfolds gently and unhurriedly. Another occasion where O’Conor verges on the sublime in music which can seem merely bland. The concluding Rondo scampers along delightfully.

Op. 49/2. A calm and collected first movement. Young children studying this ubiquitous work will probably prefer to model themselves on something more temperamental. In later life they may come to see the point of O’Conor’s delicate and tasteful reading. The minuet has a nice lilt.

Op. 54. This sonata begins with another minuet, and O’Conor makes it a very intimate, reflective one, with the result that the pounding octave passages with which it alternates never become hectic. I think Schnabel gets more out of this strange movement than O’Conor, but to get anything out of it at all is an achievement.

There is no attempt to exceed Beethoven’s "Allegretto" in the finale. By maintaining absolute clarity – with a minimum of pedal – and by allowing the offbeat sforzandos to cut across the texture like bells, this becomes a "moto perpetuo" by sheer steadiness. An original and interesting reading, though not one which actually goes against any of Beethoven’s markings.

Op. 78. This time I am less sure about O’Conor’s steadiness. There are places where this music seems to want to rage, and O’Conor keeps his cool. The alternating forte and piano chords, for example, or the clumping bass that precedes the left hand trill. This is mature Beethoven, albeit on a small scale, and I think O’Conor does not give us the whole story. He also omits the second repeat, which is normally taken in view of the brevity of the sonata. I must say that in view of the unvaried approach I did not miss it whereas normally it does not seem superfluous. The finale, too, is a little short on vivacity.

Op. 79. The first movement prances along delightfully and the "Andante" – the prototype of all the Mendelssohn Gondola Songs to come – is predictably calm and luminous. A skittish finale rounds off a delightful performance.

Indeed, it’s a delightful disc, even if I personally would have preferred a little more blind rage or gawky boisterousness to invade it here and there. Those who object to a Beethoven who is forever preaching and teaching may not agree. I’m beginning to see what drew the elderly Hattifiers to this cycle. I won’t be so rude as to say O’Conor plays like a terminally ill old lady, but his calm and collected manner are not exactly what you would expect of a young Celt either.

CD 8

Op. 90. O’Conor is slightly more interventionist than usual in the first movement, holding back at a few points where Beethoven has specifically indicated a tempo. This results in a relaxed reading of some very pithy music which yields more to a concentrated approach. The other movement is lovely though, with an innocent, proto-Schubertian flow.

Op. 101. O’Conor solves a lot of this work’s problems just by keeping his cool. The songful first movement has an attractive lilt while not lacking in gravity. The following movement in march time strides forward firmly, yet without any attempt to inflate the sound. Many performances suggest that Beethoven is striving after orchestral sonorities. With Schnabel, for example, it seems music written more against the piano than for it. Here it sounds completely pianistic.

The strange slow movement is meditatively done while the finale bowls along splendidly. Again, O’Conor is unfazed by the fugal development section which has inspired some rather more cliff-hanging treatment elsewhere. This is rewarding, confident Beethoven the limitations of which perhaps lie in its success. No one could say that O’Conor has not achieved what he apparently set out to do, but he is not attempting to follow Beethoven in his ultimate spiritual journey. Still, reliability and lucidity are not to be despised.

Op. 106. Here I have "Hatto" to compare and this time I have the later 2004 version rather than the older one from 2003. Again a correspondent has provided timings of the other version and they suggest it was a straight rip-off without time manipulation, though with creative editing of the silences. Going by the actual music, without silences, I find that the first two movements are still "straight" in 2004, clocking in at 11:00 and 02:22 respectively. The slow movement has been stretched by 18 seconds, from 14:39 to 14:57. Without resorting to complicated mathematic calculations, the stretching seems to have been applied consistently over the movement, without the internal stretching and shrinking that has been found in later "experiments". At 04:52 in the O’Conor, "Hatto" was 6 seconds behind, at 8:30 this had increased to 11, at 11:27 it had become 15. The finale has been shortened by 15 seconds. Again, the shrinking seems consistent. By the end of the introduction – 01:57 – Hatto is already 2 seconds ahead, increasing to 9 by 07:20.

The somewhat delicate sound picture of the original has been fiddled around with to give the impression of a larger, more powerful instrument with a big, booming bass, and in a livelier acoustic. Before discussing how this may affect our perception of the performance, here is the original review. It seemed to me impractical to separate my comments on op. 7, which completed the disc.

About half-way through this performance of the "Hammerklavier" it crossed my mind how pianistic the music was sounding. Let me try to explain. This largest and grandest of all Beethoven’s sonatas is generally considered – nay, is – the ultimate challenge because Beethoven, by all accounts a very great pianist while his hearing remained unimpaired, in later life wrote abstractly, ideally, without apparent regard for how well or badly the music actually fitted onto the instrument. The pianist would just have to come to terms with it. This means that this music is in a different category compared with other "ultimate" challenges, such as the Studies of Chopin and Liszt, which were conceived by pianists with consummate techniques who threw out a challenge to other pianists, but a challenge which was designed to be conquered. If most of us still struggle with them, it is because of failings in our techniques, it is not because the challenge is an unpianistic or even an impossible one. The "Hammerklavier", on the other hand, will remain forever a challenge because it was not specifically designed to be conquered. Or was it? I can only report that, in Joyce Hatto’s hands, this work, without sounding easy – it teems with notes – always sounds perfectly conceived for the piano. Beethoven is not made to sound as if he were trying to make the piano do something it was not intended to do.

What is the secret of this? I wonder if, subliminally, many artists have been influenced by the fact that no less a Beethovenian than Weingartner saw fit to orchestrate the work, thereby implying that the piano alone was not up to realising it in all its power and magnificence. And, maybe, also by the fact that the pianist most associated with Beethoven in many people’s minds, Artur Schnabel, set down a nerve-racking onslaught on the sonata (except for a deeply expressed slow movement) which rather reinforced the impression of an undertaking beyond human endeavour.

Now I don’t suppose Joyce Hatto found this work easy – it would be trite to say that anyone who can play all that Liszt without apparent problems should be able to manage this because the "Hammerklavier" is a difficult in a different sort of way – yet she seems able to encompass its demands in the same sort of spirit as she encompasses those of the relatively accessible op. 7 which completes the disc. And this in spite of some swift tempi – she wisely doesn’t attempt Beethoven’s impossible metronome marking for the first movement but she certainly doesn’t dawdle, and her second and fourth movements are both a few seconds shorter than Schnabel’s. She also doesn’t try to make the piano go beyond being a piano – her tone is satisfyingly full without either hammering or hamming. She is also unfailingly observant of all the dynamics and other performance markings – quite simply, the score (and the composer) seemed to speak to me directly, without the intervention of an interpreter.

Some readers might be reading through the lines. Is the performance academic in its correctness? Does it sell you short in putting over the sheer scale of the music? I can only report that I did not find it so. It sounds spontaneous, and in place of "correctness" I would prefer to say "rightness". In short, ironically in view of what that conductor actually did to the "Hammerklavier", it has the qualities which inform the best of Weingartner’s performances of the symphonies.

And never more, I would say, than in the slow movement, where Hatto prefers a Schubertian mobility to Schnabel’s profoundly religious meditation. Without any sense of haste, this is Beethoven at his most pastoral, with a wonderfully song-like, open air feeling. Schnabel’s depth remains a thing to be wondered at, but I found that this moved me equally, though in a different way.

According to the track lists, the op. 7 sonata comes first on the disc, and it would have seemed a logical solution; for some reason the "Hammerklavier" is actually placed first – don’t try to listen to the earlier sonata immediately after op. 106. Here again, Hatto is an unfailing selfless and musical interpreter, with natural-sounding tempi and a total observance of every marking. And again, the sheer rightness of it may lead you to underestimate the amount of thought that has gone into it. To gauge the first movement so exactly, allowing it to rage at one moment and meditate at another without any change of tempo, is no easy matter.

I have sometimes found Concert Artist’s recordings a little two-dimensional. William Barrington-Coupe has wished to point out to me that their policy is to make a sound that is credibly that which you hear sitting in the concert hall, rather than the close-up sound often favoured. I am still not entirely convinced that they have succeeded in the Bach-Liszt disc which occasioned his comments, but I think they have succeeded here. The recording has body and bloom without in any way imposing itself. It has that same feeling of rightness about it as has the playing.

A great many pianists have set down a great many insights into the "Hammerklavier". A definitive recording is impossible. Here, at all events, is a "Hammerklavier" you can trust, and there aren’t all that many of them.

The remark about how pianistic the music sounds emerges, if anything, reinforced by the more limpid original sound. As in op. 101, this is both a strength and a limitation, and one can understand why the Hattifiers wished to beef it up a bit. More crucially, does the fairly minor time manipulation change anything much? Perhaps very, very slightly if you listen to one after the other. I did feel at times that the slow movement was fractionally more spacious, but I am not sure it changes anything much. It’s a lightweight, proto-Schubertian concept – I don’t mean by this that Schubert is lightweight, of course – and you can’t turn it into anything else by slowing it down. If a performance is to have intellectual gravity and spiritual depth, it has to be put there by the performer. Even if the Hattifiers had stretched O’Conor by three minutes – resulting in Schnabel’s tempo, more or less – the result wouldn’t be Schnabel’s performance, it would still be O’Conor’s performance slowed down. Hearing the two side by side, I think O’Conor sounds better still with the tempo he really played and the acoustic he really played in. Some will find it superficial but on its own terms I think it is attractive and tells us a lot about one aspect of the music.

The extra speed in the finale may not amount to much, but hearing the "Hatto" after the O’Conor I feel I really should have noticed something was wrong. Without suggesting that O’Conor is the greatest piano technician in the world, I think he has got this finale off pat at the fastest tempo at which it is possible without apparent fuss. If O’Conor himself decided to throw caution to the winds and play it a tad faster no matter what happens – the Schnabel method – the nature of the performance would change. Refined mastery would change into cliff-hanging. So that’s what’s wrong with the "Hatto". It ought to sound like cliff-hanging but it doesn’t.

Still, not all that long ago we were living in a world where we heard LP and cassettes on equipment which, when not of professional standard, often ran fractionally under and over speed. Older analogue recordings are not always transferred at precisely the right speed even today, without there being any attempt at deception. Our perceptions of recorded music are a little more flexible than we care to imagine. I doubt if we can reasonably expect anyone to hear anything unnatural in "Hatto" unless he hears O’Conor immediately before. I stand by my original judgement, then.

This review provoked a letter from Barrington-Coupe which I couldn’t find when I wrote, at great haste, my article "Joyce Hatto: some thoughts, some questions and a lot of letters". I later found I still had it and posted it on the bulletin board, but since not everybody has time to search for it there I repeat it here – see Appendix 3 – as further evidence of the almost unbelievable way in which the Hattifiers created an elaborate background to these discs.

The "Hatto" Hammerklavier and op. 7 were also reviewed by Jonathan Woolf.

CD 9

Op. 7. My brief original review can be read above under op. 106, with which this sonata was coupled in the Hattified version. Hattification produced the usual larger but vaguer sound-picture but no time manipulation.

This time I allowed a lapse of over 24 hours after hearing the "Hammerklavier" and I feel I should have dedicated more space to the performance. The first fortissimo chords have a ringing authority we haven’t always found in this cycle – a real Beethoven sound – and the dynamics are finely graded throughout the first movement. The slow movement attains real depth so, with vital but unhurried readings of the remaining two movements this is a very rewarding performance indeed.

Op. 22. My hopes that O’Conor was going out on a high were a bit dashed. The first movement is fair enough but the slow movement is rather swift and unvaried, achieving little more than politeness. The minuet is a shade too fast to have a real swing to it and the finale lacks authority in the angrier moments.

Op. 27/1. Sound playing all through but I was too conscious, for example, of the six regular beats all through the slow movement. The finale often sounds as if it’s about to take off but never quite does.

A conclusion in line with the strengths and weaknesses of the cycle. Undoubtedly, O’Conor has produced a number of very fine performances, the highlights being opp. 7, 14/2, 49/1, 57, 79, 101, 106, 110, 111. Several of the others are very good while others again – rather too many, I feel – are understated. This would not gain my vote for a place among the great cycles, but I would not be without its best moments. Those who feel that Beethoven has a tendency to shout too loud may find their point of entry to his world in these very civilized performances.

I can’t help thinking, though, that I should be judging O’Conor’s Beethoven on what he can do now, not on what he did between 22 and 14 years ago. It’s good news that, after a recording career which seemed to have slackened off, he set down two of the concertos in January of this year and will be completing the cycle during 2008. If the results suggest a deepening of approach, then I feel he should be allowed to return to at least some of the sonatas.

Christopher Howell

 

Appendix 1: The "Hatto" Beethoven cycle(s).

Some time ago I announced on the MusicWeb bulletin board that I had confirmed the identity of opp. 2, 7 and 106. I also queried whether the entire cycle had been issued, since MusicWeb had received only these two volumes. Though no one replied publicly I had a few private responses and I am aware of the existence of several complete sets.

Regarding the identification process, in a posting on the Pianophiles discussion group Farhan Malik announced that he was working through them and, with 10 to go, it looked as if the entire cycle was taken from O’Conor. In a later posting he announced that he had now found a few which were not O’Conor. Rather confusingly, a friend of his who was also checking the identifications, had also found a few not by O’Conor, but they seemed to be different ones! At the moment this is awaiting clarification and there is the possibility that there may be some variant versions.

Initially the cycle was issued in 2003. Revised versions began almost immediately and copies dated 2004-5 are known to exist of all but Volumes 2, 3 and 7. As well as the different timings, the new versions had revised trays claiming additional recording sessions and sometimes an extra engineer or two. A correspondent has sent me timings of all the single movements – see Appendix 2. In the 2003 set these are sufficiently close to O’Conor – allowing for creative editing of silences – in most sonatas. If we make the assumption that time manipulation began to be applied only from 2004, the matches most in need of checking in the 2003 series are op. 27/2, op. 53 (perhaps), op. 57, op. 79, op. 81a (perhaps), op. 90 and op. 101. In the 2004-5 cycle time manipulation was selectively applied – I can personally confirm that op. 7 and the first two movements of op. 106 were left untouched – and the sound was considerably beefed up. A general pattern seems to be that of fiddling around especially with the first track and perhaps also the last. The differences in the case of opp. 49 and 53 are such as to suggest the performances might have been replaced with others, while oddly enough in the case of op. 57 the timings suggest a reinstatement of O’Conor.

At the time the scandal broke a boxed package was being prepared as part of the deal with William Sorin’s IPO for distribution in America. We can only guess at the further disguises that may have been awaiting us.

For the moment we can also only guess at the content of an earlier Hatto cycle on cassette. This was still listed on the Concert Artist website around 2004 and a release on minidisk was planned back in 1998. It was part of a project to issue all Chopin, much Liszt and an assortment of other material in the minidisk format but the idea seems to have died. A whole mass of cassettes by Hatto, Fiorentino and others were released and carry dates from 1983 to 1994. The repertoire is the same as with the later CDs and "René Kohler" was named as the conductor even then, occasionally alternating with one "Wolfgang Böhm", who sounds like a distant cousin of Karl Sawallisch. At present it is not known whether the recordings are the same as those on the fake CDs. However, the Beethoven cycle contains a number of extra pieces which certainly do not derive from O’Conor. Some of them are extremely unusual and infrequently recorded. Until a copy of this cycle is located we can only make guesses. If it dates from the 1980s it may even be what it claims to be. Here are the details:
Volume 1: op. 2/1-2, Sonata in C minor (completed by Ries), Sonata in A major, Anh. 5/1
Volume 2: op. 2/3, op. 7
Volume 3: op. 10, Rondo op. 51/1
Volume 4: op. 13, op. 14, Fantasia in G minor op. 77
Volume 5: op. 27, op. 28, Andante favori
Volume 6: op. 22, op. 26, Rondo op. 129
Volume 7: op. 31/1-2
Volume 8: op. 31/3, op. 49, op. 53
Volume 9: op. 54, op. 57, op. 78, op. 79
Volume 10: op. 81a, op. 90, op. 101
Volume 11: op. 106, op. 109
Volume 12: op. 110, op. 111, Rondo op. 51/2
The numbers were BE4-TC-8001 through to 8012.

Appendix 2: Timings of O’Conor, "Hatto" 2003, "Hatto" 2004-5

The O’Conor timings are from my computer. The printed timings are so wildly inaccurate as to suggest they may have provided the Hattifiers with a role model.

     
  O’Conor "Hatto" 2003 "Hatto" 2004-5
Op. 2/1      
I 03:42 03:42* 03:32
II 04:37 04:40* 04:36
III 03:04 03:06* 03:02
IV 04:59 05:00* 04:48
Op. 2/2      
I 07:12 07:16* 07:08
II 06:56 06:57* 06:54
III 03:17 03:20* 03:13
IV 07:01 06:56* 06:50
Op. 2/3      
I 10:18 10:20* 10:13
II 06:55 06:59* 06:57
III 03:25 03:28* 03:26
IV 05:41 05:37* 05:47
Op. 7      
I 08:24 08:24 08:23*
II 08:01 07:58 08:00*
III 05:22 05:24 05:19*
IV 07:01 07:01 07:06*
Op. 10/1      
I 05:54 05:52  
II 07:00 07:00  
III 04:24 04:22  
Op. 10/2      
I 06:07 06:00  
II 04:02 04:01  
III 02:37 02:37  
Op. 10/3      
I 07:09 07:06  
II 08:31 08:31  
III 03:03 03:02  
IV 03:58 03:55  
Op. 13      
I 08:40 08:36  
II 04:49 04:50  
III 04:24 04:20  
Op. 14/1      
I 07:16 07:16  
II 03:33 03:33  
III 03:23 03:26  
Op. 14/2      
I 07:57 07:58  
II 05:04 05:05  
III 03:57 04:00  
Op. 22      
I 08:13 08:16  
II 07:25 07:27  
III 03:40 03:42  
IV 06:47 06:50  
Op. 26**      
I 07:54 07:55  
II 02:48 02:48  
III 05:59 05:58  
IV 03:08 03:08  
Op. 27/1**      
I 04:47 04:47  
II 01:59 02:01  
III 02:41 02:42  
IV 05:45 05:44  
Op. 27/2**      
I 05:45 06:03  
II 02:17 02:07  
III 07:11 07:10  
Op. 28**      
I 09:25 09:25  
II 05:46 05:47  
III 02:31 02:30  
IV 05:08 05:06  
Op. 31/1      
I 06:42 06:43 06:28
II 09:59 09:56 10:01
III 06:26 06:32 06:24
Op. 31/2      
I 08:56 08:59 08:56
II 08:01 08:02 08:02
III 06:39 06:39 08:41
Op. 31/3
I 08:07 08:09 08:06
II 05:10 05:09 05:10
III 04:39 04:40 04:38
IV 04:49 04:50 04:38
Op. 49/1***      
I 04:28 04:26 04:24
II 03:42 03:38 03:23
Op. 49/2***      
I 04:57 04:56 04:36
II 03:17 03:22 03:07
Op. 53***      
I 10:01 09:57 10:22
II 03:54 03:54 04:06
III 09:44 09:57 09:35
Op. 54      
I 05:59 06:01  
II 05:28 05:36  
Op. 57***      
I 09:51 10:44 09:49
II 06:20 06:46 06:22
III 07:47 07:37 07:44
Op. 78      
I 05:18 05:16  
II 03:04 03:03  
Op. 79      
I 05:22 04:43  
II 02:41 02:38  
III 02:02 02:01  
Op. 81a      
I 07:11 07:02  
II 03:42 03:42  
III 05:44 05:44  
Op. 90      
I 05:11 05:00  
II 07:31 07:18  
Op. 101      
I 03:58 03:54  
II 06:12 06:05  
III 10:30 10:22  
Op. 106      
I 11:10 11:08 11:05*
II 02:32 02:33 02:27*
III 14:41 14:45 15:01*
IV 11:07 11:09 10:52*
Op. 109      
I 04:00 04:01 04:10
II 02:26 02:25 02:22
III 13:00 13:02 12:49
Op. 110      
I 06:00 06:01 06:06
II 02:02 02:09 02:03
III 10:44 10:44 10:36
Op. 111      
I 09:27 09:27 09:27
II 17:30 17:30 17:34

* These are the "Hatto" timings I’ve personally checked. As stated above, in opp. 2 and 7 and in movements I and II of op. 106, the timings of the actual music are identical with O’Conor, the difference being accounted for by creative adjustment of the silences at the beginning and end of the tracks.

** My informant did not provide timings for the newer version of Volume 4, simply stating that they were the same as before "save for the odd second on a couple of tracks".

*** A third version of Volume 6 apparently hit the dust. I understand the timings are virtually identical with the second version but the booklet and tray are considerably revised.
 

Appendix 3: E-mail from W.H. Barrington-Coupe dated 4th May 2005

Dear Mr. Howell,

I am so sorry that I didn't get back to you but personal problems intervened. Firstly, Joyce has been through a bad patch but is recovering and I had some heart problems and these have responded to different pills! All signs of ageing I'm afraid.

A box of cd's has obviously gone astray and I will get a further parcel packed and sent off.

I have read your review of the Hammerklavier and I was deeply pleased that your observations accorded exactly to the philosophy behind the performance. I think Joyce was particularly pleased that you found a truth in the slow movement and felt convinced. She has suffered badly from critic's (and some pianist's have written to her quite rudely) over the faster tempo and have dismissed the clarity and momentum in the other movements without a thought. Her approach to the Schubert B flat Sonata has also been shunned simply because she sees it differently - quite differently to most other pianists. So it was interesting that you should bring Schubert into your equation when discussing Op.106. This comes I think from this extraordinary idea that to be English is to be placed automatically in a second division when making comparisons to German, Russian and Hungarian schools. Neville Cardus wrote two reviews of her playing of German classics and sent her a bouquet (floral) after hearing her Schubert B flat Sonata. He was thrilled that a young English girl could get up and throw down the gauntlet to "Herr Backhaus and Herr Kempf " - other critics over the years have resented it.

 

The problem with critics is that only a few really do listen to what they hear. Few sit down with a score because they have been brought up with Schnabel and have his performances in their ears. Many do not even consider that an English pianist is fit to dust the shoes of say -Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff - both admirable pianists in many ways but neither, in my opinion, dispense the oracle. I don't seek to flatter when I say that YOU DO listen and you appear to have no prejudice between your ears to prevent a sound opinion. Obviously, everyone is different -all criticism is opinion EXCEPT when it comes to comment on the actual technique. Here the critic clearly knows what he knows or he knows nothing.

I hope that I have not overstepped the line in saying these things. 

Anyway, I am attending to dispatching the missing items and I will email you when they are actually sent off. I will send the Brahms First Concerto as you ask and the other things. I think that you might be interested in an issue of the Verdi-Liszt transcriptions (as you are virtually a Milanese) being steeped in the Scala tradition. This is a small series of the Operatic transcriptions and I am sure that you will be interested just for enjoyment even if you don't find time to comment on them [I never got any of this].

Finally, entre nous, the Mozart Sonata series is being released in America and Joyce has taken the opportunity to "move things along a little" in some of the tempi - I will send you copies when they are available. So, she does listen to good criticism - even at her age!

I will write about recorded sound in another letter.

With very best wishes,

William

W.H.Barrington-Coupe

Concert Artist Recordings

 


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