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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 1
CD 1
Piano sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 "Pathetique" (1798) [20:57]
Piano sonata No.12 in A flat major, Op.26 (1801) [24:30]
Piano sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 "Appassionata" (1804-1806) [27:35]
CD 2
Piano sonata No.7 inn D Major, Op.10 No.3 (1796-1798) [25:05]
Piano sonata No.24 in F sharp major, Op.78 (1810) [10:33]
Piano sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 (1820-1821) [33:36]
Christian Leotta (piano)
rec. 2005-2006, Salle de musique du Chateau Fallot, Lausanne, Switzerland.
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2486 [73:02 + 69:14]
Experience Classicsonline

Although only 28 years old, Italian pianist Christian Leotta has already played through the cycle of Beethoven sonatas at least ten times in cities around the globe.  Now his interpretations of these masterpieces are being committed to disc.  It is not unusual for young pianists to record Beethoven – limiting the field to those currently in their twenties both Jonathan Biss and Freddy Kempf have recorded Beethoven sonatas.  A complete cycle from a 20-something pianist is a little unusual nowadays, though.  It wasn’t always - Friedrich Gulda’s 1950s cycle for Decca and Barenboim’s 1960s set for EMI are two earlier examples that come to mind.
Comparisons with Barenboim in particular are apposite.  Leotta’s performances of Beethoven are thought-through and on the expansive side, in a manner not dissimilar to the young Barenboim’s - though without the same spontaneity - or indeed the old Arrau’s though without the hard-won conviction.  He certainly differs from both of them in the sharper, flintier sounds he gets out of his Steinway, qualities of tone emphasised by ATMA’s realistic if dry and closely recorded sound. This is not necessarily a negative.
On the evidence of this double CD, Leotta is a fine pianist and has the makings of a fine Beethovenian.  None of these interpretations is first choice, but they have an undeniable integrity.
Of the six sonatas collected here, the slight, intimate sonata Op.78 probably comes off the best, inspiring Leotta to some lovely cantabile playing in the hushed first movement and encouraging his sense of fun in the fleet and playful second. 
He is almost as successful in the last of the Op.10 triptych.  The first movement dances at an apt tempo and sparkles with Beethovenian wit and fun.  The finale is also well shaped and inflected and the third movement that precedes it, though understating the left hand’s well-meaning interruptions (shades of Barenboim), fits Leotta’s overall scheme. 
The slow movement, however,  tends to the lugubrious, and seems distended and lacking in tension in places, as if weighed down by its own seriousness.  Movement timings never tell the whole tale – as Sir Hamilton Harty reminded Neville Cardus – but they can be usefully indicative.  Although Leotta is clearly aiming for profundity and solemn gesture here, his 11:11 largo e mesto is far longer than the 8:09 of Richter (EMI), the 8:12 of Schiff (ECM), the 9:17 of the then 25-year old Friedrich Gulda (Decca) or the 10:10 of the young Alfred Brendel (Vox).  All of these manage, in their different ways, to keep this music's sense of tragedy without sacrificing its sense of proportion in the context of this innovative but still Classical sonata. 
That said, Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi) at 11:04 and the venerable Claudio Arrau (his 1985 Philips recording) at 11:15 take just as long as Leotta over this most profound of Beethovenian slow movements, but both are better able to maintain tension by the sheer power of their concentration.  Barenboim, who takes an almost perverse 12:01, somehow makes the long time span seem shorter, his rhapsodic expression lending a quasi-improvisatory feel.  His conception of this movement is also more of a piece with his free interpretation of the sonata as a whole.
The A flat major sonata Op.26 – the first of the revolutionary gang of four composed in 1801 that bridge Beethoven’s early and middle periods at the keyboard – is another generally fine performance.  The theme and variations first movement opens with an almost halting statement of the theme and is by turns haunting, poetic and stately as the theme is varied, although the A flat minor variation and the one that follows are overly slow and heavy footed.  Ideally these variations should all be played  at more or less the same tempo.  The scherzo is nicely inflected, despite Leotta’s right hand tending to dominate even when the left has the theme.  András Schiff would take Leotta to task in the funeral march (he takes 8 minutes to Schiff’s 5), but questions of tempo aside, markings are being ignored here here.  The trumpet and horn blasts after the bass register drum rolls sound pedaled and unaccented.  Where is the fortissimo explosion?  The finale, well paced and proportioned, brings a return to form, though there is something a little stop-start to the phrases, which dovetail more neatly in accounts by Schiff, Barenboim and others.
The Pathetique is not quite as successful.  While Leotta eschews the young Barenboim's heavy rhetoric in the grave  introduction (which neither of them repeat), the following allegro does not flow as naturally, with big expressive pauses and clipped articulation jarring somewhat.  The second movement is altogether move successful, if not as sweetly flowing as Barenboim's. His account of the finale prizes poetry rather than virtuoso show.
The performance of Op.57, the Appassionata, is also similarly flawed.  The first movement is burdened by over-earnestness, marred by a tendency to lapse into mezzo forte, and loses its sense of flow and momentum in the development. The quietly introvert andante is better, with some lovely playing and intelligent voicing, but the finale disappoints once again, with a muted initial attack and heavy tempi.  There are no Barenboim, Richter (RCA), Kovacevich (EMI) or Brautigaum (BIS) tragic heroics here, but there are other ways to play this music of course.  Overall Leotta's is a thoughtful performance that does not quite come off.  Paul Lewis takes a similar tack with much greater success, being more subtle in his dynamic and colouristic shadings, and more compelling in logic.
The final sonata in some ways finds Leotta at his finest, though I found this performance one of the most disappointing of the set, not for any technical flaw but for overall feel.  Leotta's tempi are measured, but his pulse is firmer here than elsewhere in this set and he paces the arietta beautifully.  There is a sense, though, that his sense of awe of the music inhibits him.  Ultimately the performance seems too deliberate, to the point that the first movement turns foursquare as Leotta deals with Beethoven's gnarled contrapuntal writing.  Turn to the young Barenboim, or better yet the young Kovacevich on Philips, and you will find altogether more confident conceptions more confidently projected.  For me Pollini (DG) and Brendel (Philips) remain at the head of the list in this final sonata, together with Kovacevich’s EMI remake.  Leotta does not stand with them, for now at least.
The market for Beethoven sonatas is crowded, and each new entry into the lists must jostle with the giants of yesteryear for a place at the front.  That is not to say that there is no room for new recordings of these masterpieces – as many have reflected, there is no getting to the bottom of the 32.  Leotta’s recordings are sincere and worthy, but the recently completed cycles from Paul Lewis (about 7 years Leotta’s senior) and András Schiff, not to mention Ronald Brautigam’s unfolding fortepiano traversal, make much more compelling claims on your attention and your wallet.
Tim Perry


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