I’ve enjoyed Adbel Rahman El Bacha’s Ravel and his Bach on the Triton label, so was intrigued to see his complete collection of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas appear in an attractive box from Mirare. Unencumbered by frills and extras, what we have are the complete sonatas on 10 CDs, each in a well labeled paper sleeve, and including a substantial booklet essay by Sylviane Falcinelli in French, English and German. I mention the sleeve labels since there are few things more irksome than having to go back and delve into the booklet to find which sonata you might be listening to rather than just checking the disc’s slipcase. There is also a note on the choice of a C. Bechstein instrument for this recording, El Bacha preferring its depth, and “rounder, more singing sound” to the greater brilliance of perhaps a Steinway. The sound of these recordings is indeed very good, with the acoustic in La Ferme de Villefavard well suited to solo piano, being far from overly resonant. This is not an entirely dry acoustic, but it does have a relatively small-scale atmosphere which suits El Bacha’s often intimate, confiding style in certain movements.
Production and presentation thus covered and confirmed as excellent, it’s now down to the playing and interpretations. I would be the first to doff my cap and show my respects to any pianist able to play all of these sonatas with skill and panache. El Bacha performs very well indeed, creating atmosphere, variety of colour and expression - in short, many of the things which are essential to have such a cycle of great works lift-off and take on a life of their own. He has recorded Beethoven before in around 2009 in a 9 CD set which appeared on Forlane. Listening online I can only say this more recent recording wins at the very least in terms of recorded quality, the earlier manifestation being a little on the drier side but still pretty full and potent sounding.
With this review I’ve turned the conventional approach on its head somewhat and, with Igor Levit’s remarkable set of the late sonatas still ringing around inside my skull (see review), am diving straight for the same works from this set by way of comparison. First impressions left me imagining I would have to pick things apart quite a bit, but as with all such sets it pays to allow the music and its interpreter to establish themselves over time. The set of the final three sonatas is decent enough, though these are not performances which stun one with a sense of profundity. As with Levit, I appreciate a pianist willing to allow the music to speak for itself, but I didn’t really find myself moved by the Andante third movement of the Sonata No. 30 or the cantabile opening of the Sonata No. 31. There’s nothing really missing in these performances, but there is some kind of strain between the score and the kinds of expressive elasticity which El Bacha seeks to introduce. This is perhaps best represented in the last movement of the Sonata No. 31, in which the opening hangs rather limply from its ‘recitative’ feel. There the repeated accompanying chords which underpin the following lyrical section suffer from pretty random moments of rubato - a search for expression which doesn’t really land anywhere in particular. I miss a sense of building drama in the Fuga as well, which doesn’t feel particularly integrated. The dramatic bass lines just appear rather than serving to heighten that elusive sense of elation which these passages can provide. There is more random rhythm from 6:40 onwards - particularly around the seventh minute, which sounds very strange.
I don’t want to be too mean with these performances, but if the great final sonatas don’t satisfy then I’m hard pushed to make a recommendation. The Sonata No. 29, ‘Hammerklavier’ is another litmus test, and El Bacha’s technical prowess is much in evidence - the final Allegro risoluto an impressive achievement. I really enjoy the operatic drama he creates in the Scherzo. This is one sonata in which his more unforced expressive starting point works well enough in parts, though the Adagio sostenuto misses out on much sense of direction. The molto sentimento feel is pretty much straight out of a Nino Rota film score, and the long span of this longest of movements didn’t fill me with a sense of jaw-dropping comprehension. I’m reluctant to say it meanders aimlessly, but if you were to pick out a moment at random then that’s what it would sound like - a random moment. I’m sorry to hold up Igor Levit each time for these sonatas, but you can pick random moments from his version of this movement and feel as if you have entered a vast verdant field of strange but magically vocal shapes of nature, fitting into a design as eloquently clear as the London Underground map.
There will be little features which you may be interested in with the rest of the set, such as the opening of the Sonata No. 14, ‘Moonlight’, whose controversial pedal markings can lead to much strangeness. El Bacha takes Beethoven’s marking with a pinch of salt, sensibly half-pedalling to provide harmonic clarity in a performance with a nice expressive shape. I was intrigued to find out more about my niggling little dissatisfactions with this set, so hauled out my copy of a few of the scores. El Bacha is relatively uncontroversial in these sonatas so I wasn’t on the lookout for alarmingly unusual interpretative features. Looking at the Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 and there are immediately some points which I’m reluctant to accept without comment. You have the quiet passage which follows ff chords in bar 6, which go slower than their initial impulse in bar 5 and go against my general rule of ‘quieter doesn’t means slower’. Then there’s the crescendo in bar 8, which suffers a dip moving through the rising E natural/F in the middle of the bar. These are all little things it would seem, but each deflates the flow and building structure of that Grave opening, not helping with the essence of the music’s message. Moving on to the Allegro di molto, and I miss those subito P moments after each crescendo, as well as some crescendi altogether. This flattening out of Beethoven’s marked dynamics is not popular with this listener. The Adagio cantabile movement in this sonata is one of the most gorgeous in the whole set, but I don’t feel El Bacha allows the melody enough life beyond the accompanying notes. He has a tendency to lean on the beginning of the beat which keeps everything vertical when it should be fluidly horizontal.
So, I’ve ended up being horribly picky after all. There is no such thing as a perfect performance of Beethoven’s entire 32 piano sonatas, and even probably no such thing as a perfect performance of any one of these sonatas. Subjective values apply, and I hope as many of you feel you can disagree with what I’ve been commenting on as will take my views as in any way valid. Listening more in general terms there are some things to be enjoyed in this set, and El Bacha can create moments of magic amongst the best of them. Each time I look closer however, I find myself with constant little bugbears which I know would bother me each time I came back. There’s the tempo of the opening Allegro of the Sonata No. 1 which is just not quite fast enough to glue everything as my instinct says it should, or again the dynamics in that quirky Menuetto of the same sonata, which seem entirely absent in the first repeat section. Maybe he’s reading from a different edition to mine, but these are little things which seem to recur. I have few arguments about differences to expected tempi if these can be made to work, though there are few really daring challenges in general over the whole cycle, and a lack in differentiation which has my brain shutting down rather sooner than it should. Where I fear El Bacha loses me even more is where he seeks expression in rhythm rather than in melodic flow, evidenced by strangely clunky sections such as the opening to the Sonata No. 12.
There is no denying Abdel El Bacha’s qualities as a pianist, and there are things which I enjoyed in this set. The skittish Finale to the Sonata No. 5 for instance is played with great wit and a kind of knowing charm which is quite compelling, as is the nervy bounce with which the Sonata No. 21 commences. I have no doubt he has legions of fans who are keen to get their hands on a copy of this set, and I’m sure there are many who will view it more admiringly and sympathetically than I have. It is bad luck that it arrived after Igor Levit’s release, but from amongst the complete sets I’ve reviewed I still wouldn’t recommend this above Alfred Brendel or Louis Lortie, though I would certainly put it above HJ Lim.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas
CD 1 [70:04]
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5) [18:28]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5) [23:55]
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5) [27:41]
CD 2 [47:12]
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 (1797) [9:44]
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 (1796) [8:08]
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7) [29:20]
CD 3 [53:46]
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7) [18:39]
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7) [12:23]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8) [22:44]
CD 4 [60:25]
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8) [19:04]
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798) [14:08]
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799) [15:20]
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800) [26:08]
CD 5 [76:39]
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01) [19:48]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01) [15:30]
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801) [16:24]
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801) [24:57]
CD 6 [71:06]
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802) [23:53]
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" (1802) [23:46]
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802) [22:27]
CD 7 [60:25]
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04) [23:55]
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804) [11:30]
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05) [25:00]
CD 8 [51:06]
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809) [10:42]
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809) [10:08]
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10) [17:19]
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814) [12:57]
CD 9 [67:16]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816) [21:49]
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" (1817-18) [45:27]
CD 10 [65:18]
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820) [19:07]
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22) [20:24]
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22) [25:47]