RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 Ė 1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 1 [213:46] CD 1
Sonata, op. 2 no. 1 in F minor (1793-5) [19:26]; op. 2 no. 2 in A major (1794-5) [25:22]; op. 2 no. 3 in C major (1794-5) [24:53]; CD 2
Sonata, op. 7, ĎGrande Sonateí in E flat major (1796-7) [28:30]; op. 13, ĎPathťtiqueí in C minor (1797-8) [18:26]; op. 14 no. 1 in E major (1798) [13:19]; op. 14 no. 2 in G major (1798) [14:59]; CD 3
Sonata, op. 10 no. 1 in C minor (?1795-7) [17:47]; op. 10 no. 2 in F major (1796-7) [16:44]; op. 10 no. 3 in D major (1797-8) [23:56];
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 28-30 October 2008 (op. 2), 28-30 September 2010 (op. 7, 13, 14), 14-16 December 2011 (op. 10)
CHANDOS CHAN 10720(3) [3 CDs: 69:54 + 75:37 + 68:15]
Bavouzet begins with op. 2 no. 1. His fluency emphasises the striking authority of Beethovenís exposition. Itís assured and fully in command of the material in its quickly passing variety yet continuity. In Bavouzetís hands a playful quality, despite the key of F minor, stands out. The only query I have is whether the marking Ďcon espressioneí at the end of the exposition and recapitulation (tr. 1, 0:45, 3:18) should receive more attention. Alfred Brendel in his third Beethoven cycle which Iíll use throughout this review for comparison (Decca 4781821) colours it more markedly but otherwise I prefer Bavouzetís more consistent playfulness to Brendelís more measured, darker, more ruminative and ambiguous manner. No qualms about Bavouzetís slow movement. Now F major, all is tender, warm, even serene and Bavouzet gives it a manly delicacy, its demisemiquaver elaborations graceful without being too precious. The originality of the Minuet comes across well: F minor again but nonchalant, quizzical. The F major Trio is more flowing but extreme dynamic and rhythmic contrasts are enjoyed in its second section. Dynamic contrasts are also significant in the finale. Bavouzet opts for clarity of articulation rather than breakneck prestissimo. As in the first movement, heís faster than Brendel who, unlike Bavouzet, again omits the second half repeat. Bavouzet again creates a sense of playfulness and unity with the first movement, though Brendel gives more weight to the descending sequences which are the second element of the second group of themes (from tr. 4 0:32 in Bavouzet). He makes freer and more luminous the extended melody which is the surprise of the second half of the movement. This from Bavouzet seems soubrette-like first time (1:50) but is made more agreeably airy on its repeat.
Op. 2 no. 2 is startling in the sheer mastery of its writing and of Bavouzetís playing. The first movement has a teasing brilliance and jocularity within an appropriately controlled frame. The development (tr. 5 3:25) is rigorously argued. Bavouzet displays total command of seamless phrasing counterpoised by rhythmic and dynamic contrast. The Largo appassionato slow movement deploys the sparest of melodies, rich in emotive expression over an eccentrically treading bass which from Bavouzet has an impish streak. His convincing tempo imparts a beauteously limpid, though austere, exploratory freedom to the expansive arioso manner that follows the melody (tr. 6 1:30). In this movement Brendel brings more warmth and purposive shape to the melody and pathos to the arioso. Bavouzet has a smoother, more natural line and a more classical, distanced arioso. The third movement Scherzo is mercurial, with a troubled, rather sullen Trio in A minor for contrast. The finale is a rondo using an unusually relaxed theme which allows the episodes to be more lively, in particular the second (tr. 8 1:43) which Bavouzet makes fiery.
With Op. 2 no. 3 the opening movement is all energy, though Bavouzet also catches well its initial playfulness. The contrasting lyricism of its second theme (tr. 9 1:14), suggests relaxation, yet working towards more energy. This allows its close to radiate triumphant confidence. Bavouzet gives a rumbustious, barn-storming account, and clearly relishes the experience. Brendel is more measured, less spontaneous. His development is more purposeful, steely, urgent. That said, yet you always feel that the end is in sight. With Bavouzet (4:47) thereís the fascinating possibility that his more mysterious sense of exploration may come off the rails. In fact itís the slow movement (tr. 10) thatís haunting: a simple yet eloquent theme, a troubled continuation, then the pathos of a melody floating over a restless ostinato. Bavouzet brings to the table flowing, unaffected playing so the overall effect is one of delicacy. On the other hand he also takes full advantage of Beethovenís extreme dynamic contrasts, such as from soft to very loud at 2:00. Is it over the top? Brendel would think so as his dynamic contrasts are more tempered. Even so, Bavouzet more closely realizes Beethovenís markings. Brendelís account has more mature consideration, weight and poise, but its crafted quality lacks Bavouzetís grace. On the other hand you may prefer his starkness to Bavouzetís vehemence. In the Scherzo I wondered whether Bavouzet observes Beethovenís dynamic markings too scrupulously. They range from very soft to very loud and Bavouzet allows you to experience this. In doing so the piece takes on a rather choleric aspect. I prefer Brendelís tempering of the dynamics because then the piece emerges with more wit and sparkle. The Trio is more exhilarating from the start whereas with Bavouzet it takes a while to become a presence. Bavouzetís finale (tr. 12) with pleasingly florid cascades of semiquavers has more momentum and its dynamic contrasts emerge stimulatingly. Itís greatly enhanced by a second theme (1:36) of calm lyricism, undeterred by an ever-cheeky vivacity that weaves around it. Bavouzet also realizes well the strange turns in the coda that threaten new dimensions. Brendel savours the finale more creamily yet in doing so seems more calculated. Its structure is wonderfully clear, its second theme expansive in its relaxation. For sheer joy go to Bavouzet.
Op. 7, called by Beethoven ĎGrand Sonataí, suggests a piece larger than life. Bavouzet certainly gives this impression. The first movement (CD2, tr. 1) starts innocently enough softly tripping. He makes it both happily fluent and lyrical. At 0:25 a pair of very loud chords interrupt and gauche leaps appear first in the left hand, then more outrageously in the right. The overall effect, however, is exhilarating, especially the sequences of rising semiquavers Bavouzet takes at a hair-raising tempo. The stentorian flashes from 1:49 in the exposition codetta are something altogether more heroic. Brendel is more measured, expertly balanced, classical, less concerned to shock but less charged. I missed the intensity of Bavouzetís progression. The work moves from the rebellious to the humane and visionary in a slow movement (tr. 2) which Bavouzet begins warmly and tenderly. Its shape is very clear in a tempo which from Bavouzet is a relatively fleet Largo - the movement times at 8:11 against Brendelís 9:02. Brendel offers more space for reflection and more emotion. The six very loud chords that make a sudden contrast (1:48) have something of truculence from Bavouzet but come with more weight from Brendel. Bavouzet brings a directness of expression to the Minuet that makes it almost a life story: at first smooth and blithe, then a rush of excitement at the end of the first strain, the second with clouds gathering, passed over to become even more gleeful. The Trio, though dark in key and texture, still abounds in energy and a sense of resolve. Brendel is more playful but also more crafted in the Minuet and therefore distanced from the experience. The unusual nature of the finale for Beethoven, a rondo with a contented sunny, rather nostalgic theme is well caught by Bavouzet. Even the louder flexing in the bass is more humorous than gruff. To the central episode he brings a briefly stark then rather triumphant vigour. In the coda he reveals a more intimate mood, seriously thoughtful at first but then gentle and warm in its farewell. Brendelís finale is considerably more measured, taking 7:47 against Bavouzetís 6:40. This makes it more reflective, the opening of the rondo theme always lovingly savoured, but less immediate. Brendelís central episode is, however, by contrast more waspish and his coda more glowing.
Op. 13, the Pathťtique Sonata is one of Beethovenís best known. Bavouzetís interpretation has an individual feel without being gimmicky. His opening is imposing, by turns stern and pleading, a graphic introduction in the poise of whose close time stands still. He is not as measured, nuanced or anguished as Brendel but with impact and shape readily appreciable. Then from Bavouzet comes an Allegro of headlong energy. This is contrast to the more sheerly manic Brendel and offers a light and dextrous scampering. Thereís a trace of hope in the sense of play as much as a contest between the two hands. The Ďintroductioní returns twice like a ghost to keep tragedy in mind. This transforms the Allegro into something more gaunt and troubled. Bavouzet conveys all this vividly. The famous slow movement (tr. 6) melody Bavouzet presents simply, unaffectedly, almost apologetically but at the same time with a reflective spaciousness which clarifies its humility and tenderness. The first episode (1:10) opens out into something more pained if beauteous. The second episode (2:35) is more troubled, even protesting. Brendel treats the melody more emotively and the episodes more dramatically. Bavouzet is content to let the melody speak for itself. The rondo finale (tr. 7) is all quicksilver fluency in which his and Beethovenís mastery of playing with the emotions is evident. The theme itself is well focused which inevitably makes the first episode (0:20) seem at first rather diffuse, but later more settled and finally pungently emphatic. The second episode (1:34) begins nonchalantly but works itself into cascading waterfalls. I prefer Bavouzet in this movement for his lighter articulation which makes the theme more carefree, the first episode more playful and realizes fiery dynamic contrasts and appreciable pace. It is without the more brittle manner of Brendel who is ever restless, pressing increasingly excitably to a frenzied climax.
Op. 14 no. 1 (tr. 8) begins with a cheery, wide-spanned melody, like simply relaxing breathing in fresh air, disrupted by sniggers of semiquavers, the expansiveness the more appreciable in consequence of the surrounding energy. The second theme (0:37) muses even more airily and is in turn subverted by a finger-drumming bass. The joy of the piece is that the melodies prove capable of withstanding all thatís thrown at them and accordingly become more flexible and hospitable. Bavouzet plays up the subversive elements but take the movement at a truer Allegro than the more reflective Brendel whose emphasis is more on harmonic than rhythmic variation. I prefer Bavouzetís sense of animated progression to Brendelís revealing more of an underlying seriousness. That is undoubtedly the key to the slow movement, a sombre one anticipating Brahms with a warmer, more whimsical central section which ends, however, in a poignant sigh and returns tersely as coda. It has a folksong-like simplicity yet telling inflection. While Brendel gives it a well-lit intensity and pain Bavouzet is more sad in his greater smoothness and this time more pointed phrasing. The changeable, rather scatty finale (tr. 10) appears in Bavouzetís hands a coquettish rondo theme with semiquaver descents of shallow laughter. Thereís also a playful first episode (0:30) and a similar second one (1:10) despite the elements of storm and grandeur. Brendel makes the first episode more poised and the second more imposing. I prefer Bavouzetís more tripping rondo theme.
Op. 14 no. 2 (tr. 11) is even more expansive in the opening movement melody than no. 1. Itís a melody that continues and decorates itself with greater complexity as it runs along yet does so gently. The second theme (0:38) is contentedly rather than ostentatiously happy. Thereís a third (1:09) based on the second part of the second with suave interplay between the hands. The development sports a vigorous transformation of the head motif of the opening theme but ends in mid air. Then we are straight back to the opening calm which is now more appreciable. Bavouzet catches well the movementís combination of grace and character at a truer Allegro than Brendel. Brendelís greater measure here shows how every phrase is significant to the whole. His development is less vigorous than Bavouzetís, though with more humour in the bass. His third theme basks in greater warmth. The second movement (tr.12) is all character, a jovial theme and variations played by Bavouzet with zest and swagger. Variation 1 (1:17) is more reflective with decoration in the right hand but later a swinging bass. Variation 2 (2:27) is a study in cheeky syncopation. Variation 3 (3:47) has the theme smooth in the bass with semiquaver decoration limpidly realized by Bavouzet. In this movement Brendel points up the dynamic contrasts more but also stands a little back from it all. His Variation 1 is more exquisite than Bavouzetís, his Variation 2 more suave but while his theme in Variation 3 is more concentrated his semiquaver decoration is heavier. The Scherzo finale (tr. 13) is a will-oí-the-wisp rondo which finds Bavouzet now with a light touch, now boisterous, ever imbued with twinkling mischief. The central episode (1:00) can serve as a Trio as it offers glimpses of a more flowing melody. This before the coda transforms the rondo theme into a tripping whirligig, all deftly presented by Bavouzet. Brendel is no less playful if a little less rollicking but he does make more of the disruptive elements in the middle of the ĎTrioí.
The opening movement of Op. 10 no. 1 (CD3 tr. 1) is strikingly volatile and Bavouzet brings playing of bright extravagance to match. The opening theme is emphatic but brief, energetic and impetuous. In its wake thoughts are tossed away then vigorously reclaimed. The second theme (0:29) is eased into over an extended period. It predominates in the development and is later still transformed. Bavouzet is a clear as well as thoroughly involved guide. Brendelís emphasis is on progression, a sweeping one for the first theme and melting one for the second. To the slow movement Bavouzet brings simplicity, tenderness and formality. The latter quality befits the elaborate decoration of its melody and sense of Beethoven looking back musically as well as forward. Those brusque demisemiquaver descending flourishes are vividly realized. Bavouzet also clarifies the aching juxtaposed melody. Brendel is more measured and stately, taking 9:08 against Bavouzetís 7:58. Beethovenís marking is Adagio molto and the structure of the movement is more readily appreciable at Brendelís pace. Tenderness is diminished but Brendel brings impressive conviction to the later progress of the melody. The finale is gloriously accomplished with an opening theme that could have a positive or negative outcome. A second theme starts out as a benign variant of the first. The development contains a stormy passage including a precursor of the motif opening the Fifth Symphony yet with a deeper plunge. Bavouzet brings a manic verve to these pages which is both outlandish and exhilarating. Brendel is heavier and more grim; I prefer Bavouzetís lighter articulation. The quality of the movement is more appreciable because of Bavouzetís bonuses. Firstly thereís the discarded original third movement Scherzo and Trio. The Scherzo has vigour but is rather squarely imitative. The Trio makes a pearly contrast. Secondly William Drabkin has reconstructed from Beethovenís sketches his original conception of the fourth movement finale with a longer development. Itís a neat, pukka job but in mood the original fourth movement is awkwardly similar to the original third.
The opening movement of Op. 10 no. 2 (tr. 4), now airy, now ambitious, refuses to settle. What you remember is the codetta with a rollicking trill in the bass. From Bavouzet thereís an especially mercurial development, pause, then much calmer recapitulation, at least initially. Brendel integrates things more. Heís more extrovert but less contrasted, not as reflective as Bavouzet. To the Allegretto second movement Bavouzet brings a sense of cool, disciplined musing springing from the depths of consciousness with a vein of pathos before a bright close. Another foretaste of Brahms, perhaps, but the duskily meditative central Trio with constant melodic asides is more like Mendelssohn. Brendel is smoother from the outset but still intense, less warm and rather sadder in the Trio. Then in the high-spirited, runaway finale with the faÁade but not substance of a fugue, I thought of Grieg. Itís a bit candyflossy in its show yet it requires discipline too and Bavouzet delivers both nimbly and with jollity. Brendel, however, enjoys it more and in so doing brings greater light, shade and humour.
Op. 10 no. 3 is special. Be ready to be carried away by the exuberance of the lively ascents and descents of the opening movementís first theme. Bavouzet is a live wire of striving and showmanship, so the development (3:33) is a cue for more boldness of articulation. Brendel is more mellow and thereby more merry. He lacks Bavouzetís breathtaking fluency but enjoys the music and places more emphasis on its melodic aspects. The elements of the movement are more integrated and youíre conscious of longer phrase spans. The slow movement (tr. 8) is arguably the greatest among Beethovenís early sonatas. Bavouzet presents it as sad, remote, personal sorrow. It is flowingly projected with a second theme (1:00) which affords glimpses of happier times. The central section is warmer, over which flutter vestiges of hope. This mood is supplanted by a development with writhing hemidemisemiquavers in the right hand yet followed by a finely poised coda. Brendel is more measured, formal and funereal, taking 10:28 in comparison with Bavouzetís 9:48. He makes the second theme more of a pleading aria and links this with the fluttering right hand of the central section, also made more substantial. His hemidemisemiquavers are more pained. He makes more of the movementís dynamic contrasts and his coda is even more poignant. Bavouzetís Minuet is notable for its return to euphony, limpidly executed with a gentle skipping in the second half of the first strain and an easygoing energy in the second. His Trio is more sprightly. Brendel uses a good deal of rubato in this movement. It works well in making the whole more smiling in its effect. This also serves to point up the relaxation of its close. That said, you may prefer Bavouzetís less managed approach. He catches well the offhand quality of the three-note motif that is given myriad permutations in a rondo finale (tr. 10). Itís all whimsy, an excuse for sleight of hand which Bavouzet is happy to oblige. In the mean time a delightful surprise comes in the shape of the whirligig pirouetting of the first episode (0:36); the second episode (1:15) is bolder. Again Brendel employs rubato so his sudden transition to slow pirouetting attracts more attention to itself. His second episode is more waggish. Yet his account suggests an inner fire behind its musing which makes Bavouzet seem more classically detached.
Thereís a clean directness about Bavouzetís playing which matches the youthful fire of these sonatas and presents them as if freshly minted. In sum these three discs bring to our ears a significant achievement.
A significant achievement in its clean directness of utterance.
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