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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 2

Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 (1800) [24:31]
Sonata in A flat major, Op. 26 ‘Grande Sonate’ (1800-01) [19:57]
Sonata ‘quasi una fantasia’ in E flat major, Op. 27, No. 1 (1801) [15:50]
Sonata ‘quasi una fantasia’ in C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 ‘Moonlight’ (1801) [15:54]
Sonata in G major, Op. 31, No. 1 (1801-02) [23:24]
Sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 ‘Tempest’ (1801-02) [23:06]
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 (1801-02) [22:35]
Sonata in D major, Op. 28 ‘Pastoral’ (1801) [24:33]
Sonata in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1 ‘Sonate facile’ (c.1797) [7:33]
Sonata in G major, Op. 49, No. 2 ‘Sonate facile’ (1795-96) [7:51]
Sonata in C major, Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’ (1803-04) [24:06]
Andante in F major, WoO 57 ‘Andante favori’ (1803-04) [8:16]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, 16-18 January 2013 (Opp. 22, 26, and 27), 4-6 June 2013 (Op. 31), 20-22 September 2013 (Opp. 28, 49, 53, and Andante) DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10798(3) [3 CDs: 76:10 + 69:07 + 72:22]

I have not heard Volume 1 of Bavouzet’s unfolding cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, but I like his no-nonsense, clear-headed approach in the works presented in Volume 2. It will be interesting to see how he does in the final volume with the late works that require greater depth and introspection. Except for the Andante, which was originally conceived as the slow movement for the “Waldstein”, I followed along in the piano scores for the works in this volume. In general, Bavouzet is meticulous in observing note values and dynamics, and maintaining steady tempos. There are a few places noted below where he diverges from my score (Peters Edition, urtext) but that could be the result of a newer edition rather than either a misreading or deliberate divergence from the text. In any event, these are very minor and do not negatively affect the pianist’s interpretations. The dominant impression one takes away is the sheer energy that the pianist conveys.
 
Bavouzet gives Op. 22 a light touch and plenty of brio in the first movement, a deeply felt Adagio second movement, a gentle minuet that could be a bit stronger and less refined in the first section, and a final rondo that perfectly captures the Mozartian spirit in the beginning before becoming powerful and sounding like real Beethoven. Bavouzet begins the first movement variations of the Op. 26 “Funeral March” Sonata with deliberation and in a subdued manner, but builds well from there. He then really nails the second movement Scherzo and finds an ideal tempo for the funeral march with due weight on the chords and close attention to dynamics. The finale is fast and smooth and achieves real power in the minor key section.
 
Bavouzet has mixed success in the Op. 27 sonatas, though I have nothing but praise for his account of Op. 27, No.1. He contrasts well the opening Andante with the Allegro that follows in the first movement with excellent staccato in the bass. The slow movement in C minor has all the power necessary while remaining true to Classical models, and he observes the “attacca” designation before each of the final movements. The Adagio third movement is deep and slow with a heavy tread, and the pianist launches the finale with a light touch that never becomes heavy handed. I have more problems with Bavouzet’s interpretation of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata. I find him just too plain in the first movement. At first I thought his tempo was too fast, but it is at or near the norm. I much prefer the recording Evgeny Kissin made in 1997 where the pianist inflects the line without ever distorting it. His rubato here is of the subtlest kind. On the other hand, Bavouzet is too slow and deliberate in the delightful Allegretto minuet where Kissin is much lighter and a bit faster, which gives the movement real lift. The tables are rather reversed in the finale. Bavouzet is certainly speedy and powerful enough, but allows the listener to really hear the notes. Next to his, Kissin’s is a bit of a blur. His is more prestissimo than presto, and while undeniably exciting, I find it wears less well for repeated listening than Bavouzet’s. So a mixed bag here.
 
The Op. 28, “Pastoral” Sonata, has always been one of my favorites and one that I labored on for a number of years. Bavouzet captures the spirit of the work with perfection. His first movement has a sense of calm, but he does not treat it with kid gloves. Then he takes the following Andante at a brisk walk and observes the staccatos and sforzandos well. Everything is light and clear, but with plenty of character. The Scherzo is truly “vivace”, as marked, and in the final rondo he also observes the “non troppo” indication. The sonata ends in a burst of joy in Bavouzet’s hands. This movement reminds me of the finale to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in its joyousness. A marvelous performance.
 
The three Op. 31 sonatas give ample evidence of Beethoven as the mature master and one with a sense of humor. Bavouzet captures the humor of the first movement of Op. 31, No. 1 with its opposition of on-the-beat and just-off-the-beat chords to perfection and is dazzling in his virtuosity throughout the movement. It is in this movement (measures 46-49 in the Peters Edition) where there is a discrepancy in the dynamic markings. The score has all of the measures played forte where Bavouzet plays the first one piano. I checked this section as played by Richard Goode and he observes the dynamics as written. Perhaps Bavouzet is using a different edition or decided to alter the dynamics at this point. It certainly sounds fine that way and one would not necessarily notice it unless one were following the score. Bavouzet takes the second movement, marked Adagio grazioso, closer to an allegretto, but performs it with gracefulness. The final Rondo is marked allegretto at the start and that is just how Bavouzet interprets it. He delights in the music’s humor and concludes in a true presto con fuoco with a sneakily quiet ending. Another terrific performance. The “Tempest”, Op. 31, No. 2 is one of Beethoven’s most beloved sonatas and I am sure everyone has a favorite recording. I have admired Hélène Grimaud’s account on DG, but I now prefer Bavouzet. In the first movement he emphasizes the contrast between largo and allegro as does Grimaud, but he brings out the right hand melody better than she does. Her sound is denser and heavier, at least as it is recorded, and she uses more rubato than he. This is true throughout the sonata. The sections of the slow movement marked dolce have a sweetness with Bavouzet that is more marked than with Grimaud. In the finale, both have a nice, flowing tempo, but Bavouzet is clearer than Grimaud and she rather overdoes the more combative parts. Her sound becomes clangorous there. Hers is a bold account, but Bavouzet does more justice to the work. Bavouzet turns in a winning performance of the Op. 31, No. 3. His Allegro first movement is energetic and he puts great emphasis on the ritards and crescendos in the first five or so measures. In fact, he slows slightly in the first measure marked ritard and then much more so with greater emphasis two measures later. Goode does the same thing in his account, but not to such an extent. The wonderful Scherzo that follows is the epitome of the dance as Bavouzet performs it and he relishes its humor with the sudden fortissimo chords. The Minuet is moderato e grazioso and that is exactly how Bavouzet interprets it. He also pays close attention to the varied dynamics in the Trio section. Again his finale is truly presto con fuoco and played with rhythmic precision and power. It is tremendously exciting. Another anomaly with the printed text arises in this movement. There are two long-held chords near the end that as marked should be arpeggiated rather than played as solid chords. Goode rolls his, but Bavouzet does not. This is a small matter, as I cannot imagine a better performance than Bavouzet’s.
 
Preceding the great “Waldstein” Sonata on the third disc of the set are the two “easy sonatas”, Op. 49 Beethoven composed in the late 1790s that were not published until 1805; hence their higher opus numbers. Each is in only two movements. The first sonata is Haydnesque and the second more Mozartian. Beethoven adapted the minuet from the latter sonata for use in his popular Septet for winds and strings. Bavouzet’s accounts are perfectly fine. The set concludes with another of Beethoven’s most famous works, the Op. 53, “Waldstein” Sonata followed by the Andante movement he originally intended as the slow movement of the sonata. Bavouzet conquers the “Waldstein” as well as any pianist I have heard. The first movement is clearly pianissimo and con brio at the start, becoming wonderfully exciting as it proceeds. The slow movement, which acts as an introduction to the finale much like the second movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, is played with real feeling. The finale, though, must be the pièce de résistance, as it travels from smooth and dreamy to a climax of great power. The final prestissimo section brings the work to its rousing conclusion. It makes you want to shout “bravo!” As an addendum, the Andante favori movement comes across as a pleasant piece in rondo form with interesting variations, but is lighter in mood than the short movement that replaced it. Beethoven knew what he was doing.
 
Chandos has provided Bavouzet with a clear and bright recording that does not lack for warmth. The first-class production values are also what one expects from this label. William Drabkin has contributed detailed notes on each sonata, and Bavouzet himself provides a note on the reason he decided to record these sonatas and on his approach to the works. As a whole, while there are many recordings of these works from which to choose, Bavouzet’s belong up there with the best.
 
Leslie Wright

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas


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