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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata in E major, Op.109 (1820) [19:41]
Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op.81a Les Adieux (1809-10) [16:18]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, Op.73 Emperor (1809) [40:21]
# Full Performers: Mordecai Shehori (piano)
New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra/James Bolle
rec. October 1992 Manchester, New Hampshire (Concerto); June 1996, NYC (Op.81a): January 2014, Las Vegas (Op.109)
CEMBAL D'AMOUR CD174 [76:27]

This is the second volume in a series documenting pianist Mordecai Shehori's recordings of Beethoven. I had assumed that it would be devoted to the piano sonatas, but this release spins a surprise by including a live performance of the Emperor Concerto, alongside two sonatas.

These performances also chart the years. The earliest is the Concerto, given in 1992, and four years later Shehori recorded Les Adieux in New York. The most recent is Op.109 taped in the recording studio in Las Vegas in January 2014.

From the beginning, with its personalised approach to rhythms and voice leading, its stops and starts, this is a very idiosyncratic performance of Op.109. There is a sense that Shehori is promoting cussedness, disorientation, and even maverick turns of phrase, unwilling to let anything be taken for granted, phrasally or timbrally, far less notions of the beautifying of the sonata. For those brought up on the recordings of Neuhaus, Backhaus, Schnabel, Solomon or Annie Fischer, Shehori's recording occupies a wholly alien world - halting, dogged, full of italicised rubati. Moments of lumpiness co-exist with flattening of contrasts, lacking sweep and drive. The finale is as problematic as the other two movements, indeed more so, and I found listening to the performance an increasingly dispiriting experience.

Les Adieux has a muted sense of expressive engagement, though it offers more opportunities for Shehori's sense of rhythmic acuity to emerge. Despite the rather non-committal nature of his phrasing, a caution that begins in the opening Adagio section (separately tracked) and continues in the Andante espressivo, he is more mainstream in his approach, though there is a fidgety quality to his Beethoven playing, a lack of straightforwardness, and a lack of tonal depth.

The Emperor Concerto was recorded live in concert in Manchester, New Hampshire in October 1992. The New Hampshire Symphony Orchestra is conducted by James Bolle. A note in the jewel case advises listeners that whilst the recordings 'will sound fine on speakers' for the best definition, listening through high quality headphones is the best way to go. I listened via speakers and then via not-very high quality headphones. I take the point, however. The orchestra is rather understaffed and thus lacks heft in tuttis and it can't be said it has much sheen, but Bolle follows Shehori well enough. The pianist alternates between aggressive drive and metrical passagework. He launches violently into the cadenza and plays passages in the slow movement with almost rococo limpidity. His pulse is very free throughout, dynamics extreme, caesuri theatrical, and his final dramatic flourish in the finale unconvincing.

This is a disappointing release.

Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: Concerto 5 ~~ Sonatas