Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas

Mélodie Zhao (piano)
rec. July 2012-December 2013, Studio Ernest Ansermet, RTS Geneva
Full details at foot of review
CLAVES 50-1304-13 [10 CDs: 612:09]

Mélodie Zhao is a name new to me, and reading the booklet notes I was astonished how much she has achieved in her twenty years. Born 1994 into a musical family in Switzerland, and of Chinese origin, she took up the piano at the age of three. These early lessons were in Beijing with Jiaquan Chen at the Central Conservatory of Music of China. Six years later she moved to the Geneva Conservatory to continue her studies. She is currently working with Pascal Devoyon in Berlin. She has also added composition, orchestration and conducting to her curriculum. She has already composed a piano sonata called ‘Sources’, taking Chinese water landscape as inspiration. This was premiered at the Jinan Festival (China) in 2010. To date, in addition to this Beethoven cycle, she has recorded the complete Chopin Études and the Liszt Transcendental Études, both for the Claves label.

Having listened to the set twice through over the past few weeks, I am convinced that these are persuasive accounts. Tempi are well-judged and spontaneity and freshness underpin the readings. There is a complete lack of mannerism and idiosyncrasy in this young pianist’s approach. Her technique is flawless. In the ‘Hammerklavier’ she meets all the technical demands head-on. It is a thrilling performance, well-paced and brimming with confidence. She has an innate understanding of the structure and architecture of the work, and her intelligent approach enables her to realize her vision of the titanic struggle and conflict within this vast composition. The slow movement displays grandeur, poetry and profound insights. I love the clashing sonorities she emphasizes in the Fuga finale. Similar virtuosic prowess is evident in the Sonata Op.2 No.3, Op.109 and the opening movement of Op. 22, where Beethoven stretches the pianist’s technique to the limit.

The slow movements are sensitively sculpted and ravishingly played. In the Largo of Op. 7, Zhao makes dramatic and evocative use of silences. In Op. 10, No. 3 the Largo is dark and expressive and takes you on a journey of discovery. The Adagio of Op. 31 No. 2 ‘Tempest’ is distinguished by intensity and introspection.

In the final sonata, Op. 111 in C minor Zhao grabs your attention right from the start with an opening diminished seventh chord declaimed with forceful energy and drama. There is much vigour and passion in the reading. In contrast, the second movement Arietta is an expansive set of variations, where the conflicts of the preceding movement are assuaged. The opening theme is simple, yet has a certain nobility and other-worldly quality. Zhao gradually builds up the music with each successive variation. The movement ends in resignation and repose; there’s nothing further to say.

My only quibble, and it is only a minor one, is Zhao’s omission of repeats. For example, in the Menuettos of Op. 2, No. 1 and Op. 31, No. 3, the repeats of the second parts of the minuets and trios are omitted. To my ear, this adversely affects the balance of the movements.

The first nine sonatas of this Beethoven cycle, with the exception of No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2 were recorded on a Bösendorfer; in the rest Zhao uses a Steinway. There is a considerable difference in sound between the two instruments. The Bösendorfer has a more powerful, hard–edged sound, with an impressive bass. The Steinway’s timbre is more rounded and sweet, and offers the pianist a greater range of colour. Whilst I admire both instruments, I feel that the Steinway is preferable. Both pianos are expertly voiced.

This traversal is beautifully recorded, and the piano sound is impressive warm and well-balanced throughout. The Studio Ernest Ansermet offers a spacious acoustic to showcase Zhao’s outstanding pianism. Chris Walton supplies a detailed and informative essay on the evolution of the Thirty-Two. Notes are in English, French and German. I also find that chronologically sequencing the sonatas over the ten CDs gives one the feel of being on a journey.

This is a remarkable achievement for a young pianist and, whilst Brendel, Pollini and Wilhelm Kempff may be more probing and offer some greater insights, this cycle has much to say from a young pianist’s perspective. I hope Zhao returns to these works later on in her career. It will be interesting to hear how her interpretations mature. She’s definitely one to watch out for.

Stephen Greenbank

Full details of contents
CD 1 [64:28]
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5)
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5)
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5)

CD 2 [57:28]
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7)
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7)

CD 3 [59:16]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8)
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8)
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798)

CD 4 [60:25]
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799)
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800)
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01)

CD 5 [54:05]
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01)
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801)
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801)

CD 6 [68:07]
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802)
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" (1802)
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802)

CD 7 [51:00]
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 (1797)
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 (1796)
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04)
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804)

CD 8 [72:22]
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05)
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809)
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809)
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10)
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814)

CD 9 [61:39]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816)
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" (1817-18)

CD 10 [62:19]
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820)
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22)
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22)

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