Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111 in C minor (1822) [25:50]
Piano Sonata No. 10, op. 14 no. 2 in G major (1798) [17:44]
Piano Sonata No. 17, op. 31 no. 2 in D minor ‘Tempest’ (1802) [23:58]
Naum Grubert (piano)
rec. 13-15 March 2013, Westvest 90, Schiedam, the Netherlands.
NAVIS CLASSICS NC14002 [67:35]

I often avoid agreeing to write reviews of recordings by people I know, but not writing up complimentary copies can also seem a bit churlish. I was given my copy of Latvian-born pianist Naum Grubert’s Beethoven sonatas as I had a hand in preparing the booklet notes, so have to declare an interest. You wouldn’t expect me to bad-mouth a release in which my name is printed but the simple truth is I’m not under contract, and if I didn’t like the recording I simply wouldn’t write the review.

Navis Classics started up last year and this is only their second release, but it is an ambitious one. The catalogues are crawling with recordings of the Beethoven’s piano sonatas by names both venerable and new, and tackling these works afresh is a brave move by all concerned. Naum Grubert fully intends to record more, though I don’t believe a complete cycle is in prospect. On this showing his performances will be eminently collectable and rewarding.

My main reference for Op. 111 these days is Igor Levit on Sony Classical (see review). Levit and Grubert are distinctive in their way, but I can revel in the way both of them create a logical narrative in the unusual first movement. This is music of dramatic contrasts, and Levit is the more theatrical of the two, making musical points with micro-rubatos within phrases. Grubert does less of this kind of thing, but his dynamic contrasts create more light and shade somehow, creating as much of a curtain raiser and subsequently parrying with Beethoven’s complex counterpoint in an operatic ensemble which advances and recedes like a real switchback. Timings are about equal in the first movement, but Grubert is a little more compact in the second, keeping up a brisker tempo in the ‘music-box’ section at 9:52. The Arietta is taken as the movingly quiet musical moment it should be, without draining the music of energy in too slow a tempo. Grubert winds up the tension over that stretched span of time very effectively, delivering both repose and heightened expectation. This expectation is richly rewarded by the turbulent and sotto voce variations which follow, Grubert handling Beethoven’s fiendish inventions with panache, but also in no way denying the composer’s heroic struggles.

Grubert writes that “one can hardly believe that works from different periods belong to the same composer”, and it is a point of interest that he has chosen Opus 14 No. 2 to follow the mighty Opus 111. This contrast works extremely well, the stormy clouds of Beethoven’s late masterpiece being dispersed in music which owes at least some of its genesis to the spirit of Mozart. Grubert takes the ‘unassuming simplicity’ of this piece and performs it with a smile, contrasting with András Schiff on ECM 1943, whose elasticity of approach launches this work more into a Romantic territory which, arguably, it shouldn’t have to sustain.

Opus 31 No. 2, nicknamed ‘The Tempest’ represents middle-period Beethoven, Grubert seeing this stormy reference as “connected to the inner life of the soul…” rather than a representation of nature as might be found in the Pastoral Symphony. One comparison I made was that with Friedrich Gulda, who whipped up a storm with his 1967 cycle of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Gulda is swifter and more urgent and intense in the first movement where Grubert finds a more legato lyricism in Beethoven’s passagework, contrasting with articulation and a sustained atmosphere of quasi-elegance in the tender moments, indeed, with a far more ‘Viennese’ feel if you seek those candle-lit worlds to which this music would have been so vibrantly new. Gulda impresses with virtuoso display but is heavy-hitting, at times delivering associations with the piano accompaniment to a perilous scene in an old silent film, playing fast and loose with dynamic markings, and at times taking us into strangely futuristic worlds in his interpretation of Beethoven’s pedal markings. Grubert’s reading is perhaps less improvisatory in feel, but does for instance show us how this sonata points towards Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. More comparable in terms of timings is Louis Lortie in his Chandos cycle (see review), but while he has as elegant a touch as Grubert I don’t like his crashing gear changes in the midst of phrases. Both Lortie and Grubert take the central Adagio in a tempo which pushes it over eight minutes, which is by no means unusual, but shows where the inner contrast and double-dotted rhythmic tightness wrought by Grubert generates more interest, making his 8:15 seem ‘right’ where Lortie’s 8:10 just sounds slow.

Grubert points out the enigmatic nature of the final movement, the “perpetuum mobile” of which “can be read in very different ways.” Grubert keeps things light and transparent, moving forward where Lortie in comparison sounds stodgy, the extra 30 seconds or so timing being crucial in this instance. Grubert’s rising phrases are demonstrably triumphant, rising out of a whirling dance – the individual rising from the mass perhaps. András Schiff (ECM 1945/46) does something different again in this movement, seeking poetry and melodic power in those ostinato notes from the outset. This is an interesting approach, equalising the hierarchy of the material to create an ornate musical palace at which one can marvel and leaving aside the Sturm of the title. Grubert keeps more to the spirit of the Tempest, by no means overdoing the expressive turmoil but holding onto a more revolutionary spirit to the end.

The recording for this release is very good indeed. Set in a by no means dry but fairly intimate acoustic, the atmosphere is created as much if not more within the instrument as by any external effects. Yes, there are many versions of these pieces competing for your attention, but these recordings can stand equal to and at times above leading and ‘classic’ versions, and for myself I was thrilled to find out how good they are.

Dominy Clements

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