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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Complete Piano Sonatas
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 2008-2016, Potton Hall, Suffolk CHANDOS CHAN10960(9) [9 CDs: 643:15]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas has emerged in sets of three discs in recent years, and has now been brought together in a chunky box set with each disc nicely held in a card sleeve with full listings on each. Chandos has saved itself the bother of re-designing the set, including three booklets with their original notes and keeping the three-volume concept going. The only flaw with this is that each disc is labelled 1, 2 and 3 for each volume, only indicating to which volume they belong on the back, so it pays to keep them all neatly in order. A plus point is that each work plus track listing is printed on the back of each sleeve, not always a guaranteed detail with these kinds of boxes.
The Chandos label had previously recorded Louis Lortie (review) as its flagship Beethoven complete piano sonatas set, though with some years delay in its completion I have read that it was rather hastily completed a the same time Bavouzet’s set was already commencing production and clearly planned as the new best thing. I still find much to admire in Lortie and he is by no means easy to dismiss, but from the first notes of the Sonata, op. 2 no. 1 you can hear where he is already given to a more romantic view, helped by a bigger acoustic and slower than the classical briskness and clarity of Bavouzet in the early sonatas, reminding us of the young rising star’s connection with Haydn. It’s interesting by the way to hear the difference in recordings between Lortie and Bavouzet from the same Potton Hall venue, the former surrounded by a halo of an acoustic in the 1990s that has been tamed much more for Bavouzet – on blind listening I doubt you would count them as the same venue. I preferred Alfred Brendel on Decca (review) to Lortie at that time, and have had this and András Schiff’s more quirky but still compelling ECM set (review of volume VIII) close to hand as references for the last decade or so. Anyone able to get their hands on Friederich Gulda’s refreshing and powerful 1967 set re-released on the Brilliant Classics or Amadeo/Decca labels are also advised not to hesitate. Jens Laurson’s survey of complete Beethoven sonata sets is highly recommended as a point of reference.
As usual with big sets like this it is less of interest to go through every work than to take samples and see where that takes us. Looking at the Sonata op. 7 it is interesting to hear how Bavouzet and Brendel contrast in terms of their line and legato. Brendel is more liberal with his use of pedal, not really to the detriment of clarity, but certainly smoothing things over from time to time in the first movement. Bavouzet’s pedalling is a little more discreet though not entirely hair-shirt, but his lines and chord transitions are often crisper. The Chandos recording gives an impression of greater dynamic range, though with differing acoustics – Brendel in a far more resonant hall in this case – this is hard to judge. I think Brendel’s slow movements are pretty hard to beat, as he lingers and leans on significant moments just that little bit more than Bavouzet, delivering an extra layer of profundity. Bavouzet’s touch in the third movement is deft and Mozartean where Brendel is a little more wilful, giving effects at those surprise endings that turn out to be more than is necessary. Brendel’s Schubertian lyricism in the final movement draws us in, his velvet bottom-line of touch and dynamic keeping us fascinated. Bavouzet is more Haydnesque here, swifter and more direct, but perhaps closer to Beethoven’s proscriptive gaze, and certainly whipping up quite a storm as the movement progresses.
Igor Levit’s recording of the late Beethoven sonatas on Sony Classical (review) left me with the feeling of Beethoven reaching new heights in the 21st century, upgraded and somehow better understood than before. In his argument for yet another set of Beethoven sonatas, Bavouzet himself argues for the continuum of development in our interaction with this music: “why should music lovers be denied the opportunity to associate the new insights of living musicians with this immortal repertoire?” His clarity in the famous Sonata Op. 13 gives me something of that same feeling, which is only slightly displaced by moments at which he rushes forward in tempo, very mildly spoiling that effect of absolute control. The gorgeous melody in the second movement is read beautifully, with some moments of rhetorical separation keeping us remote from sentimentality. Virtuosity is taken for granted here, but Bavouzet doesn’t bamboozle us with artificially over-cooked tempi, moving the final Rondo on apace, but allowing the music to breathe, and us to breathe along with it.
The opening of the first of the Op. 10 sonatas recalls C.P.E. Bach in Bavouzet’s sharp contrasts and keenly vital dynamic shifts, and the third disc in this set offers Beethoven’s original discarded third movement from this sonata and a reconstruction of the Prestissimo ultimately used with an extended development based on Beethoven’s sketches. Without wishing to gloss over superb playing in the Op. 10 sonatas, including a gorgeous Largo e mesto in No. 3, I would prefer to move on to some of the mid-period works and the Op. 27 pair. The Sonata quasi una fantasia Op. 27 No. 1 is a tricky work to bring off well, and comparing Bavouzet to András Schiff’s live concert luxuriating in the acoustic of the Tonhalle Zurich on ECM 1944 is also a bit like measuring chalk against cheese. Schiff is broader throughout, and as with the earlier Brendel comparison more liberal with his pedal, though not without great clarity of articulation and plenty of contrasts in colour. Bavouzet’s Andante opening to the first movement is more confiding and intimate than Schiff’s, colouring with light and shade, and giving maximum clarity to the Allegro central section. The tempo is not wildly fast in the following Allegro molto e vivace, more a gentle gallop, but with some intriguing effects in the up-beat of those frenetic octaves at the end. The Adagio con espressione is rich and perfectly weighted, the final Allegro vivace suitably spectacular. What we’ve all really been waiting for is the “Moonlight” Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, the famously atmospheric opening of which Bavouzet does not linger over-fondly, preferring to keep us aware of the tonal progression and melodic expressiveness of this magical movement. Schiff is the odd man out here, not only zipping along at a rate that shaves a good 45 seconds off Bavouzet’s by no means excessive duration, but observing Beethoven’s eccentric sustain pedal marking, holding the thing down implacably from beginning to end. Bavouzet tones down his articulation, rounding off any sharp edges in the central Allegretto where Schiff teases us with the spaces between the phrases and keeps us more in a playful Mozartean mood. He is also more extreme and stormy in the final Presto agitato, making more of an orchestral impression than Bavouzet’s controlled and contained, but still rewardingly virtuosic reading.
Of the Op. 31 set I focussed on the ‘Tempest’ as perhaps the better known of the three. That ‘stormy’ character I heard in Schiff might be expected in a sonata with such a subtitle, but Bavouzet’s clear-headed approach is maintained here also. I would consider Naum Grubert on the Navis Classics label (review) to be as clear-headed as anyone, but there is a theatrical nature to this music that arises the moment the comparison commences. Hitting a tad harder on accented downbeats, darkening transitions and suspending us with timeless moments in the first movement and indeed the Adagio, as well as adding just a little extra stress and sustain to the deceptive minor-key jollity of the final Allegretto all add up to make this performance all the more distinguished and distinctive the more I hear it. Bavouzet is very good indeed, but more generic. There is drama in his first movement, but I hear it as more melodramatic and operatic than a drama that can play out in your mind. The Adagio is sustained and lovely, particularly in the lyrical second section, but not particularly searching or deep. The final Allegretto has elegance and attack, but I miss that extra ounce of passion to whip up some serious foam on the ocean.
When it comes to the late sonatas I have in recent years turned most frequently to Igor Levit’s double CD set, listening each time with no little sense of wonder at how he clarifies these ‘difficult’ works, giving them a sense of logic and ease of comprehension that has a revelatory feel, especially in the final three opus numbers of 109, 110 and 111. Bavouzet’s control and clarity led me to hope for something similar, that air of “bearing witness to this evolution” of Beethoven as we hear him today bringing about new insights as one of the latest in a long and distinguished line who have climbed this Everest in music. There is something in the way Levit layers his sonority, placing velvet softness against centred projection, that I don’t quite hear in Bavouzet. The feel of his slow movements lacks jaw-dropping involvement as a result – there always seeming to be an emotional seed planted that never quite reaches maturity. There is great poise and directness of communication in his playing of all these sonatas however, and these final works are far more enjoyable than impenetrable as a result. He mentions Op. 110 being for him like “a kind of mini-opera. With a recitative, two arias, and its enigmatic symbols, it almost qualifies as a piece of programme music.” This throws up as many questions as it does answers, but these kinds of clues to a performer’s way of thinking can direct our own understanding of music that can otherwise seem all too abstract. My favourite bit of this particular sonata from Bavouzet is the way he finds his way through the complex counterpoint of the Fuga, making it into an ‘ensemble’ set piece out of which the Klagender Gesang emerges as a tragic solo, ultimately to rise above all in the triumphant conclusion.
The final Sonata Op. 111 is given a tremendously vibrant performance by Bavouzet, who again rises to the massive challenge of the first movement’s remarkable counterpoint, making those voices thrown around all over the place into something with its own animated inner-life, a place of excitement rather than one of baffling entanglement. Bavouzet writes of the second movement that the ‘cantabile’ marking for the theme implies a tempo in which the human voice should be able to sing “without the need to take breaths at inappropriate places.” With a timing of 15:21, this momentum brings Bavouzet in a good two and a half minutes shorter than Levit, who also doesn’t particularly linger. Brendel and Schiff also come in at just over 18 minutes. The advantage of the quicker tempo is a lighter and more rhythmically animated feel to the subsequent variations, which Beethoven requires to be played at the same tempo as the theme. Bavouzet’s traversal of those seemingly unplayable trill passages is magical.
I know I’ve missed out on mentioning vast swathes of sonatas from this complete set, but the essence of such a collection is the impression it leaves as a whole: the evocations it throws up when you are perusing the spines of your collection to decide into which experience you seek to dive at that particular moment. The very lowest denominator is that it keeps you involved, listening and fascinated, even when Beethoven is rolling out yet another set of variations. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has given us a set of the Beethoven piano sonatas with clarity of vision, while at the same time full of vitality and breathtaking virtuosity. He is indeed one of those pianists who can make Beethoven sound ‘easy’, giving us the accessible while taking little away from that feeling of heroic achievement from both composer and performer. There have been occasions when slow movements have initially left me rather cold, but I’ve only been living with this set for a few weeks, and I have the feeling my ears also need to raise their game and evolve to fully appreciate ‘the truth behind the notes’. Indeed, each time I pick out another disc to revisit I learn new things about both Beethoven and Bavouzet’s performances – an evolution that promises to bring the satisfaction of discovery for a long time to come.
Sonata, op. 2 no. 1 in F minor (1793-5) [19:26]
Sonata op. 2 no. 2 in A major (1794-5) [25:22]
Sonata op. 2 no. 3 in C major (1794-5) [24:53]
Sonata, op. 7, ‘Grande Sonate’ in E flat major (1796-7) [28:30]
Sonata op. 13, ‘Pathétique’ in C minor (1797-8) [18:26]
Sonata op. 14 no. 1 in E major (1798) [13:19]
Sonata op. 14 no. 2 in G major (1798) [14:59]
Sonata, op. 10 no. 1 in C minor (?1795-7) [17:47]
Sonata op. 10 no. 2 in F major (1796-7) [16:44]
Sonata op. 10 no. 3 in D major (1797-8) [23:56]
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]
Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [12:02]
Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 'Appassionata' (1804-05) [23:49]
Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 (1809) [10:32]
Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 (1809) [9:18]
Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a 'Les Adieux' (1809-10) [16:56]
Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) [13:12]
Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 [21:31]
Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 'Hammerklavier' (1816) [43:52]
Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 (1817-18) [17:36]
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1820) [18:53]
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22) [23:53]