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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 [11:38]
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 [12:48]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 [29:36]
Ivo Pogorelich (piano)
rec. 2016/18, Schloss Elmau, Germany; Liszt-Hall Raiding, Austria
SONY 19075956602 [54:02]

This is a somewhat unusual coupling of two of Beethoven’s two-movement sonatas from his middle period with Rachmaninov’s great Second Sonata in its highly truncated revised version from 1931. Ivo Pogorelich has been absent from the recording studio for some time, perhaps since his early years of glory – and controversy - for Deutsche Grammophon. This is the first product of a new contract with Sony Classical, and I have to report that the both the glory and controversy continue in much the same measure. This will divide opinion, much as his performance in a piano competition once did, alienating some of the jury, but prompting one judge, Martha Argerich, to walk out in protest declaring Pogorelich to be a genius - or so the story goes. But do we want all pianists to sound the same, with the same, centrally approved and critically endorsed, interpretations?

The Beethoven sonatas are in fact given fairly central readings in terms of tempo and phrasing, with some affectionate and, at times, exciting playing. The first movement of the F major is a delight in almost every performance I know, and benefits by opening a disc, rather than being a filler for one of the big ‘name’ Beethoven sonatas. It is not a popular one still, despite eloquent defenders in the literature from Tovey to Rosen. Pogorelich treats it as a great work, and relishes both the old-fashioned opening minuet, and especially its intricate decorations on subsequent appearances, and the rumbustious perpetuum mobile of the trio. He certainly observes the sforzandi punctuations of that trio with quite a thump or two, leaving the decorum of minuet far behind. The Allegretto finale is maybe less dolce than that marking requires, but the sense of irrepressible headlong invention makes its mark, if at the expense of the elegant poise conveyed by other artists in this music. So too with the F sharp major sonata Op.78, whose first movement Allegro ma non troppo main section has plenty of lyrical charm, but is sometimes afflicted by some unpersuasive rubato. This can be heard especially at the very opening of the second movement, where the rubato begins before we know what the main tempo is to be. But there is some pretty dazzling playing once we get underway. It is an eccentric movement even for Beethoven, so perhaps it can take this treatment perfectly well.

The Rachmaninoff Sonata is less satisfying than the Beethoven works. It begins with some splendour and the opening section shows real feeling for the idiom, but as soon as the second subject arrives, the music becomes becalmed, as the pianist’s search for every nuance of feeling behind the notes leads him into a tempo too slow for our ears to perceive the shape of phrases. The great descending bell motif is about half its normal speed, and is thus laboured and much less exultant than usual. With the slow movement, this questing manner has the effect of deconstructing the music as it is played. At first, I found this rather absorbing, as the pianist challenges the listener who knows the work to hear every familiar phrase in a new way, but ultimately this is a radical reconsideration of the way the piece should go, rather than a truly enlightening interpretation - or perhaps Pogorelich just loves the work too much and can’t bear to approach its end. There are some gains, and certainly the last climax and the coda have a terrific sense of arrival, of a goal reached after a tremendously protracted journey. The piano sound is good, if sometimes a bit harsh in the treble. This 1931 revision of the Second Sonata removed 120 bars from the first version, more than a quarter of the music. Rachmaninoff referred to Chopin’s Second Sonata, also in B flat minor and a regular item in his recitals, saying it “lasts nineteen minutes – and says everything”. In the hands of Xiayan Wang (review) this Rachmaninoff work also lasts nineteen minutes - 19:26, in fact, but Pogorelich’s account is so ponderous at times that he drags it out for ten minutes more (29:36). Wang skates over the surface at times and I still look to the Russians Lugansky (on Na´ve) or Hayroudinoff (Onyx) in the work, ignoring the vexed matter of versions, and versions of the versions (see the MWI review of Wang’s disc for more on all that).

This disc is worth hearing for the Beethoven, and in some ways everyone who knows the Rachmaninoff work should hear it once too, if only to discover how very different the same music can sound in different hands. I wonder what we can expect next from this amazingly individual artist.

Roy Westbrook

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