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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Konstantin Lifschitz (piano)
rec. 2017/19, University of Hong Kong
ALPHA 584 [10 CDs: 716:10]

Let me begin with a general remark. What I knew of the Russian pianist Konstantin Lifschitz, born in 1976, suggested that he had many of the essential qualities needed if one is to encompass these wonderfully diverse sonatas – imagination, boundless technique, and a feeling for the unpredictable or eccentric. Here is a more important question: does he apply each of these qualities when artistically justified, that is to say, at the service of the music? One fault appears quite early on. The little breaks/hesitations (just before main beats) disrupt the melodic line. This habit, recurring throughout the cycle, becomes an irritating mannerism. One conductor under whom I played many times used to sardonically express his displeasure at this unnatural habit: “arthritis”. Incidentally, I intend to comment on the majority of these works, while omitting others in order to keep this review to a reasonable length.

At first, I felt that the opening movement of Opus 2 No. 1 was measured rather than impulsive – the characteristic I often hope for in Beethoven – but I checked that the tempo marking is simply Allegro. After an Adagio which never quite flows as peacefully as it might, and a fine minuet, the Prestissimo finale brings out the best.

Opus 2 No. 2 has a near-ideal opening movement, but for the Largo appassionato Lifschitz chooses a very slow, almost static tempo. This is risky but I feel he carries it off convincingly. After a nicely impish scherzo, in which there is some surprising freedom of tempo, the performance of the finale again demonstrates Lifschitz’s tendency to eccentricity. The opening flourish may well strike listeners as rather laboured, a curious interpretation of Beethoven’s “grazioso” marking. Lifschitz is never predictable, but his very individual treatment of some passages makes one wish for more simplicity. I would rather be made to reconsider this music than to listen to a polite routine performance, but Lifschitz’s eccentricities too often strike me as alien to the spirit of Beethoven; they are superimposed rather than growing from the character of the music.

The Third Sonata begins well, though the lyrical passages could afford to be a little more relaxed. In the middle of the Adagio, Lifschitz accumulates a powerfully mysterious atmosphere, but I find that in the outer sections the typical hesitations do interfere with the melodic contour. There is a fine line between eccentricity and wilfulness. The finale is ideal until the coda, where far too much of a meal is made of the calando and ritardando phrases.

Opus 7 (on Disc 3) has an excellent first movement, but a painfully statuesque slow movement, with many of the hesitations mentioned above, which seems devoid of human warmth. The three sonatas of Opus 10 – to summarise – show a pattern emerging. Lifschitz is more successful in quicker movements. For example, the Adagio molto of the C minor work feels weary and lacking in warmth. Next is the Allegretto WoO 53, which Lifschitz sees as belonging here, though I am not convinced. Beethoven may well have considered including it, but perhaps thought better of it. The finale rattles along, though the quieter dynamics often feel too heavy. In the opening Allegro of Opus 10 No. 2, the humour is underplayed. The Allegretto feels laboured, and the finale, while not short of energy, needs more bounce and joy, even cheek. In the first movement of Opus 10 No. 3, Lifschitz is very good, but the profound Largo e mesto (a very rare indication in Beethoven) again feels weary and almost frozen. Actually, “dull” might be a simpler way of expressing this. An unexceptionable minuet is followed by a rondo-finale which never quite gets off the ground, in spite of some sparkling passage-work.

In Opus 13, the opening Grave is ponderously slow, and the song-like slow movement is too deliberate, a note-by-note progression where a more sustained line would be preferable. With some disappointment setting in, I move on to Opus 14. The first of this pair – Beethoven very effectively arranged it for string quartet – begins in lacklustre manner, and receives a generally decent but unremarkable performance, insufficiently committed. The same generally applies to Opus 14 No. 2. These two works show a more relaxed Beethoven but there is more to them than Lifschitz reveals.

The performance of Opus 22 turns out to be among the most successful. Even the slow movement does not suffer especially from the debilitating habits mentioned already. I would add that some of the rapid passage-work in the finale, as elsewhere on these CDs, betrays a certain relish in technical mastery as an end in itself.

Opus 26 begins with a variation movement. Here Lifschitz is too heavy in the second and third variations, both of which have a basic dynamic of piano. Still, there is much to admire, though a degree more simplicity would have been desirable. The scherzo has rushed quaver passages, and the too-violent off-beat sforzandi are out of character. In the funeral march, Lifschitz too often produces a brutally hard sound which paradoxically reduces the impact for me. This tendency to hit fortes too hard is carried over to the very brief finale.

In the E flat major work Opus 27 No. 1, Lifschitz is good in the first movement and even better in the second. I find the slow movement strange and unconvincing, the finale impatient and lacking in poise. The C sharp minor Sonata’s opening movement suffers from the aforementioned tiny hesitations. “Adagio sostenuto” surely demands a more singing line. The following Allegretto is a shade literal and lumpy, the final Presto agitato rightly tempestuous, yet here the grim, inexorable quality is strangely elusive. Perhaps this is more a question of intensity being more crucial than technical mastery.

In Opus 28, I begin to feel that Lifschitz relishes the introduction of more animated music – any passage which requires agility or brilliance. He seems more at home when he can be more extrovert, allowed off the lead, as it were. The second movement is uncomfortable and unconvincing. I think the problem is a lack of warmth. Brendel on his 1974 recording has a more natural, flowing tempo, more involvement and a far more satisfying experience. Lifschitz again seems alien to Beethoven’s spirit here.

Opus 31 No. 1 has an opening movement in which Beethoven makes great play with syncopation. Here Lifschitz is a little heavy-handed, and the development section is so manically rushed as to be nonsensical. The slow movement, marked Adagio grazioso, has a limping accompaniment in this performance. The middle section feels more natural, but the lead-back is unconvincing except for the final cadenza-like passage, which is beautifully done. In the rondo-finale the ubiquitous triplets sound too facile and mechanical, and the general character is short on grace.

On to No. 2 “Tempest”. The D minor first movement Allegro passages are good, but when we arrive at any slow music, I wait agonisingly as Lifschitz proceeds note-by-note without any sense of melodic line. Worst of all are the phrases of recitative at the recapitulation, where Beethoven includes “semplice” in his expression marks. Lifschitz overlooks this while also making my use of the word “phrases” very questionable. I remember a Jerry Dubins review in the Fanfare magazine, in which he mentions a similar point relating to Lifschitz’s interminable drawing-out of particular moments. He wrote that Lifschitz interprets fermatas as “infinity symbols”.

The first movement of Opus 31 No. 3, I am pleased to say, has great character once we are past the rather ponderous opening. The scherzo also has the necessary humour, though the sforzando markings in the melody are too harsh, and the finale is brilliant if a little over-emphatic at times.

Opus 49 comprises a pair of two-movement works: Sonata facile in G minor and Sonata facile in G major. These represent Beethoven in relaxed mood, but I think there is more to them than Lifschitz reveals.

At the beginning of the Waldstein, Lifschitz creates a rather muddy texture from Beethoven’s admittedly low-pitched quavers. More energy (more staccato, slightly quicker tempo?) would have helped, but we certainly need more air. Otherwise the movement goes well, though this thickening of texture – like many of this pianist’s less desirable tendencies – is a recurring feature throughout the box set. I hope I will be forgiven for my generalisations, but continually pointing to the same habits would be tedious. The central movement has the unusually spacious marking Adagio molto, but here the tempo is misjudged; it is so painfully slow that one loses any sense of pulse. It is possible to play convincingly at a much slower than usual tempo, but only the very greatest interpreters manage to sustain both the line and the atmosphere.

Choosing at random from my CD collection, I play Mikhail Pletnev in this movement. He is refreshing, breathing life into the music; similarly Brendel from 1973. Both adopt a much less funereal tempo. Lifschitz’s finale is mostly good, especially the long pianissimo lead-back, in semiquaver arpeggio patterns, to the recapitulation. Generally, to return to an earlier criticism, he has the worrying tendency to overemphasise at crucial moments, sometimes by an unnatural hesitation or delay. This gives a ponderous, even self-regarding, impression and robs the performance of spontaneity. He also prolongs some pauses beyond credibility; the chord before the final Prestissimo of the Waldstein is one example. Any tension there might have been simply dissipates.

Opus 54 begins with a fascinating “minuet”, at first graceful but turning violent with octave doubling and many sforzando markings. Lifschitz successfully exploits the contrast in character but I find him on the aggressive side in the octave passages. Marked Allegretto and dolce, the second movement is surely too driven and hectic in this performance.

The Appassionata is good but not remarkable in the outer movements, while the central Andante con moto is heavy-handed and bumpy. Beethoven’s dolce marking is overlooked.

The delightful, rather neglected Opus 78 in F sharp major shows the tender, more inward aspect of Beethoven’s temperament, but Lifschitz is often too heavy and his trademark “emphasis through hesitation” intrudes. A more natural approach is particularly desirable in this sonata. The second movement receives a brilliant performance, but the hectic tempo projects a fierceness which seems alien.

Opus 79 is spirited and almost completely successful in the outer movements, while in the Andante Lifschitz comes close to that elusive simplicity.

Les Adieux begins with an exposure of Lifschitz’s most irritating habits: hesitations/breaks in the line. The following Allegro is heavy-handed. Perhaps this approach – here and elsewhere in the cycle – is simply too Brahmsian. Still, as another general observation, I would say that his technical fluency is totally reliable. The Andante is another example of Lifschitz in “frozen” mode. More feeling of pulse is needed here. In the brilliant finale, he copes easily with the torrents of notes, but here the essential exuberance is surely too fierce.

In the two-movement Opus 90, the first movement is excellent until we arrive at sixteen bars from the end; there is a far too drawn-out ritardando and then a trademark interminable wait on a fermata. The second movement is also very good, making this performance one of the finest in the set, if one can forgive the aberration at the end of the opening movement.

Lifschitz begins Opus 101 with a strangely unsatisfying Allegretto ma non troppo, but the following march – though taken at a leisurely tempo – is much more rewarding. Here he produces some of the most lyrical playing in the set. Unfortunately the Adagio (marked ma non troppo!) exposes all his worst habits, whereas the finale is very convincing and free from distractions, until the beginning of the coda, treated too ponderously.

Lifschitz intermittently offers glimpses of the first-rank musician who may be concealed about his person, an impression which his performance of the Hammerklavier confirms. He clearly has the measure of the epic first movement, but two or three times he rushes the tempo for no justifiable reason, with trivialising effect. In the final twenty bars, this quickening is particularly damaging. Instead of maintaining the rhythmic power with a resolute tempo, he nearly enters Rossini’s world. Such throw-away moments are unfortunately typical of this frustrating pianist. The scherzo is good but my anxiety about the Adagio sostenuto proved justified. This simply is not sustained enough. A statuesque tempo, a painful, note-by-note groping, an absence of pulse… but I have covered these points previously. The finale confirms Lifschitz’s technical mastery but he does not avoid an oppressively relentless feeling during the fugal writing. A degree of tonal variety is certainly possible, even when faced with Beethoven’s long passages of complex counterpoint.

Finally, Op. 109, 110 and 111. Lifschitz begins the opening movement of the E major Sonata sensitively but his note-by-note manner takes over at the Adagio section. His arresting Prestissimo is followed by a ponderous theme and very mixed variations. Variation 2 is too much like Stravinsky, Variation 4 lumpy, but the brilliant Variation 3 (Allegro vivace) is fine.

Opus 110 begins badly – an unnatural hesitancy in the first four bars puts me off straight away – but with perseverance we may hear much else, like the cascades of arpeggios (beginning at bar 12 and again later), which is lovely. Always it seems to be the slower music, the pauses, fermatas, moments of reflection and so on, which bring out the worst in Lifschitz. Far too often throughout this very uneven cycle I feel as though I do not know where the next note or chord is coming from. The effect is very disjointed. Movement 2 is suitably fiery but the passage in D flat major, predominantly in quavers, is too fast for intelligibility. In the finale again it is again the slower sections (Arioso) which suffer; they are bumpy, with annoyingly intrusive accompaniment, and a feeling that we have strayed from the spirit of the music.

Opus 111 begins with an unconvincingly slow Maestoso, but when we arrive at the Allegro con brio Lifschitz is more in control, creating energy and intensity. For his performance of the theme of the Arietta movement, see my comments on the Hammerklavier Adagio above! In the variations, he achieves a lovely delicacy in the fourth, but he makes a protracted and awkward passage into the coda, where the long sequence of demi-semiquavers in the bass simply sounds too “notey”.

Obviously no pianist has ever been equally successful in all the Beethoven sonatas, but there does need to be a much higher proportion of outstanding performances for a recommendation to be deserved. If only the best of this cycle – some movements or very occasionally a thoroughly satisfying complete sonata – were not so rare…

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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