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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C, Op. 2/3 (1795) [27:21]
Piano Sonata No. 9 in E, Op. 14/1 (1798) [14:07]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata” (1804/5) [25:07]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1821/2) [29:05]
32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) [11:16]
Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1825) [29:05]
Jan Bartoš (piano)
rec. 2017, Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague, Czech Republic
SUPRAPHON SU4252-2 [66:35 + 61:26]

Beethoven Year is yielding many fine recordings, if fewer events than were planned. This, though, was released prior to the Great Year, a sort of pre-echo, if you will. Here, Czech pianist Jan Bartoš presents a handful of sonatas, well planned as a programme, with the wonderful C minor Variations and a set of late Bagatelles, all captured in brilliant sound by the Supraphon engineers.

Bartoš outlook is generally lyrical; this is an “Appassionata” that impresses in its even arpeggiations without necessarily causing an increase in heart-rate. Beethoven’s sudden dynamic changes are a little muted; the first movement coda is faster as prescribed by Beethoven but hardly erupts, while the finale, for all the evident finger strength in its execution, sags structurally. Compare Pollini (in any of his versions) to hear how that coda can work far, far better than this.

Op. 2/3 first movement includes the exposition repeat, which benefits the sheer scale of the expression here; and Bartoš’ technique is impeccable. This exemplifies the twofer completely: superb pianism that almost, but not quite, involves the listener. The organ-like bass notes of the Adagio lose some of their majesty here and, while there is an element of mice chasing each other in the imitative entries of the Scherzo, the finale rather runs out of steam. This Sonata is one of the trickier, interpretatively; Martino Tirimo in his new recording of the complete Beethoven piano works on Hänssler succeeds in projecting its multivalent character far better.

The E major Sonata, Op. 14/2 fares better; Bartoš eases beautifully back to the opening after the exposition repeat, for example, and the deliciously sparse textures feel almost experimental. Certainly there is a freshness and spontaneity to this lacking in Op. 2/3.

The C minor Variations begin auspiciously, the theme delivered with a near-Handelian grandeur (an appropriate idea, given Beethoven’s admiration for Handel; Bartoš, in his booklet, calls the theme “heroic”). The semiquavers in the first variation reveal full-toned, nicely placed staccati, as do the alternating left-right hand staccato chords later in the work; as the texture becomes more varied, so Bartoš begins to expand a little emotionally. When the more granitic Gilels feels a little too harsh in WoO 80, this is the version I will turn to. The six Bagatelles of Op. 126 offer another approach to sectionalised form, and Bartoš is almost as successful here; he seems to attempt a deliberate link in expressive worlds between the third Bagatelle (Andante cantabile e grazioso) and the second movement of Op. 111. Unfortunately, the final Bagatelle sounds rather careful, even distended.

The return to a full sonata finds Bartoš again smoothing over Beethoven’s emotional outbursts of Op. 11 second movement. It rather feels as if the performance will run out of steam; listen to the vibrant new recording of Alpha by Filippo Gorini, a young Italian pianist way ahead of his years in late Beethoven interpretation, and it feels more like coming home.

Interesting notes by Bartoš himself complete a variable release.

Colin Clarke

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