Complete Piano Sonatas & Diabelli Variations
Reviewed in Canada on 22 April 2014
Recordings were made in Toronto in 1974/75 and digitally remastered in 1996. The piano has a very bright tone, tending to sound brittle, shrill and edgy in sfz, ff etc. This seems to be mostly a problem with the CD transfers; the original vinyl had a warmer and more pleasant tone.
Anton Kuerti was born in 1938; he was 36 in 1974. The Beethoven cycle by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear is referenced for comparison; he was 34 when he made these recordings in 2012. He is significantly quicker overall : 15.6h vs 17h, though Kuerti omits a number of repeats, and Goodyear plays nearly all of them. The differences in timings reflect the general trend to faster tempi generated over the last 40 years by the period instrument movement. Alfred Brendel’s recordings made in the 1960’s are similar in tempi to Kuerti’s.
Kuerti’s notes make it clear that he has thought deeply about this music and has good reasons for his interpretive decisions. For limitations of space, not all are discussed in detail. He is often at his best in the slow movements, as in the mesto movement of Sonata 7 in D, Op10 #3, where he enters fully into the profound state of Beethoven’s despair over being in love with Margarete von Browne, the married woman to whom this sonata is dedicated. This movt. described by Anton Neumayr as “the expression of incomparable solitude and symbol of life’s dark melancholy”, and by Beethoven himself as “the state of the soul of one lost in sadness”.
Sonata 8 in Cminor, Op13. ‘Pathétique’ - Kuerti takes the 1st movt exposition repeat Da Capo as in Breitkopf & Härtel edn. (Henle has repeat to Allegro di molto con brio). He takes the Adagio more slowly than is usual nowadays (♪ = 60) and further slows the tempo at measure 25; playing very beautifully with feeling and expressive nuance. Goodyear, at ♪ = 80 in the Adagio and two and a half minutes quicker overall is less expressive.
Sonata 11 in Bflat Op22 is dedicated to Georg von Browne. The first movt, maybe a portrait of him, boorish, dull and unimaginative : the 2nd a portrait of his wife, tender, complex, beautiful : Adagio con molta espressione; Kuerti playing at ♪ = 66 is exquisite throughout a 10 minute span.
In Sonata 14 in Csharp minor Op27 #2, ‘Moonlight’. Dedicated to Giulietta Guicciardi whose love Beethoven hoped to win. Kuerti takes an unsentimental view in the Adagio sostenuto, ♩ = 54 (7:47) but plays with some rubato. Goodyear is significantly quicker at ♩ = 72 (5.36).
Sonata 21 in C major, Op53, ‘Waldstein’ (1803/4) Kuerti’s notes for this sonata are especially erudite and informative. Punctiliously observing Beethoven’s dynamics and pedalling, Kuerti produces an exquisitely beautiful singing tone in the pianissimo sections of the Rondo, but an unpleasantly harsh tone in the fortissimo passages and especially in sforzandi. Goodyear sounds out of breath at ♩ = 184 in the Prestissimo.
Sonata 29 in Bflat, Op106 ‘Hammerklavier’ is the only one of the set with metronome marks; they have always been controversial. It’s been suggested Beethoven may have hurled the device to the floor in a drunken rage, displacing the counter-weight, and causing an over-estimate of the correct tempo by a factor of up to 1.3; however, the part is now missing, and the answer is unknowable. Kuerti considers Beethoven’s markings to have been inaccurate, and that a great amount of significant detail in the music is lost at the quicker tempos. In his hands, time is almost totally suspended in the Adagio; he takes almost twice as long as Goodyear (25.02 vs 14.56), who observes exactly Beethoven’s metronome marking of ♪ = 92 and sounds very comfortable and lyrical. Valentina Lisitsa (2010) playing very expressively at ♪ = 84 persuades me that this might be the intended tempo. Kuerti’s playing in the fugue, somewhat slower than marked (12.53), has great clarity; each voice speaks clearly. Goodyear takes the first movement at half-note = 120, a little below Beethoven’s “impossible” 138, otherwise he keeps exactly to the marks; playing with energy and lyrical eloquence; and in the fugue with confidence and clarity at the marking of ♩ = 144 (10.35).
Sonata 32 in Cminor Op111 Piano sound is poor in 1st movt, and there’s an editing glitch in measure 15. The Arietta is beautifully played, the listener held in an almost trance-like state with the greatest level of control. The contrast between the recording quality of these 2 movements is extraordinary. Goodyear also plays transcendentally in this sonata, with some goose-bumps in the final pages.
Diabelli Variations Op 120
The technical and intellectual challenges of this most encyclopaedic masterpiece of the piano literature are fully met; and from Largo molto espressivo to the most mercurial presto, Kuerti is the master of every nuance. This is a deeply satisfying performance, and the recorded sound is excellent.
Keith Davies Jones
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