Op 111 - Edwin Fischer, Ogden, Uchida, Nikolayeva, Arrau

Edwin Fisher (1954)

Fischer was Swiss, he was a teacher, conductor, author and pianist of great renown.  He was Schnabel's successor in the Berliner Hochschule für Musik and established himself between the wars in concert and recital.  He left a wealth of fascinating recordings and was noted in his time for the quality of his tone.  This recording from six years before his death is one of his last and probably doesn’t reflect his technique in full flight.

Fischer has something imperious about the tone of the declamatory opening bars.  Very sure, very strong and rather marvellous compared to some I've heard - none of the nervous trepidation of some.  The first theme booms and its busy counter subject is frenetic.  There's something of Gould about the almost manic treatment of these themes and something incredibly tranquil about the resting music when it slows.  Gould's motivation may have been disdain but Fischer is in truly nightmarish form with this haze of notes against the stoic unwavering uncompromising repeats of the opening motto.  It's rather like a Bach fugue's voices being underline - Fischer was very at home in Bach.  We have the repeat. The development fugato is rather awkwardly bumping into itself - completely intentionally I suspect.  The broadening is louder and more insistent than most.  The recapitulation is somewhat - thanks to Beethoven blunted and Fisher is keen to stick with Beethoven here. The baby steps soon career off into the most wild of conclusions with the final bars just petering out like a whirlwind finding it has no power.  The whole movement is exhausting and rightly so Fischer injects more into it than men and women a third of his age.  It is another unique and treasured view of this difficult movement.

Fischer's Aria is a thing of grace, it moves with a wonderful bigger pulse over the notes.  The first variation has a gentle rocking and some luminosity to the bass notes - Fischer's legendary touch still evident.  There's something deeply personal and intimate despite there being no reticence or hiding away.  The second variation is faster than many and has poise, almost balletic balance of voices - it fairly dances - it's second strain is a bit more stern building to a grander ending only to be repeated.  Fischer is more powerful still in the repeat.  This crazy movement sounds more modern in Fischer's hands than most I've heard so far.  Once again there's magic in the left hand - the subtle tones playing an important part in the landscape for those middle and higher voices.  Fascinating but not forbidding.  It is elastic but always Beethoven.  My favourite fourth variation is so deep and indistinct to be in the dead of night only to be illuminated by the high section - like fireflies playing in the gloom - so fast and regrettably fleeting.  It is hard to marry the two tempi but they work so well.  As we build Fischer plays notes with his opening confidence and blunt candour.  The trills are not the star of the interlude but tolling lines beneath.  There is some exquisite passage work here and great mystery and mastery too. The confident stride of the next variation is more unifying for the sonata as a whole than I've heard before too.  Fischer is not sentimental about these final passage - there seems to be little subtlety in his playing of the theme.  But the things going on under and over it are the real genius of the man.  I can only believe Fischer, who died at home in Zurich in aged 73 in 1960, was as humane a soul as people say.  His reading hardly says "pianist" at all, nor does it say "dramatist" - but it is fun of delight and an abiding sense of the other-worldly which befits Beethoven's last sonata.

John Ogden (1963)

John Ogden was a big and brave pianist who was capable of great poetry and power and he's to be heard here in a live performance from 1963 given in London. He was a man plagued with ill-health in later life - he died in 1989 - but a questing and unfailing committed musician.  He could play virtually anything and from memory.  His decline was a cruelest fate for such a talented man - struck down with a mental health disorder (or disorders) confined to hospital times and unable to tour. 

His bold qualities come over in the opening Maestoso clearly.  There is nothing half done but is distinctly his way - he pulls the tempo down for the softer music and invests it with some melancholic air - turning the first half dozen bars into a question and answer session.  That said his playing in these quieter moments is exquisite and the launch into the Allegro has a bold and confident gait.  The half lights Beethoven writes into the exposition are down sensitively and never overdone - just the deft touch here and there.  The development is terse and intentionally staid I think.  The pot really begins to boil in the recapitulation where recording and Ogden's huge rich tonal palate pumps the music to a scale it perhaps wasn't built for, but towards Liszt it faces, but this potential excess is always countered by a supreme delicacy in the slower passages.  With Ogdon we perhaps hear the extremes of Beethoven's later orchestral writing in his piano writing too (not that the score or Ogden goes beyond ff as marked).  Only in the coda does his handling of dynamics seem to get a bit askew: once again it's terse but I'd argue it's not quiet enough.  SO the end of the movement is despatched but not delivered,

The Arietta is marked Adagio molto semplice e cantabile - Ogden is certainly quite loud again (this could be an artefact of the close recording) but also a little mannered here and there in his phrasing.  The opening variations dances with a winsome gait.  The pianist doesn't sound comfortable in its second strain and there's some impatience about his pacing.  This may be some foreshadowing of the next variation which builds in its second strain.  The reading seems to be breaking down at this point, the shape of the next variation is less a transformation of the aria to a reminiscence of the first movement and it's similarly rushed at it's conclusion.  Ogden is louder than marked throughout and forceful in tone - it works after a fashion in the jazzy third variation but he's too vehement for me in these variations.   As a result of this virtuosic mayhem the fourth variation cuts in abruptly and the mood shifts almost to another sense of the piece: high and low passages are delicately handled.  It appears otherworldly and that has its benefits but the following section id loud and a bit to brash and rushed for me.  The trills lose their magic and incidentally there's a lot of noise from the hammers.  This is certainly not rapt or heavenly.  The regularity of the next variation suggests that Ogden wants to get out of the studio and on his way home.  It has little to distinguish the voices or anything approach subtle variation.  The attack on the notes is uniform - I think he misses the point.  Only at the trill-filled closing moments do we get a reasonable tone and flow but for me that's too late.  Ogden was undoubtedly a great pianist but one wonders if this piece was right for him.  In the midst of a heavenly ascent for Beethoven Ogden sounds as though he's mechanistically pressing on, getting through the notes or "shovelling snow" as Murakami puts it.

Mitsuki Uchida

Uchida (b 1948) was seeped in the Viennese classics from an early age.  She moved to Vienna from her native Japan in 1960 (her father was a diplomat) she stayed there after his five year posting and won a great reputation for her Mozart, Chopin, Schubert and much else besides including Berg and Schönberg.  She is a most eager communicator and yet modest on the platform.  I recall my shock after writing to her after a wonderful concert in Manchester - I got a reply and it was hand-written - gracious and eloquent, which is also the manner of her playing.  This is I think her studio recording of the work.

Uchida opens with no mystery at all - far from it, this is incisive almost surgical Beethoven - each of the three fanfares abruptly ended.  Her precision in the next 10 bars is very finely judged too with some tiny nuances which induce phrasing atop Beethoven's markings.  I think it works wonderfully and is an object lesson in balance and drama.  Her exposition is similar exact and precise but with such fire it's hard to know how Uchida manages both.  Her mercurial touch can be light and urgent at once and the colour she brings to those bass chords is never unnatural.  Her touch is supremely sensitive and all the dynamic markings are scrupulously marked - making Ogdon look pedestrian.  But all of this does lack the thrust and thirst of others and whilst bordering on the neo classical at times it obvious eschews the Romantic excesses of some of her colleagues.  The development doesn't drop into a Baroque severity and the recapitulation boils away with energy though not quite as much as the exposition - maybe Gould was right about the material here when it isn't given a helping hand.  The last page has wonderful calm throughout and the ebb and flow of the fast and slow passages is beautifully handled. The coda makes the steady swirl of what had once been a whirlwind and comes to a rest.

Uchida is so gentle in the Aria as to invest it as a slow movement in itself - the second strain in particular having a exquisite spartan beauty.  The little pulsing dance is almost like a music box but listen to how Uchida finds so much in the left hand here - it is truly gem-like though the clear crystal clouds a little in the repeated second strain.  There's some tension here - it is not going to be as easy as the pianist suggests.  The second movement has a rather four square gait - a villager at the squire's party tries a stately dance. The third variation sits a little oddly on these foundations - it is all that jazz but comes out of nowhere. The claustrophobic nature of the fourth variation is tightly explored by Uchida: crystal clear at the top and opaque at the bottom and all the time twirling on the tightest of axes.  Again the resolution comes a bit out of the blue - it is quite compartmentalised as a reading and maybe that's how it should be - it is certainly hushed and concentrated but I want for more unifying features.  And in dying embers of the fourth variation I get a seeking suspicion that Gould doubts about the work might have extended to the second movement in a reading such as this. I feel Uchida drawing into the music and finding more clarity and a rapture borne from flight on the lightest of breezes.  She brings a great sadness to the last page: I find it hard to describe why - this is a reading which is in some ways valedictory, a examination of ascendency

Tatiana Nikolayeva (1983)

There are two recordings of Tatiana Nikolayeva in Op 111 on YouTube - she gave the sonata in a Salzburg recital in !987 and there's another live recording from 1983 which is more fluent and urgent. I'm choosing the latter. There are plenty of wrong notes in both.

This muse of Shostakovich wasn't just the finest exponent of his works and indeed an inspirational force in his 48 Preludes and Fugues, but also excelled in Bach and Beethoven and we are told much else besides.  She died in  1993 in America after been struck by a brain haemorrhage playing the Shostakovich work in concert. But she was virtually unknown in the West during the Soviet era though she made many recordings.  Like many I came to her through those Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues on the Hyperion recording.  She had a most extraordinary bold style which had many beauties hidden within.  Outwardly disconnected: inwardly extremely committed.

The Maestoso starts very much in that disconnected mode with its opening summons but she quickly turns to a more cautious mood, there's great quiet here but incredible pent up energy - largely through very careful placing and voicing of the bass chords - she brings more subtly to this scant few bars than most. The opening of the Allegro is very dark and almost shackled to the three note motto which pulls the music along throughout.  The runs are perhaps most noteworthy though I think will be too much for some - the fastest highest music is accompanied by huge, booming bass chords.  Truth be said this might be of mechanical necessity, but the is much here which is fluent, bold and completely at odds with many other readings.  Her Beethoven is certainly still a man of energetic conflict - the is C Minor raw in tooth and claw. The fugato is just too brief - oh for 15 minutes of that kind of voicing.  The rest is episodic and colourful.  This is not the rush of Gould - though it is fast - it is impatient and uncomfortable and exciting.  The switch to the coda is remarkable - after the churning, motorised pace of the recapitulation she plays the coda as if it were Debussy, softening it until it is indistinct, gentle and at peace.

 As an exponent of the Goldberg Variations (like so many of the pianists I have heard) she pulls a bit of a surprise here in the Arietta.  There's some  - though not excessive rubato in the turn of the first strain and it's repeat.  The second strain gets the same treatment which moulds the melody and demonstrates the molto semplice is not always aligned with cantabile.  The first variation is rather upright and serious but played like were Schumann with a cycling bass line which transmutes into something more sophisticated without a beat.  Nikolayeva seems to be breaking up this music with tiny suggestions before Beethoven's more crude assault. It has to be heard it is bolder than Rosen or Pollini and supremely confident playing.  The third variation rings out with great joy - and played with a big heart: wonderful.  Variation 4 has more of that impressionistic feeling we heard in the coda of the first movement about it - especially in the bass sections.  The transition 80-81 is heart-stopping as the pianist just takes a breath to move across the two worlds this variation inhabits.  If it's a slip - it's a timely one.  In these clouds of notes something magical is being spun out though.  Nikolayeva is moving from the bound Beethoven of the sonata so far to the transcendental that we glimpsed in those nuances in the Aria to the heaven sent trills and then beyond into Tovey's Coda which propels us to the hymns and a quasi-orchestral sound from Nikolayeva.  This is a glorious choir.  The trills bring an airborne quality - slipping the surly bounds has no better musical equivalent - in Beethoven at least.  The final three bars do not leave the question hanging: there is something beautifully peaceful about this end,  There is nothing of the struggle here but a gradual realisation of some truth which puts our minds at rest.  This is one of the most powerful readings of the work I've heard.

NB: I checked, the faltering transition at bars 80-81 is repeated in Salzburg in 1987 - that’s no slip.

Claudio Arrau (1964)

Arrau died the same year as Serkin and Kempff and like both he had recorded the work a number of times - for EMI in 1957, for Philips in 1965 and 1985. Video 1960 BBC, 1964 VAI, 1970 EMI, 1977 Live Bonn.  He has perhaps the most prolific record of performances we can chose from in audio only or on video.  I've chosen is the 1964 recording as the sound is better and the performance brings out Arrau's strengths. Here was a pianist who throughout his long career lived and breathed Beethoven's works of piano.  He played Beethoven in recitals he gave before the age of ten in Chile and offering numerous complete cycles in concert of both sonatas and concerti.  And yet today his name seldom appears on lists of great performances of any of Beethoven's works.

There's something which smoulders in the opening of the sonata - after the three fusillades the piano section has a deep fire about it - the urgency of the attack, the speed of the release and colour of the bass chords all speak of something particularly dramatic and passionate.  As we slide into the exposition the overwhelming sense I get is of coherence, unlike some of the following generations Arrau isn't looking to mark the particular episodes of this exposition into parts but bind it all together with the three note figure and combinations of effects that Beethoven is going to exploit later on.  Arrau sits in the video in a contrived Viennese music room and wears concert tails and a fob watch.  The word dapper fits him beautifully here (and always did).  The control is marvellous and as always to see his approach is enlightening - never flustered urgent, head close to the keyboard, no stress or posing.  Arrau looks to Beethoven in his development - the ghost of the  Hammerklavier hangs over this section.  It's achieved by some rubato and tugging at the tempo and judicious phrasing.  And he possibly plays more with the recapitulation than anyone else - it's dramatic, dynamic and complex.  He makes most of his contemporaries look pedestrian.  Some will rightly argue the point that what he does is not in the score and those purists will have to answer Gould's charge about this section being mundane without some further elaboration by the pianist.  But Arrau closes the movement down curtly - which most of those who have made a meal of the foregoing music have to do.  It's a fine balance, but on balance this dapper 60 year old is a lion in this music and has found a way through, to the next movement at least.

Somewhat surprisingly Arrau makes heavy weather of the Aria statement - it's intense and claustrophobic - hardly a song at all.  He plays the repeats.  The first variation has a simplicity to it -  it's typical of many of Beethoven's early period dance pulsed movements.  It is without affectation and yet it hardly sits with the inhospitable aria.  The second variation has more to it but seems unstable on the brink of rushing of, but not quite there.  This is clever pacing by Arrau.  The third variation is after this perturbation, an eruption of expansive and joyful music.  He makes no special pleading or spotlighting for the second strain in the variations - everything very much stands on it's own however precariously.  Variation 4 is plain at first but it's repeat and that bar 80-81 transition is very well crafted with unwritten changes to pulse and dynamics - but it is effective.   The break in bar 98 is pointed - its' a bit disconcerting.  The trills are certainly louder than Beethoven marks but there's something more about the air of these final few pages.  Arrau seems in no mood to rush to the ecstatic, and as the temperature rises and we find the material of the Arietta again write large, he press home an unaffected way with the music.  It is telling that Arrau's concluding oration sounds more like bells ringing out in a great cathedral than a hymn and later as it trills away, a descent perhaps into a garden filled with bird song.  Here he is more delicate than before and distinctly comforting - Heaven on earth perhaps for Arrau.  The Coda chimes again briefly and fades.  I'm taken by this as it is like a piece by Brahms the unsentimental nostalgist.

All in all this is an intriguing interpretation - I'm not sure I quite get it but it is more interesting and perhaps more of a personal vision than many others and for that alone it is highly commendable.


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