Op 111 - Kempff, Pogorelich, Denk, Gould, Rosen, Solomon

Wilhelm Kempff (1936)


It was long held that after Schnabel, Kempff was the master of Beethoven.  Deutsches Grammophon were happy enough with his complete Beethoven Sonatas cycle from 1960s to hold sway for 20 years.  This is review is of his first recording on Op 111 from attempted cycle for Polydor recorded on shellac from the 30s to the end of the war: it was not completed, there was another successful attempt at a cycle in mono in the early 1950s.  The side changes are very obvious few minutes are a relic of recordings of the time.

Even in the opening measures of this 1936 account we hear Kempff’s defiant way from the off.  The opening phrase deliberately curtailed with a  shortened stamped chord.  The musing chords which follow in pairs are marvellous, full of portent and mystery, made sinister by Kempff’s very deliberate pacing and emphasis. The bass rumble begins as indistinct and turns beautiful into the clear statement of themes. The exposition opens out with a similar deliberation but picks up speed and lightening textures at the same time, it teeters on the edge of stasis at points but it is wonderfully controlled. I suspect Kempff emphasis the acceleration by a little ritardando before it - it creates a slipshod effect.  Later in the exposition Kempff’s tone switches to entrancing extremes - spare when slow and rich when fast. There’s no exposition repeat and without it the movement seems to tipple over into the development too quickly and the recapitulation and it’s development are a little disembodied.  For a recording made in 1936, of course, a exposition repeat cost the consumer and so they were routinely dispensed with.  I don’t mind in symphonies but in a work as complex as this you can feel the need for balance more acutely even when the material is memorable.  The fugato development is almost tentative if not apologetic and yet the recapitulation is wild and almost formless - like a thousand ideas teeming out at once and then all clarity. Nowhere has Denk’s notion of impatience been so starkly underlined - in the slow sparse textures Kempff sounds like a lost and lonely child and then in the faster music the child chases every butterfly in the garden.

Kempff’s Aria is very quiet.  It rocks gently at least until the second strain where the rocking becomes slightly perturbed by subtle emphasis by the pianist. The third variation strains at the leash - especially in it’s second strain.  The fourth variation pirouettes but with an intimate tone and it’s repeated high passages become more ecstatic - the trills mirror his extreme approach to bass and treble, intimate and dramatic, rich and spartan sound: he has a quicksilver response to the music and even in repose we aren’t quite shaking off the disquiet of the first movement.  The final oration then presents him with different choice to those pianists who go for this as a culmination or public hymn.  He opts for a private, reflective and ultimately profoundly spiritual approach.

Kempff who died at the age of 95 in 1991 - within months of the deaths of Claudio Arrau and Rudolf Serkin - had a long and impressive recording and performing career - his last concert appearance was in 1981.  His pedigree was impeccable though seemingly not international.

Ivo Pogorelich (1987)

Pogorelich is not a renowned Beethovenian in fact I dare say he would hate such a label.  He is an old fashioned, wilful and yet very talented superstar virtuoso, a devil and a saint at the keyboard.  He made a series of recordings for DG in the 1980s and then a series of tragedies kept him out the recording studio and away from the concert platform.  He appeared in London earlier this year and to say the concert was curious is to completely undersell the extremes of his approach. So this early Op 111 recorded for Unitel might be a glimpse of a past pianist not the one who plays now.  The opening Maestoso has some weight and deliberation but it is a threnody at this pace.  The exposition has so little bass in it that it is shorn of many shades - but it has a pleasing fluency and directness.  The bass when it is attacked is done so with a leonine directness and sureity.  The fugatto is direct and classical in tone but he soon whips up a storm into the recapitulation. There is a moment of exquisite stillness - so very slow and yet so very beautiful - I doubt this is universally enjoyed but my goodness what and effect.  The moment is treasured but brief and we dive into a coda also slow and quiet and with a wonderfully muffled bass line.  This is not quite the direct Beethoven we’ve heard elsewhere,  On video there is a LONG pause.

The Aria is deliberate - it has a serenity about it but again it will infuriate some.  But it is not without shape and great beauty. Every note sounds with an incredible clarity and there is no brittleness about it.  The first variation is gentle - less a dance and more a lullaby.  A real dance breaks out in the second variation - Scarlatti comes to mind in it’s intimate playfulness.  Pogorelich is avoiding any loudness except in the final repeat of the second strain and he launches into the third variation as a great joyous playful game.  This has little sense of struggle until its second strain, and even then that’s conquered. The pianist is turning the piece on it’s head.  The darker first strain - 4a is mysterious but punctuated by an uneasy third (middle voice) beautifully over a muffled bass 4b is staccato holding us fast to the ground and their repeats have a similar aural quality but their effect is to hold progress and the aria is broken to pieces.  Pogorelich is stronger and almost defiant against the trills - his choices of when to push and when to hold back are minutely calculated and delivered with extraordinary good taste and exemplary skills.  He holds the trills in his hands like he plays them every day - but he does speed the last one up and then the music becomes slow and concentrated again.  The flow to which we are accustomed has been decimated - but his exquisite attention to detail holds us.  The great oration only comes very slowly and is not a long complex paragraph but a bold and terse c major statement of intent. And for the close he opts for something less hushed - gathering only the essential fragments of our aria together in a shower of trills.  

Jeremy Denk (2014)

Denk opens boldly and only softens towards the end of phrases the mystical paired notes don’t last long.  This is as he describes impatient Beethoven.  The exposition bubbles with ideas and unlike most pianists he refuses to give either hand dominance for long.  Its technically astonishing what Denk achieves and it’s marvellous to have it at speed without the “driving on ice” quality of other readings.  His exposition really does expose the sections and fulfils a true sonata functions. The reply as though best friends talking over the fence.  The meagre development Beethoven leaves us contrapuntal heaven and throbs giants the inner pulses of it’s phrases.  The recapitulation has an easing in its slow sections, the higher complex passagework has a great security and clarity.  The tumbling notes  which follow the slow transition which quickens deftly s though some external agency.  Den plays like a man possessed.  the coda doesn’t rumble - the articulation is too good for that.  But it isn’t a lingering coda either - he finishes abruptly as if Beethoven is too impatient even to give us the satisfaction of the cadence.

Dank’s Aria is hesitant at first secure in it’s first note but of growing assurance in the first strain, the second seems to lose it’s way and then find it in the repeat.  The easy first variation is coy at points but like a debutant, finding her feet on the dance floor, soon gets overtaken by melody. The side step (metaphorical even for our deb) takes the music to darker places, Denk’s repeat is stringer to counter this darkness.  The next variation promenades confidently and with such assurance that the slight unsteadiness (Beethoven’s - not Denk whois rock solid technically) seems out of character immediately.  That it gathers itself is in preparation for what comes next.  The movement and the work bursts opening the third variation.  It is truly more joyful as Beethoven famous Ode and as rich to boot in Denk’s hands.  He is taking the very richness of the Ninth symphony here and applying it.  It is as though he has found a way.  The low start to the next section is less brooding and more opaque than many - a preparation perhaps, the high register response is finely knitted tracery, and with it no great release when we drop down again. Dank is not interested in dramatising these harmonics: the centre of his vision lies elsewhere.  The high section is stark and exquisite.  The build to the trills has more heart than anything so far and the trills and their supporting bass notes ring out like a carillon. The next variation is in the right direction.  With a tone and sweep which would not be out of place in Liszt Denk captures the hymn-like melody and flings it into a high star filled night sky.  The euphoria is tempered at the trills and only then do we see his plan. The bird has flown, we are waving goodbye, Denk has captured the acceptance, the loss and the freedom that gives.  All is lost at his closing chords - all worry and anxiety too.  That he pairs this work on CD with Ligeti Etudes is no mistake such is the abstracted abandon of this music which at the same time remains tremendously humane.  On the CD Denk follows Op 111 with them first Etude from Book 2 by Ligeti entitled Galamb Borong (which is not what it seems either, translated roughly as “melancholic pigeon” as it turns out)….

Glenn Gould (June 1956)

Gould is bold with his first figure and then progressively more restrained in the first six bars but rest is rather matter of fact.  We know Gould was more and more interested in the vertical in music not the byplay of melody.   There are the usual Gould touches in transition - a moment or two where a repeat note is sudden brought to prominence as if highlighted by the pianist.  But he has a huge surprises we turn to the Allegro.  The exposition is incredibly quickly almost comically bravura in it’s unrestrained progress.  There’s very fine articulation in this but the movement slows for it’s second phase.  The repeat is taken - a chance to hear his amazing grip on this movement again.  As we progress in the development his expertise in Bach will show surely?  It does, and as ever the voicing is thought through but perhaps too even,  It’s hard to tell the direction of the music until we get into that extended recapitulation.  It is unrelenting and must have been a shock to audiences.  But there’s no point being the bad boy of Bach if you can’t extend it to Beethoven.  The rest of the movement speeds along on a kind of cartoon sound track - but I don’t think his excesses are to be frowned at, uncomfortable they may be but we might learn something.  First what comes through is, despite is shorn timing and almost Lisztian epic being played out. Fearsome to take those notes in at that speed but another grander scale structure emerges when the all bunch up.  Finally we can confirm - Gould is never conventional.  In his sleeve note the young pianist declared the first movement had it’s weak points and that he sped through it to get to the second movement.
The Aria is given plenty of air and Gould produces a warmer effect than we’ve heard before in his reading.  The first variation has a little hiatus in it’s first strain and a rising tension in it’s second strain which combined with the typical Gould vocals suggest he’s working at pulling out something special here.  The second is conversation - the piano talks to Gould and he responds, nothing outward eccentric here. The variation bustles along with some ebullient turns and curves.  There’s nothing dark about this though the 1956 recording does focus a bit too much on the top end of the sound picture.  The low rumbling of the fourth variation has accents to draw out it’s debt to the Aria.  The second strain at the other end of the keyboard sounds horribly anachronistic now - Gould’s toy piano tones  combined with a blurring pace do little than make this a interlude and the transition to the first strain has no mystery.  I have no doubt Gould would say “I see no misterioso marking”.  The passage marked c in my plan bar 100-108, does start to reflect a development of sorts and to that extent Gould is bringing sonata form to these crudely wrought materials with the trills as a fabulous concentrated recapitulation, with a intense coda.  The three voices thereafter combine in a preparation for grand oration, it is clearer here to me than perhaps many of most of the other versions that this fifth variation synthesises a hymn from the workings -out of the Aria.  Gould perhaps has the most subconscious sense of elucidating structure than many pianists in this survey.  The trilling final page is not feverish but technically dispatched and the concluding 3 bars show no sentimental attachment.  Indeed Gould shows the whole work no reverence or sentimental attachment - it could be one of those seemingly dreary middle period sonatas which no one has much affection for.  But this is a broad church and if nothing else Gould lights the way in the pantomime recklessness of which Beethoven might have approved.

Charles Rosen (~1969)


Rosen is as bold and authoritative in his opening, maybe louder than Beethoven's marking suggest but I sense were are quite close to the piano in this recording so some of the perspectives are skewed.  It is a very controlled opening - the quiet passages have none of the nervous energy of some other versions.  It is majestic and somewhat austere - not inviting per se, but declamatory.  Rosen is the master of the instruments and the light and shade of his attack and the way the colours of his touch are brought to bear suggest a great realist at work.  The transition into the Allegro are preceded of two bars (14 and 15) of a tolling bass note which has all the authority of the night watch.  The Allegro is truly mobile and varied and the piano tone is matched to each episode but there is no sentiment here.  The Adagio  marking is merely slower: no more and no less. Rosen was a scholar and a very fine pianist who rose to prominence both in his recordings, his concerts and his writing.  That marvellous book 'The Classical Style' was published after this sonata was recorded.  The three records of the last Beethoven Sonatas were made at Abbey Road studios between late 1968 and mid 1970:  years later I bought it for it's majestic reading of Op 106.  He was a master in everything from Boulez to Bach and back again.  Here he shows that formidable grasp of taste, structure and content in a way which eludes some (Gould for example).  The development is distinctly Bach'ian and clipped and short shrift: it wants for some Beethovenian fury.  The recapitulation is a flurry of note without much classicism or romanticism (somewhat ironically) but it has an admirable clarity.  That's where Rosen excels: he is scrupulous in articulation, voicing and pulse.

The Aria is strait laced as is the first variation.  It's something of a disappointment to hear the music so wonderfully shaded with little but delight in the colours of the keyboard.  In other works Rosen is the master of the far-sighted view, the architect of the landscape, here he seems to zoom in to moments of exquisite transition.  All is quiet in these variations - there's nuance of value to the pianist or pianistic scholar but little to set the pulse racing.  The third variation becomes a jolly romp.  That's not to say that there should always be drama in Beethoven but to say there's no idea of from what quarter it will emerge. Readers will now realise Variation 4 -Bar 64 onwards - is where I see the heart of the work forming as though through a meeting of earth and water.  Rosen is calm and yet reaching further than he has so far, the progress is more concerted, the point making through dynamics, attack or contrast is more preciously conceived and delivered.  The trills at last introduce some magic and the music has a hypnotic quality: intimate and guiding us to it's end.  Rosen applies a level of care and intent to these pages which belie his straight-forward style earlier.  The nuanced left hand support is all I think.  The technical is not a concern but the effect is paramount now. As he concludes I'm left feeling somehow this piece doesn't sit quite right for him.  The man who thought the best music for piano to be the opening pages of the Hammerklavier, probably found little of that declamatory intensity in Op 111.  So while there is much to admire here, it ends with regret that it doesn't match his vision of Beethoven or of the piano.
That said in 2007 for his 80th birthday recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Rosen gave the last three sonatas by Beethoven - his grip was - as to be expected - less than it had been , but his reading of the end of this sonata seemed to the review to suggest Beethoven's eye was to the immortal.  Rosen's magic wasn't in that space 40 years earlier sadly.  Charles Rosen died in 2012.  

Solomon Cutner (1948)


Known professionally and marketed by EMI as "Solomon" with all the wisdom that implies, Solomon Cutner was a East London boy made good. He recorded Op 111 twice - in June 1948 and again in 1951 - this review is of the former though the latter is better known.  Solomon was know international as a very fine pianist and something of an antidote, post war to the old guard , well versed in the Austro-German tradition.  The 1948 was made for HMV and I suspect for a distinctly national audience.

Solomon was according to some sources a prodigy robbed of his childhood by a rapacious teacher who farmed him out as a child prodigy in this and that concerto and recital until he was burned out.  Sir Henry Wood advised a break from music completely which worked well.  How knows how ths coloured his music making 

He opens with bold flourishes and then drops tellingly into an intimate mode at Beethoven's behest but with a long breath and sure touch.  His opening darkness and immediately takes us to a sunnier place.  There's pace and refinement and some great control here - never tipping into the nervous energy of a more exuberant type of pianist. We get the repeat and so better to savour his energy and verve. And we get a real ff and sf difference in these passages.  The development sounds like Beethoven not Bach especially with the momentum Solomon injects into the music, there is more emotion here than one would expect and more than most supply.  But there's a ebb and flow of this momentum effect.  He makes time stretch in the slower moments and his touch softens on those high notes to bring a sound closer to Chopin than we perhaps have realised before.  The start oif the coda reveals that ff and sf aren't quite as distinguishable as before and we see how Solomon has moulded eth music to suit his aims and such is his technical skill that we haven't noticed the appropriation.

Solomon, on holiday in France in 1956 had a stroke and lost the use of his right arm. He was partway through a recorded cycle of Beethoven Sonatas for EMI.  He had recorded many great readings of concerti and piano pieces and his international reputation was assured, but he never performed or recorded again and died in 1988.

In this survey Solomon was the first to strike me with the complexity of that opening chord of the Aria - he colours each of the following chords with a jeweller's eye - it is sublime.  It turns the whole movement on it's head to have a complex and pointed Aria to begin with.  The second strain is bolder and more powerful as a result.  He's also more obvious in holding the bass note through into variation 1 making a flow which some have either consciously or mistakenly avoided. There's some wonderful rubato in this variation which is slow and not at all show - more like a recitation of a nursery rhyme. Patterns of speech not dance.  The easy tempo of the second variation is again more conversational, eloquently voice and richly coloured this is a marvellous exposition of late Beethoven's writing.  It is not without tension, but not drama, the dispersed rhythms and ebb and flow into the third variation is well marked.  The third variation in this case comes as a glorious cascade of notes after the three slow episodes.  Solomon doesn’t throw the kitchen sink at it nor even in it's darkest hued passages does he make it music in crisis.  This is closer to running down a hill on a summer's day.  The ruminations of Variation 4 are shapeless whereas their higher answer passages are dry and acute - almost serial music. The repeat though has a warmer quality in both halves.  The trills are impeccably controlled to a whisper and then swelling ever so slightly.  And the transition to the fifth element (4e) in this sonata-like variation is filled with resignation and pathos.  Solomon has the emotional story to tell here which is deeply affecting. Everyone will take something of their own from it.  But it has a depth of feeling which many have chosen not to plumb.

The resolution into the hymn like passages is slowly unwound.  It passes over the dying embers of something great.  The coda is not a poignant sign off though - it is the most straightforward of conclusions.  The hard emotional work of this reading is to be done in it's depths - it is complex and deeply human.


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