Op 111 - Kocsis, Hamelin, Petri, Gulda, Schiff

Zoltan Kocsis (1998)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JuOj_vqpz70 (first part - follow Youtube from there)

Kocsis (b 1952)  is a Hungarian of great musical tastes, insights and experience.  His work as a pianist has encompassed the 20th Century masters with particular adulation for his Bartok and Debussy.  Latterly has become a very fine conductor  forming and leading superb orchestras in his home country including a thrilling series of recordings of Bartok's orchestral works.  He has an impish air about him but a stunning technical facility and musical sympathy - but I had never heard him in Beethoven before coming across this recorded concert from Teatro Sociale of Bellinzona, Switzerland. It is a rare treat.

His opening it's own impatient intensity, he sustains the opening chords which Schnabel delivers like a lightning bolt.  The blurring sets the tone, the middle section is much more about ambivalence and the growling prelude to the opening is terse.  The movement proper opens out quickly and the there's a sense Kocsis is playing Mozart though the phrases are snatched and nowhere near as lyrical.  But the is a quasi classical reading from a pianist we associate with impressionistic sensibilities.  It’s a marvellously coloured and nuanced opening.  It is supremely busy - so busy it fact that it hardly seems to have time to be impatient. These wonderful clarity in the passage work too.  And as a live performance it is very precise.  The fugato has a pantomime quality but none of Gould's superficiality.   There's a growing intensity to it though a piling on of qualities - it's supremely accurate articulation; varied colour; nods here and there to Mozart and in the coda to Liszt in the left hand, moments of calm and moments of high voltage abstraction.  All of these begin to disengage one from the material.  It's hard to know how we complete the movement.

There's nothing especially hushed or hallowed about the Arietta's opening theme in the Hungarian's hands.  He finds more nuance in the second strain but that is as the composer intend.  He's not dwelling here either - it's just a tad brusque and hard edged.  The first variation sounds like a piano exercise there's a touch of phrasing in the second strain but it's face is dour and featureless.  There's perhaps a little more in the repeat but only the smell of engagement.  The dance element so enjoyed by others in the second variation is ironed out by Kocsis - it is curiously ambivalent to it's rhythmic possibilities.  Kocsis logic becomes clear with a effervescent third boogie woogie variation - the contrast is striking and ebullient.  And Kocsis really swings here.  One of the great joys of his pianism that it does not vary in it's attention to every detail of what he can do with the piano so even as he assails the sense with right hand acrobatics, the left is still doing interesting things.  The fourth variation is not as distinct in its bass passages as its mirror image.  One can sense a return to his austere guise.  The second high strain has a different quality though.  The final sections of this variation are bolder: less showy in their virtuosity until the trills where we have a bit of showmanship: and with control like Kocsis it's not hard to attend merely to that.  The remaining pages have a wonderful tenderness and the pianist's lines are elegant and towards the end of the great oration he reaches such an imperious heights.  But it is less about a joyous ode but a working through of another confounding impressionist puzzle.  The trills of the coda signify a return to a more translucent kind of pianism - more modern than Beethoven would have expected, but drawn from Kocsis' pedigree and beautifully done.  The end itself though is stubbornly classical and Kocsis is almost perfunctory and leaves us in a netherworld. 

There's been no sense of a transcendent journey here, no marking of impatience and patience and certainly no nostalgia.  All of that is for other more sentiment pianists.  Kocsis offers a real world view - distinctly he moves the centre of attention in the final movement to the third variation and its joyous syncopation.  There's nothing valedictory about his approach but there is some wonderful playing and phrasing and a distinct feel for how -in a technical sense - this reading of the sonata looks backward and forward from 1822.

Marc Andre Hamelin (2004)

Marc Andre Hamelin (b. 1961)  is a French Canadian pianist and composer who has played most of the most difficult piano music that there is with aplomb and uncanny ease.  He is not a great poseur as a performer - he's usually self-effacing in every respect except his music which sparkles and technically has most mortals gasping.  He has recorded a great deal of much from Haydn and Mozart to music of the present day - but never Beethoven (aside from an Alkan arrangement of a movement from a Beethoven concerto).  This video was taken at the Schwetzingen Festival, 23 May 2004. 

Booms out the three opening proclamations from Beethoven with his usual finesse (though there's a flub in the second).  He's way too loud and martial in middle of the Maestoso and he launches into the Allegro at great pace -  He pecks at the fast notes creating something of a whirlwind, but there is nuance here and some delineation of the different seed material in each section which he manages to signal with tone and sometimes a tiny pause.   The Adagio interlude sounds like Liszt as indeed does much of the rest.  The development is curtly introduced and despatched in late 19th century style.  It all feels a long way from Schnabel and much closer to Gould's disdain.  The Exposition is way too busy to let any detail - let alone the subtle reflection or allusion through.  Hamelin is too good a pianist to let his speed get too much for his technique.  But it is either breathless stationary or peculiarly nervous as in the "poi a poi sempre piu allegro" section.  The coda sounds as though he's happy to get it over with.  There's little mystery here and even less of the Beethoven spirit conjured up by Fisher and Solomon.   He is neither as clinical as Uchida or as excitable as Trifonov.  It's a reading which at this stage could go either way.
This is the first of his four studio recordings and it sounds as fresh as the reading: it's an exhilarating reading and it would be tempting to compare it with his others, but that is for another day.  For now hear it and revel in it.
He opens with three pronouncements that sets out his sonic vision: they seem light across the piano's range.  This lightness follows in the rest of the opening: it's all a bit too sunny for me. Schiff's lightness of touch is one of his great points but the opening of the Allegro is a tad stiff and leans too much for me on the right hand which is fine but the left is lost somehow - the bass sounds as though it's about 15 feet from the player.  But there's more to it - the phrasing has a rather faceless quality and twice in this exposition (four times if you count repeats) Schiff underlines the sforzandi with some surprising crudity.  I like his delicate desiccated fugato and the bass lead out of it and the rest of the movement is delivered with a suave certainty but alas most of it is quite under characterised.  And in the transition to the coda sf in bar 145 is not the same as sf in bar 146.  its all a bit underwhelming to be picking over such things with such an accomplished player, but there's little else to go on in this sepia landscape.
In the second movement Arietta, the theme is measured and courtly without being stiff.  There's little mystery or colour in it.  The first variation sounds like early Beethoven but again is either very pure or very stark depending on your preference.  There's something other worldly about these pages - they seem like exercises.  There's so little expression in them even the usual cat and mouse of the responding hands is lost a bit. But the third variation brings a good deal of pace and interest - the faltering sforzandi have mostly disappeared.  But in the second strain there is some random colour and emphasis which seems out of kilter.   The fourth variation is delicate but mesmerically dull - one might feel trapped in it.  The break out is lyrical but a bit late in the day for expression.  The dynamic of the trills is beautifully observed - it’s a golden passage but the gentle throbbing of chords against the fragments of what we have heard dissembled is not really convincing.  As the next variation is similarly underpowered and only as we switched into the last variation do we get a forward pulse but then Schiff's tone becomes harsh.  There's a curious untying of the bass notes under the trills which sounds different but isn't enough to save this reading.  It is clear and precise, pretty and sometimes charming - but there' no grandeur here or any vision of something bigger coming out of consideration of these taxing variations.  If Schiff is ultimately a classicist playing for other classicists then good luck to him and them. This is too light for me.

There's a strange uneven quality about Hamelin's phrasing in the first strain of the aria - and you can see it on his face in the video.  The disruptive  treatment of the right hand rhythm  [long - short - (quieter) long] is paired with a slight lag and some random dynamics in the left hand.  Indeed throughout there's something eloquently disconnected about Hamelin's view of the voices in this piece - though it probably makes it more interesting for some listeners. The first variation creeps along - it is glacial but the ice is murky - it certainly doesn't dance and it does move quickly.  The second is less glacial giving the accelerated material than moribund - I can't think why the pianist made this choice, especially with so little to offer in terms of local colour or phrasing.  It does have a concentrated charm but equally I think we all know what comes next in this short of reading.  Hamelin doesn't - thankfully offer a third variation which bursts on us like a firework, showering us all with light.  But he does offer a lumpen and leaden start to the variation which lunges about the place thanks to his exaggeration, his failure to get the music off the ground and his almost claustrophobic approach to the inner voices.  There is no lightness here - I feel like I'm sitting in my coat on a warm day next to a blazing fire. Variation 4 is plagued by strange rubati and his glacial speeds again.  It is as though he is imposing a very slow movement on us even though Beethoven didn't write one.  I can't take much from this - certainly no mystery, drama , spirit or verve.  It is the least intoxicating approach to a sonata which needs to be dragged down to earth.  The tone and spaciousness at least open out as we get to the trills (bar 106 onwards).  In the shadow of that beautifully played but seeming semi-candescent passage, the music returns to it's tight introspective and undemonstrative self.  Hamelin turns up the wick slightly to a triumphant end - to a point.  The snatched sforzandi at 159 are like a slap round the chops.  He plays beautifully in the coda - there's perhaps more there to his liking of the abstract.  The audience don't seem to know what to make of it though and neither do I.

Egon Petri (1935/6)

Petri was born in 1881 into a Dutch family but he was never really a Dutchman, he was schooled and thrived in Germany especially after the encouragement of both Paderewski and Busoni to take his piano studies further.  From Europe in in 1939 he left for the USA and became an American citizen and died there in 1962.  He was a great teacher and a player often described in terms of his refinement, grandeur and elegance.  This performance is from 1935/6.

Petri was a formidable Beethovenian - it's evident even from the first page of this sonata where there's a lyricism, confidence and high drama in his playing - but always in the notes.  It's most marked in his transition out of the Maestoso but there's a great deal in here to  savour.  The defiance - strong but not loud in the first six bars, the marked attention to the rhythms in the next six - this is not just passage work or filler, and the great bass roar as he dives into the next movement.  There's a leonine quality to everything he does. The entire exposition is filled with light and a relaxed pace even where Beethoven piles in the notes.  There's something mushy about the 1930s bass sound which I think is exploited by the pianist - it is inexact but exactly what's needed.  There's something in the development where he turns it on it's head and he draws attention away from the fugato start (he knows it's going nowhere) onto the passage beyond.  This is essentially mean-spirited towards Beethoven's attempts to divert us.  And yet the music has great weight and warmth and drama.  The slow moments in the recapitulation are gorgeous and Petri's great skill is to mark out where the fast passages need to be legato and where more definition is supplied.  The whole movements ends with style.  He seems to say this rag-tag music has a very clear function - it's material may or may not presage what we are about to hear in the second movement, but it has a contrasting quality which has to be explored in depth to match what is before us. 

The Arietta is played with the most gentle and graceful swing to it that one might want.  There's no dank formalism or heavy handed nuance.  What time he has, but there's none of the slowness others covert.  He does almost the same effect as Hamelin at the start of the second strain but it is enough to keep us in touch with pulse and flow.  The Variation is a dance tune of great élan - he seems to be very at ease with Beethoven's writing (he played the first full cycle of Beethoven sonatas recorded in the annals in 1908).  The second variation is a little harder edged.  The third is thrilling - as fast as the fastest today, euphoric and yet somehow giving a feel in its second strain of the turbulence to come.  The transition from variation 3 to 4 is fascinating as he holds on to some of that uncertainty for a couple of bars into the muddied bass undulations of variation 4.  As the mists clear it’s a marvellous effect.  But then again the slide back to the bass strain from it’s higher counterpart a page and a half later has none of the breath taking quality of Denk or Nikolayeva.  But it's foolish to compare or quibble, Petri is his own man born of a special age.  His father had Mahler, Busoni and Brahms in his social circle - Petri talent was moulded by men who could reach back nearly to Beethoven himself.  As the leggiermente passages spirals around high on the keyboard it’s a magical atmosphere and it descends quickly to a forceful statement of long -forgotten fragments amongst firefly trills.  The music gathers itself is a most disconcerting way as Petri slows the pace and concentrates on those intervals Beethoven has been drumming into our heads.  The Fifth variation catches light - even with 1930s sound we hear the way his tone is rock solid and he is so delicately pushing forward.  But there's no grand oration.  The trills are the sparkling centrepiece of this conclusion.  Flight in some Elysium has been achieved.  The coda needs only the reassurance he provides - it is an end.

Friedrich Gulda (1953)

 Gulda was Viennese, born there in 1930 and trained there too - he was much recorded in Beethoven and Mozart throughout his career and I treasure his Bach too but he was a master of the keyboard with a quiet authority, some wit and that measure of insouciance that playing the great masters requires.  His pre-occupation with jazz led him to many interesting situations and partnerships.  One never felt he wasn't a product of any particular school so much as a very accomplished, thinking pianist. I treasure the spontaneity of his readings.  His ascendency was rapid winning the Geneva Piano Competition in 1946 somewhat controversially and making his New York debut in 1950.  He was what we used to calla cross over artist - his long association with jazz being particularly poignant in this piece with which he had a long history.  This 1954 recording is the first Gulda made as part of a long recording career though it was still on his mind later in life when he recorded the piece for Phillips in 1994, six years before his death.

The mono recording is good, it has space and we can hear how Gulda sustains the notes in the introductory paras beyond his whiplash attack.  The effect is telling.  There's culture too in his bit by bit assembly of parts in the middle section.  Nothing rushed or over pointed, but the vehemence of the opening allegro starts in the low rumbling of the end of the Maestoso and only ends when we reach the first piano marking.  His approach to this music is busy and with a great sense of forward momentum but not as hectic and strained as some of his colleagues. But his cobra strike forte fortissimos help bowl us over.  The development hands things back to Bach but only briefly - like Petri he is only interested in passing in the potential of that fugato.  Things get more thrilling in the exposition again helped by the strength of his left hand punctuation which contrasts with the delicate wizardry of his right hand.  Blink and you's miss it though.  The coda is a seething sea - foaming after some great calamity, but in the swell the drama soon passes into the murky depths.  I find his whole approach unique in its energy - it's not just energetic or just fast but this is shrewdly judged to bring in the listener where so many do without that.  It is the epitome of Beethovenian cleverness, not his impatience.

Gulda's Arietta begins with a rapt account of the theme.  Intense, finely judged and simply conveyed - it is haunting and yet moves with a gentle swing in its step.  The first variation pulses and dances in a way I haven't heard many achieve - there's not much of a jump from Beethoven to Chopin here, Gulda is touch is light and glorious.  And still less of a jump from Beethoven to Bach in the second variation - it is uninterrupted and richer and fuller than we might expect but Gulda knows where he is going. The third variation is as glorious as any that you will hear in the 80 years of this survey.  It is heart-filling, exuberant stuff and not a trick is missed, not one syncopated chord sounds awkward and like much of the movement there's so much detail here you could spend hours with the score delighting in detail Gulda finds. There's some subtle emphasis of the chords in the first strain of Variation 4 and the higher passage has a wonderful distant quality at first and seems to slowly to resolve into something of exquisite beauty.  Gulda moves through the variation with speed but no haste - it makes so much difference.  There's a bell like quality to notes behind the trills which we've heard before from Arrau.  The gentleness of the espressivo passage (starting bar 120) is mesmeric drawing us onto a crest of wave taking us headlong into a reassuring return of the constituent parts of the theme.  No grand oratory, no grandstanding or showmanship - it is neither of the divine or earth bound.  It is Beethoven's voice: Gulda speaks man to man.  His coda is supremely spiritual in intent but highly impressionistic in practice.  Gulda ends boldly but without fuss.

Andras Schiff (2007)

Schiff was born in Hungary in 1953  of Jewish parents.  He was a child prodigy and studied at the famous Franz Liszt Academy eventually studying with George Malcolm in London and with Kurtag in Hungry.  He has been a regular and valued contributor to musical life in the UK and was honoured with a knighthood in 2014.  His range is very wide and Schiff has become something of a Bach guru for many but he is equally acclaimed for his Bartok.  Schiff prefers a Bechstein piano with it's intimate sound and clearer top end and he rails against the Steinway sound and has also more recently recorded Beethoven Sonatas recently on a forte piano.  This recording was made in Bavaria in 2007 for his recorded cycle on ECM label.


Popular Posts