Op 111 - Brendel, Goode, Nat, Annie Fischer, Michelangeli


When I was younger, Brendel (b. 1931) was the name in Beethoven piano works and his recitals were eagerly awaited and heaped with praise.  He is perhaps the successor to Kempff in authority though he is a less demonstrative pianist and a more modest man.  This is his first recording from the early 1960s issued recorded between 1962 and 1964 (which seems a long time for these things nowadays).

Brendel opens with affirmative intent, bold statements. Undiluted and without affectation.  The subsequent chords are very carefully voiced and placed - such care is emphasised by the relatively close microphones which also kind of distort the opening of the exposition.  Later recordings were graced with a wider dynamic range.  There's some ebb and flow here but the overwhelming feeling is of pace - not hurry.   The repeat is on us before we have had chance to take in all the light and shade of these themes and fragments, strophes and memes.  It’s a teaming pool of eddies and calm, cascades and torrents.  It doesn't sound one bit forced, marvellous poise to the last.  The fugato has a scampering quality and some humour until it unwinds into a progression of the main theme.  Its heady stuff - rich in contrapuntal detail and vigour but not force.  This eloquent pianist is supremely thoughtful of pacing and balance.  When the fast notes tumble down the hill to that cartoon like car chase he manages to maintain a little slapstick but always with a wise intent.  The coda is ambiguous: it's a wonderful clear headed decision to elide the obvious set up in those stampy chords before the quiet ensues.  I like the bold decisions here which aren't underlined.  It ends in neither one place nor another.

The Arietta sings properly, in the manner of the Pastoral symphony and not a Bach theme.  It is highly directed and not at all precious.  It is songful.  Already this prompts curiosity.  Nor is it slow.  The second strain is not plumbed for mysterious depths or even given that dramatic tinge that others squeeze from it.  Brendel gets enough from it as it stands.  But this a lullaby not an exercise.  The first variation emerges, as a result, as less of a dramatic leap. And Brendel's contours are sweeping and our feet tap at his gentle dance rhythm.  The darker second strain does seem to push the variation into a more comprised aspect.  The second variation is a little more confined and complicated, at hardly any change of pace or tone.  The second strain does all the heavy lifting moving the sonata along - this is very clever and welcome.  The third variation becomes jolly but with just a hint of wildness about it.  It's second strain is insistent and perplexing - hinting at the fragmentation to come with phrasing which seems to focus on the repeated notes.  The tremulous bass is cloudy and the chords compressed, tight and quiet in the fourth variation, the second strain is obsessive, fast and manic. The repeat of the first strain is magical - the transition delicate and the clarity telling.  The move through to the trills is edgy and tentative as though we are exploring a new path…

For Brendel there's new confidence in the trills, they are bold and bright and interestingly not even - but to a purpose.  It's like an aircraft coming out of cloud.  The result is close to relief when the fifth variation hoves into view.  Brendel pushes it harder than most and that presses the hymn home.  The coda is certainly ethereal and there's a great coming together of the features of this music.  Brendel distils it beautifully and with such perfect intent.   The ending seems the most logical conclusion.

I can't really say I knew what to expect from Brendel in this work, but his drama is subtle and disturbs the norm.  The first movement is self contained but breaths fire into the motifs of the second.  The second almost eschews the variation structure working at two levels across the repeats - moving the drama or argument on in the second strains throughout.  Its ingenious and so compelling.  I would never want to be without this reading - completely of a piece, completely capturing earth, sky and heaven and played by a master.

Richard Goode is loud and weighty in tone in the opening but a little hesitant in each of the three broadsides and the following chords.  It feels carefully constructive and thought though but almost abstracted. The tremble bass suddenly erupts and exposition with some heavy and thick textures.  Its undoubtedly fast and assured, but its like drinking from a fire hose.  He has some effective phrasing and a delicate but propulsive approach to the higher passages.  His chords stab and there's not much to suggest this is a quiet piece with very few forte and above markings.  The Development is lost in these surging waves and the little fugato is more a parody of its kind.  The exposition is again full bodied with sweeping runs and vigorous energy.  There's not much variation of touch and when he does slow to meet Beethoven's Adagio markings the uniformity of tone detracts.  The whole effective is quite dramatic and yet he uses none of the colour or quietude of his colleagues past and present.  If you like Beethoven in your face then this excels, the coda is less a close and more of a whirlwind disappearing into the distance.

Goode's Aria is from a different world to the first movement - it is beautifully moulded and nuanced.  The pacing is slow and again the colour is quite flat.  The variations begin with a slow gait and flat trajectory, unlike Brendel Goode doesn't enshrine special value in the second strain and so the whole variation treads water somewhat.  The same fate befalls the second variation which sounds a wee bit quaint - the most gentle game of hide and seek. Too often have we heard the faux surprise of the third variation achieved out of making the first two out of nothing substantial.  Goode blazes in this third variation and his energy returns in the first strain but recedes a bit too quickly in the second strain which seems to me to sit ill between the world of the opening of this movement and it's potential.  The fourth is muddy in the bass and the slightly higher chords may feel disconnected but not enough to seem ethereal.  The second part of this quintet of phases - the high leggiermente is neither chocolate box or stratosphere. I'm sort of baffled as to Goode's direction now. The third section sections surges but it hasn’t sufficient weight behind it.  The  fourth - the trills - starts brash and drifts into something much more mysterious.  Goode's grip on this fiendish writing is exemplary but this is a reading I can't map - it flits about in intent and the finale section of 4 is neutered.  The fifth variation braces and pushes forward with surety and intensity I would have preferred this big boned approach earlier even if the speeds were as brisk and the dynamics more generously loud than I think Goode would be in concert.  Its not so much an oration as a ultimatum.  The closing trills are obviously expertly handled and there's a fading nostalgia about this reading at the end - but nothing so facile about the rest of the reading. 

Richard Goode was born in 1943 and is a produce of Mannes College and the Curtis Institute where he studied with Serkin (who I covered here).  He is best known for his Mozart and Beethoven recordings, he's also made Bach, Brahms and Chopin recordings but not many, partially because he was a relatively late starter as a start piainist. This recording, undated in the sleeve notes (and online as far as I can discover) was originally made for the Book of the Month Club and published in 1987, and his first complete cycle of the Beethoven Sonatas was given in 1987/88 in Kansas and New York.

 Yves Nat died in 1956 at the age of 66 and was renowned as a teacher amongst the next generation of French pianists.  As a pianist he bucked the prevailing trend in the first half of the twentieth century in France where pianists were set on reasserting French identity by sticking with French composers. Nat went beyond that, recording a Beethoven Sonata cycle and Schumann, Chopin and Brahms.  He was also a composer though not much of his output has been recorded.  His style is both bold and dramatic and delicate and intimate by turns - it's quite a trick.  It's no wonder some pianophiles say this, recorded in his last years by EMI, is the finest Op 111.

The Maestoso opens with the an imperious attack on those opening motto phrases the last chords booming and resonating out on a recording that is over 60 years old with amazing clarity.  His pacing and emphasis in the next six bars of compositional navigation to a chilling rumble is very clear and precise and careful and enormously dramatic - the tolling bare bass notes are particularly clear and telling.  The eruption in Allegro is fast and somewhat dizzying until the music slows and we see an immediate contrast which is wider than many and compelling.  The drama is not confined to contrast but also an urgency of phrasing and careful control of dynamics.  Nat doesn't take the exposition repeat.   The development comes upon us quickly as a result - the fugue is despatched with aplomb but without a nod to Bach and Beethoven.  The rest is fast and furious and intense - but somewhat too focused on pianism than composition - Nat brings it off with better taste than Gould.  The coda is sublime - and echoes Nat's thoughtful approach and impeccable sense of weight in these moments.

Like the first movement fugue there's no suggestion Nat is looking to Bach or indeed late Beethoven in the Arietta.  We get the repeats in this movement again putting the emphasis here rather than the first.  The Arietta has seldom sounded so lyrical but yet so percussive - not to bad effect, far from it.  Just another way with this remarkable music.  The first variations walks along the street with a swagger but doesn't dance quite as much as others have managed - but it's second strain holds some marvellous playing of beauty and subtly.  In the second variation it is pretty much continuous music and Nat makes a virtue of this - it tumbles gently on it's way down the hillside building and gradually moving to the edgier attack in the third variation.  This is just amazing - all the joy we have heard elsewhere but with so many dimensions of touch which fill the ear and intrigue in unpicking the lines.  But it not even slightly about the boogie!

Beyond the third variation we move into a mystical realm which Nat despatches with pace but without tarnishing the magic of these marvellously atmospheric bars.  The second repeat of the lower strain is so light in the left hand as almost to be shadows against the tremulous bass - it's clever and one of many incidentals which Nat uses to mark this music's extraordinary complex clarity.  He doesn't dwell on the trills though they are not underplayed.  The simplicity of restatement of the theme in the fifth variation is admirable and despite the growing euphoria in the much there's much here which is about consolidation of the theme at first followed by the grandest restatements before a very quick diminution to a gentle coda of the most finely judged accenting and legato.  The coda is bluntly one of the best at bring the journey to an end - or more likely in concluding the story.  There is much that is a narrative in this reading which is eager to get on to the next tableau.  I liked and admired his approach.  It ends, as it begins, with certainty - there's much to commend that.

Yves Nat's concert career ceased after the Second World War and he concentrated on teaching and recording as he was diagnosed with cancer, though it was a heart attack that killed him.

Annie Fischer

Annie Fischer died in 1995 at the age of 80 - less than twenty years after this recording was made - it has a youthful exuberance that one might associate with a younger pianist but it also shows a lifetime of experience. 

A rather stark and classical rendition of the opening, it has force but also air and transparency and waits to make it's point.  Fischer has a deft touch, it is beautifully subdued in the middle section after a calm but taciturn opening.  The Maestoso finishes with real punch - the final chord of the two rejoinders stretches out.  She plunges into the Allegro with gusto - there's no sense of the foreboding here - just an exciting dual between the top and bottom of the piano, at speed but with some grace and verve.  She negotiates it's curves like someone driving a fast car on a coast road.  It's rather mesmeric. All that said her piano sound is a little shrill around the edges.

The fugato is really nothing compared to her visceral wrestling with the sweeping waves of notes after it - it’s a tumultuous sound.  The rather close sound helps add to the physicality of the reading - she's not wrestling with the piano but there's something about the reality of the act of playing which is wonderfully obvious and effortless.  She goes to town on the bars 119 -133, remarkable control of the Adagio and subsequent ritardando and once wound up to the original tempo there's a remarkable freedom in her dashing virtuosity.  It would be trite to say this is Hungarian fire, but it would be fair to say few have the secure technique to deliver the kind of vivid, breathing landscape here.  The coda is prefaced by a drawing of breath but her unrelenting interest in those reciprocating figures doesn't drop until the last chord.  There is something very compelling about her confidence in this music.

Fischer's close recording lays the Aria bare perhaps in a way some will find ugly. The aria is if anything a little effortful but variation 1 sails along like a boat on a fat flowing river.  It is a legato that one could dance to  - just.  But the detail in tehs econd strain will trip the unwary.  Fischer is not content for this music to be one diminsional.  The second variation has more depth than many and there's a thickening of the texture which she exploits much less like a dance - it has a real sense of instability.  That manic quality of late Beethoven - so obvious in the 29th Sonata "Hammerklavier" pervades these pages.  The third variation is clear at first but starts to tumble over itself.  Here the effortful comes to the fore again (not in any technical sense for the exemplary player) but for the listener.  The second strain is awash with counter currents - the music really has - as Denk has said - become so fragmented we don't know where it will go.  The fourth variation has a kind of impotence which is startling since it hardly does anything in its first two strains low and then high.  But when we return Fischer delivers more form in those climbing chords and eth effect is truly wonderful.  The high strain is also delineated with more clarity - like early great masters Fischer pulls more out of the bag in the repeats and like brendel she understands these second strains are where emotion is imparted.  The trills inject energy and an element of abstraction for Fischer. This is perhaps her point of stasis - as the variation ends - utter collapse.  But as the music demands there's a gathering of threads and the music breezes into the aria fully embellished and with not so much a hint of the resignation of some versions.  For Fisher the music has always had this confidence and her control here especially in the bass is fantastic.  Utterly compelling, fully voiced and miraculously unscathed.  The end peals out to the gentlest of pointing in the coda. Silence falls and possibly one of the most positive and uplifting journeys across this landscape is over.  At least we now know it can be done.  An astonishing reading.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Radio recording, London, 12.V.1961

Michelangeli opens with some somewhat straight forward attack on the third calls to arms and continues it through in the middle section of the Maestoso - broadly diffident to the music's mystery and in other ways seeking to stifle it's nuances.  His immaculate playing sets an air of crystalline grandeur but rather superficial until the last few basr of this movement on a page where he reveals a middle voice we have heard before but which bursts through into an angry roar.   The Allegro scarcely stops but it does so that suggests Michelangeli is in an awful hurry and at times the breathless production of notes is just of obscure purpose and rather technical.  I dare say the BBC recording is rather too resonant but his limpid Adagio and slower passagework  is quite divine.  So I think he's pushing on purpose.  The development  enjoys a characterful fugato but the rest surges like an unpleasant sea crossing and his attack is unrelenting.  I might go as far as saying this is more about him than Beethoven.  There are no other late Beethoven sonatas in his recorded repertoire and one wonders why he didn't assail much beyond the early sonatas.  Some of it may have been a mawkish sense of distance form Beethoven's message - but he gives us a sterling display of how powerful this music can be but he is hardly responding to its content at all - I'm reminded of Gould's contention.  Perhaps Michelangeli thinks there's nothing to say in this first movement. The coda is stilled and calm and probably too little too late - I'm troubled that he is still pressing the left hand hard and sustains the final chord on the pedal for a very long time.  It all feels like artifice to me.

The Arietta is nether hushed or rushed but a kind of vanilla offering.  That has in others lots of potential and yet I'm already decided that Michelangeli is emotional ambivalent about this work. His first movement waltzes but it would make for a very formal dance so little lift in it.  And he seems overly punctilious at some of the transitions - ruining the flow with pedantry.  The second variation doesn't really dance at all but it does have some interesting voice play and seems to be breaking the distorted aria theme into chunks. He seems to take a run up to the third variation (completely at odds with his approach to the first movement) it is full of verve - one wonders why he didn't deliver this kind of involvement earlier the piece.  Is this the first part of the music that interests him?

Michelangeli was a master in Debussy and Ravel and to find him taking variation four so literally is a bit of shock - the chords abrupt and dislocated from the ostinato line which itself seems very deliberated, there tempo at the second repeat of the higher strain passage speeds in I think an effort to prepare us for the trills or some such device.  Its all a bit contrived but not entirely - fix ideas in an ill-defined approach don't work for me - though some will undoubtedly claim spontaneity is at work.  I don't buy it.  A masterpiece of reproduction of a score it may be and there is some breath-taking playing here but it is not to a secure vision I think.  Some will bear that - I can't. His hectoring approach unravels the last two variations into a blur of base and deliberate sounding of chords.  The trills are revealing in that he seems to care about the higher inner voice which it's very nice to hear, but the coda is as abrupt and cool as the rest.  I can't really say much more than this is a very well played but emotionally detached view of the piece.

Michelangeli, a pianist often referred to in hollowed terms and known often just by his surname: I suspect to align him with loftier company.  He was enigmatic - famous for his no-shows, angry outburst and rare/precious recordings.  Its odd that a pianist who is so revered can only be glimpsed on the internet - the few pages set up in his memory are woefully out of date suggesting enthusiasm for Michelangeli is on the wane.  His recorded output is small and concerts are increasingly available since his death in 1995 at the age of 75.  Having heard this reading again but in the light of the 21 that precede it in this survey, I'm both frustrated not to "get" his vision and curious to listen to more of his live performances to see if they have any more animus.


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