I just saw "Copying Beethoven" a few days ago and was inspired to queue up Grosse Fugue afterward. What a mind-blowing piece of music! I wonder if mankind will ever experience the genius that was Beethoven again.
Sonatas are nice. What about Beethoven's five piano concertos? The original Fleisher, Szell/Cleveland Orchestra vinyl is outstanding. I just received it from my mother in top condition. I remember listening to it as a kid. I'm tempted to get the CDs although the CD with no 5 is contaminated with Mozart's no 25.
I have nearly worn out my Solti/CSO Ashkenazy lps and bought the Ashkenazy/Mehta/Vienna Philharmonic set. Both are LPs on London.
Ray Kimber IsoMic recording at Weber State University 15 Oct 2003
I didn’t buy Louis Lortie’s Beethoven cycle with very high expectations. I rarely if ever see his name mentioned as one of the great Beethoven pianists, even if only living pianists are considered. That’s okay though, because having not so high expectations means that said expectations can be easily surpassed, as is the case here.
This cycle took a long time to record. Most of it was recorded in the 90s, with the eight sonatas that weren’t recorded back then being recorded in 2009 and 2010. The middle and middle-late sonatas were recorded in 2009 and were performed on a 1936 vintage, refurbished Steinway; the last three sonatas were recorded in 2010 and performed on a Fazioli, thus beating Ms Hewitt to the punch for the late works. (Aldo Ciccolini did record the last five sonatas on a Fazioli in the 90s for Nuova Era, though.) In addition to the standard 32, the set also includes the small Op 6 sonata for piano four hands with Mr Lortie being paired with (now) über-wealthy pianist Hélène Mercier. (Okay, it’s her husband’s billions.) The work is nice but slight and not of much interest to me.
The set is presented in mostly chronological order by opus number, and right out of the gate a few things are clear. First, Mr Lortie cannot and does not play an ugly note. Not ever. Not even close. Second, his approach is decidedly classical. He doesn’t really storm the heavens; he plays with restraint and elegance, and while never slow, he rarely rushes things. Third, Lortie plays all of the music with ease. Anytime something sounds slow or deliberate, it’s because he wants to play it that way. Generally speaking, I prefer my Beethoven fast and/or gruff, so this would seem to mean that Lortie misses the mark. Not exactly. Even in the first sonata, in the intense closing movement, there is enough drive to satisfy.
As I progressed through the sonatas I more or less heard what I thought I would hear. The first two sonatas are crisp and classical and not romanticized. The third is fast and fun, with Lortie playing the fastest parts with brio. Op 7 is quick where needed, and broad where needed, with nice dynamic range. The outer Op 10 sonatas show some limitations in terms of drive and intensity, while the second one is delightful, fun, and snazzy in the outer movements and contemplative in the slow movement. It’s one of the better ones out there, I might add. Op 13 is too classical and restrained for my tastes, though the Op 14 sonatas, a bit slower than I tend to prefer, are nonetheless charming.
A bit of a surprise comes in Op 22, which is slower that I prefer, but it also just kind of falls flat. Op 26 is good, if not my cup of tea, and the two sonatas quasi una fantasia are nice enough. The Pastorale, though, is wonderful. Perfectly paced, beautifully played, with wide dynamic contrasts, it hits the spot. The Op 31 triptych more or less met my expectations, which is to say the first is generally good, but not witty enough; the second is poised and not fiery enough; and the third is playful and fun and the best of the set. The Op 49 sonatas are elegant, pretty, and charming. Lortie rates among the best in these lesser gems.
Moving into the middle period works proper finds a Waldstein that is too broad in the opening for my taste, though the final movement makes amends with plenty of oomph. Op 54 is quite good, with the contrasting movements nicely played. The Appassionata, while “classical” in nature, is quite good, with huge crescendos and a nicely driven final movement. The Op 78 and 79 sonatas again lack the speed and wit I generally prefer, and Op 81a is nice enough, with an exceptionally moving final movement, but ultimately not top notch.
It is in the late sonatas where Lortie performs best, which is always a good sign. His take on Op 90, recorded in 2009, is spectacular. The opening movement, while lacking the bite of, say, Angela Hewitt’s latest, is quick enough, pointed enough, and transcendent enough to make it work splendidly. Better yet is the endlessly beautiful second movement, which Lortie plays with uncommon grace, elegance, and beauty. (I’d like to hear him play some Schubert.) Op 101, recorded in the 90s, shows that his affinity for the late works is not new. Start to finish, it is perfectly paced, exhibits that late LvB goodness that I demand, and has a satisfyingly clear ending fugue. The mighty Hammerklavier, also an “old” recording, is perhaps a little smaller in scale than ideal in the opening two movements, but there enough heft and drive for me. The slow movement is cool and pristine. Only the final movement misfires for me. It sounds a bit stiff, and is not ideally clear.
The last three sonatas, which are all basically hot off the press, are of varying quality, but all are good. The Fazioli, as recorded for this set, is not as bright as in other recordings I’ve heard, but the sound is sharper and the upper registers are clearer and less resonant than one gets from a Steinway. Anyway, Lortie plays Op 109 generally quickly and cleanly, with a quick and strong Prestissimo, and nicely played variations. Op 110 is, for me, the best of the lot, with that ethereal, transcendent goodness obvious from the first note. Whether it’s the lovely opening movement, the quick second movement, the fugues in the last movement, or even the massively powerful repeated chords, Lortie really delivers. No, I cannot rate it among my top five or ten, but it’s superb. The last sonata is excellent. The first movement benefits from the Fazioli sound, and if not fearsome in any way, it is nicely energetic. The second movement starts with a gorgeous Arietta, and moves on to lovely if understated variations. This is mostly a “problem” in the third variation, where there may be enough woogie, but there sure is not enough boogie. The fourth variation makes up for it. It is one of the most beautiful, delicate, and feathery light takes on the music I’ve yet heard. It melts in one’s ears, if you will. The final variation has some gorgeous trills and moves onto musical Elysium beautifully. Again, I cannot place it among my favorites, but it is better than I hoped for.
The same can be said for the cycle as a whole. Lortie’s style is not my preferred style, but he plays with enough panache and enough conviction to make it not only work, but work beautifully. In some ways it reminds me of Paul Lewis’ cycle, though I definitely prefer Lortie. He just seems to have the touch. (That written, Lewis blows Lortie into the weeds a few times, most notably and by the widest margin in Op 106.) The cycle does not end up in my top ten or even my top twenty cycles, but rather it ends up in the same category as other quality cycles that I’m more than glad to have – and that includes pianists like Craig Sheppard, Irina Mejoueva, Alfred Brendel (second cycle), Michaël Levinas, Takahiro Sonada, Friedrich Gulda (Orfeo), and Akiyoshi Sako. All told, it’s pretty darned good.
Sound is good across the cycle, with not too much separating old from new, though the 2009 recordings are a bit more distant and the 2010 recordings a bit closer than the older recordings.
I’ve reached the point where readily available, reasonably priced complete Beethoven sonata cycles are almost non-existent. Peter Takács’ upcoming cycle fits the bill, but it keeps getting delayed, and I had a hankerin’ for a new cycle, so I decided to finally go for Jenő Jandó’s cycle from the earliest years of the HNH empire. I’ve hesitated to buy this cycle for a couple reasons. First, Naxos prices keep going up, even for their old stuff, so Jandó’s cycle is now not competitively priced unless it is on sale. (Fortunately, I bought it on sale.) Second, and more important, Jandó doesn’t leap to mind when I think of compelling pianists. He’s most decidedly talented, but some of the recordings I’ve heard reveal him to be a competent, middle-of-the-road pianist who doesn’t take many chances. That’s not always bad, and he does have at least one extraordinary recording to his credit (Bartok chamber works), but in Beethoven I generally want a bit more.
Suffice it to say, Jandó’s cycle is pretty much what I thought it would be. Start to finish, he plays the pieces well and takes a middle-of-the-road approach. On the plus side, there are few or no eccentricities. Jandó does not take anything too fast. Nor does he take anything too slow. Dynamics are not exaggerated. Phrasing is almost universally safe and predictable. On the negative side, there’s very little in the way of individuality. Almost nothing stands out. The middle-of-road-approach generally works best in the earlier sonatas and results in less than compelling late sonatas, and that is certainly the case here. The late sonatas are not really bad, and one gets a sense of how great they can be, but one must listen elsewhere for great renditions of the works.
All that written, there are a couple of highlights. For some reason, Jandó fires on all cylinders in Op 26. There is an urgency and intensity largely missing in most of the other works. The funeral march is powerful and displays individual character; no one else plays it quite like him. A few times in the piece Jandó’s phrasing is stiff, but it is done purposely, to good effect. It’s really quite good. Also surprisingly good is the Les Adieux sonata. Well played and both demonstrative and restrained, it strikes a nice balance. Indeed, volume 2, which has Opp 51, 31/2, and 81a is a pretty good disc all round.
A quick word on sound: it’s not what I feared it would be. Many old Naxos recordings, especially orchestral recordings, sound rather poor, being opaque, distant, and glassy all at the same time. The recordings here are a bit close, a bit brittle, a bit glassy, and definitely bass shy, but they withstand comparison to many contemporaneous piano recordings.
So, I’ve finally heard Jandó’s cycle, and it is the competent, middle-of-the-road affair I thought it would be. For someone coming new to these works, it wouldn’t be a horrible choice, as Jandó plays well enough, but I can’t say that I find it to be a first choice. I’d put it somewhere in the 31st – 40th choice range, better than quite a few, but not quite as good as quite a few others.
I agree, the Fleisher is outstanding and a recording of the century with Szell. On another note contaminated with WAM #25? You are kidding I hope. The WAM #25 is his greatest and really his last word on the classical piano concerto, even if there were 2 more after. The last two really did not advance anything new but #25 is superb.
I also liked O'Conor's set very much, classy without being over the top.
now how about WAM violin concertos? I can listen forever!