Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)
Sonata in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Recorded in Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London in October 2001 and June 2002 (Op.81a)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: May 2003
CD No: EMI 5575202
Duration: 71 minutes
This is one of the most commanding accounts of Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier – an unflinching, sometimes combative view of a titanic masterpiece, and a version to be spoken of in the same breath as those of Brendel, Gilels and Pollini. Superbly recorded, with outstanding clarity and presence, Kovacevich announces the music’s potency from the first bar, more or less at Beethoven’s very demanding fast metronome. This is not though a one-dimensional slog through what should be many and varied vistas, for Kovacevich displays the poetic recesses of the exposition as sensitively as he is heroic in the dramatic passages. The whole is a tour de force of concentration and inevitability.
The Scherzo is a joy of rhythmic enigma, while the profound ’Adagio sostenuto’ has a limpidity of touch and abounds in poetry, Kovacevich’s (flowing) tempo perfectly judged to encompass reverie and emotional floridity. The huge finale – so many notes! – while less expectant in its opening bars than some have made it remains true to Kovacevich’s direct if subtly managed traversal of the whole. This fugal finale – truly remarkable in an insane sort of way – brings from Kovacevich both a mastery of formalities and a ’white knuckle ride’ in terms of ’going for it’. That we arrive at the close exhilarated but not disintegrated is a tribute to Kovacevich’s strength of physique and vision.
Placed first on the CD, the Hammerklavier (pianoforte in Germanic terminology) is an astonishing experience. The Bagatelles are a much-needed antidote (or, of course, you can just press the ’stop’ button). The 11 miniatures of Op.119 – and none is briefer than the 7-second ’Allegramente’ – are maybe chips in Beethoven’s canon but the Bagatelles are also a testimony to his gift for melody; a real ’ideas man’.
The full-circle aspect of Les adieux – Farewell, Absence, Return – is secondary to this sonata being one of Beethoven’s most lucid and touching works, admirably conveyed by Kovacevich whose sense of resolution and fantasy is very satisfying.
Ultimately, this is one of the great records of the Hammerklavier.