No.13 in E flat, Op.27/1
No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Moonlight)
No.30 in E, Op.109
Maria Joao Pires (piano)
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: DG 453 457-2
Maria Joao Pires has, in recent years, and by the route of traditionally female repertoire, where sensitivity and lack of ego matter more than technical wizardry or brute strength, made the transition from good to great. Her Chopin Nocturnes (DG 447 096-2) and Schubert Impromptus (DG 457 550-2) may be regarded as among the leading modern interpretations. Her Beethoven has been eagerly awaited.
This is Pires’s first Beethoven recording since the ’seventies. By coincidence an earlier example has just been reissued on Apex, Warner UK’s budget label (8573-89225-2), which includes a particularly light and lyrical ’Appassionata’. This new issue has the advantage of twenty-five years’ further experience, and an exemplary, state-of-the-art recording – luminous, warm and beautifully clear.
Compared to her earlier version, the new ’Moonlight’ has much greater depth and range. It is also much slower, discursive where the other is exegetical, far more meditative in the opening ’moonlight’ movement and, appropriately, more leisurely in the finale. The first two movements (the minuet has a disarming simplicity) remind us how fragile and vulnerable Beethoven could be – and reveal Pires to be in the tradition of Schnabel rather than of Richter.
The beginning of Op.109 brings the most original moment on the disc. The first subject of the opening movement is phrased very deliberately; the semiquaver groups separated out more than usual signalling the sonata’s loftiness and reminding that the E major is a more demanding work than the earlier sonatas – listen to how Pires declaims the arpeggios as they spring organically out of the chords at the movement’s centre. In contrast, the scherzo, after the opening call to attention, skips along with an unusual lightness, a playful quality that bids we remember the last five sonatas contain moments of extreme lyrical enchantment (the opening of Op.101, the finale of Op.111, say) as well as extreme intellectual intensification. The emotional heart of Op.109, the finale, gives the performance its keynote of humility. Pires plays close attention to markings and dynamics; if she is more diligent than Heaven-storming, it is a deeply humane interpretation.
Op.27/1 is the least successful of the three. Ironically, Pires’s characteristic serenity works against her in music so consciously improvisatory. Beethoven makes sense on his own; the trick in this sonata is to suggest that Beethoven’s genius of ordering is impromptu. Pires’s version is utterly beautiful though it appears all too inevitable – the crescendos in the first movement, or the verbatim balance between the two subjects of the finale.
The presentation of this CD takes to an extreme the “designer Classical” image that characterised Pires’s Schubert Impromptus box. Romantic landscapes, soulful images of Pires herself, literary quotations whose connection to the music can be unclear or tendentious, and a multi-sleeve design makes it hard either to remove the CD itself or protect it when it is stored. (Finding the CD is no easy matter either! – Music Editor.) The notes discuss Pires’s ’Centre for the Arts’ at Belgais in Portugal. There is an argument that in such core repertoire any collector is likely to have some suitable notes from another disc. Moreover, Pires’s interest in “aesthetic research” is commendable. She has herself been used as a neuro-physiological subject for research into how the human brain processes emotion. It is at best bold, and at worst foolish, not to mention the music at all, especially for an artist whose recordings have so much musical authority. Pires is one of the reference points of modern pianism; the ephemeral bias of the presentation is the enemy of the permanent place this recording should have in the archive.
Partly as a result of repertoire-choice, there is a dimension of heroism missing or, rather, avoided; the tilt is towards ’innerness’. Pires’s Beethoven here is fluent, charming and deeply considered; it has both lightness and weight. 51 minutes might be considered short-measure. Nevertheless, there is much magic – I urge you to try it.