Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, and Diabelli Variations
Anton Kuerti, Piano  [Analekta FL 2 4010]

Russell Lichter

January 2005

                                                                                                             Two or three times a year I like to listen to all the Beethoven piano sonatas, often in a single day. I have, and have had, a number of complete sets; Wilhelm Kempff, Robert Silverman, Jenö Jandó, Artur Schnabel; as well various individual sonatas played by Sviatoslav Richter, Ernst Levy, Michel Block. To some this may seem like a lot of sonatas, but if you check Amazon, you will discover there are dozens of complete sets, which I’ve never heard, as well as countless performances of individual sonatas I’ve also never heard: Annie Fischer, Charles Rosen, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Claudio Arrau, Emmanuel Ax, Maurizio Pollini, Vladamir Ashkenazy, Emil Gilels, Artur Rubinstein, Martha Argerich…okay, I’ll stop. The Beethoven sonatas are the most important piano music ever written, covering a stupendous range of emotion and spirit and style, with both passion and honesty. I was very excited to receive this set, and the succeeding months spent listening to (and marveling at) Kuerti’s playing have fully justified that excitement.

Live recordings often have a quality of spontaneity and presence lacking in most studio recordings. Sometimes, I’d swear, the excitement of the musicians as they perform for a live audience is palpable. I tend to brighten when I note that a new CD was recorded live. But what many live recordings of solo piano music lack (as those of us who admire Sviatoslav Richter know only too well) is clarity and detail. The emotion, even the dynamics, may come through, but often the subtle play of voices and tone color, the wonderful ringing overtones of the piano strings, are lost to poor recording conditions, acoustics, equipment, microphone placement, audience members suffering from terminal cough. Any audiophile will admit, performance is not quite everything: the quality of the recording, its clear and realistic rendering of detail and nuance and venue, count too. This is an area where the Kuerti set succeeds brilliantly. For these recordings the engineers appear to have placed the microphones close to the back of the piano. The bass notes are over to the right, the treble over to the left; and the voices, the tonal detail, the inner texture of the music, are stable, precise and clear. It is an intimate and eminently revealing setup. I have been unable to obtain information confirming microphone placement and so forth. Also several of the sonatas seem to have been recorded at a larger venue with noticeable reverberation.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a complete set of Beethoven sonatas that is equally exciting and satisfying throughout. I have long accepted that sets of anything have to be taken warts and all, and one must decide for oneself if the good outweighs the not so good. Take Wilhelm Kempff’s recording of the complete sonatas on Deutsche Gramophone. This is a very “highly regarded” set, as they say, yet most of the time the playing seems to me a staid, traditional (and safe) approach to Beethoven. But there are surprises. Individual movements are sometimes brilliant, and sometimes quite the opposite of brilliant. (One is supposed to admire Kempff’s playing, after all it’s a “classic” performance. I’m never quite at ease when a “classic” performance leaves me unmoved or confused. Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m missing something? Or are the emperor’s new clothes a matter of personal taste?)

I can,” is the motto of the great artist. Over time the traditional becomes the reactionary, till along comes the artist to shatter our preconceptions. This sometimes shocking originality either convinces us (ultimately) or it does not. When it does, it produces an almost irrational joy in one, as if this particular 4¾” plastic disc were a treasure greater than pearls of the orient. This artist has seen what other’s have not, and by combining skill, musicianship and conviction, has convinced us of the validity of his perspective. Have I taken the time necessary? Have I kept my heart and mind open, and acquired the perceptual and conceptual tools necessary to understand? And having understood, is it worthwhile after all? Every work of art, every performance, asks these questions.

Anton Kuerti’s set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on the Analekta label is far and away the most interesting and thought provoking I’ve heard. My respect for his playing, my awe and delight, continue to grow each time I listen. Kuerti has obviously thought long and hard about these sonatas. The performances are never rote, never tired, often strikingly original. In a previous review (of a Brahms sonata), I likened Mr Kuerti to an explorer or adventurer, with an eye for discovery. Although some of the sonatas are played in a “traditional” manner, many (perhaps most) are not, employing an unusually slow tempo, or an unexpected delicacy and finesse, or the slightest hint of rubato, quite unprecedented in my experience. Not that Mr Kuerti is shy of the traditional sturm und drang approach to Beethoven. (The Diabelli Variations, included with the set, is an absolute hair-raiser.) The pianism throughout is marvelous, strong and sure. I love the originality, the intelligence, and I especially love the voicing. Kuerti gives the left-hand articulateness, nuance and clarity that put it on an equal footing with the right hand. This not just unusual, it is revelatory. At times one partakes of a sort of marvelous dialogue between the hands. There is never a moment of doubt, either about the pianist’s certainty or his musicianship. This is the big league, brilliant technique combined with intelligence and original insight.

I’ve chosen to comment on only a few sonatas. This is no reflection on the performance of the others; it is only due to practical considerations. Not just the constraints of space, but being musically untrained, I resort to the language of emotion, and one soon runs out of adjectives (or, at least, vocabulary). I skirt the edge of the late sonatas, but I do not go there. What words could be even remotely adequate for the final three?

Op. 2, No. 1: Charles Rosen (Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion, Yale University Press) writing of the three sonatas comprising Opus 2 notes their, “[f]ormal patterns typical of Mozart and followed by techniques learned from Haydn.” One can readily hear these influences. Yet, even in these early works there is a striking individuality, and many of the spiritual qualities I find so compelling in the later works are here too. Opus 2, No. 1 is, within limits, as profound as the performer’s conception of the music, and Kuerti’s conception is admirable. Hidden emotional depths that many other performers miss, Kuerti patiently explores, moderated by the intelligence and balance that characterize his playing. The Adagio is introspective, delicate, an emotional sojourn of unexpected proportions. No less is the succeeding Minuetto: Allegretto. The final movement, Prestissimo, demonstrates Beethoven’s characteristic ability to create an emotional storm of unique honesty and heartfulness, employing the driest stick of a theme. Kuerti is able to balance this level of energy within the confines of the formal structure inherited from Mozart like I’ve never heard before.

Op. 27, No. 2: the Moonlight. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this sonata in the course of my life. Lots. The typical indulgent, rubato-ridden interpretations of the Adagio sustenuto wore thin for me decades ago. I almost never listened to it, never took it seriously. But for Kuerti, this old chestnut is quite the opposite of hackneyed. In his excellent notes he calls it “[o]ne of Beethoven’s most abstract creations…” He notes how this unlikely candidate for fame has become over-romanticized and over-dramatized, “…yet it’s greatest effect comes when performed with the utmost subtlety and restraint.” (Beethoven himself wrote, “…the entire Adagio is to be played with the utmost delicacy.”) Kuerti avoids the staccato traditionally applied to the dotted rhythm of the main theme, lengthening the note so that it falls just after the third beat, rather than as a sort of grace note to the first beat in the next measure. Lacking the dreamy romanticism of most performances, it is a wonderfully delicate window into a refined emotional landscape. The Allegretto (a movement I have never before cared for) is impeccably voiced and structured, a perfect and lucid gem. Kuerti’s playing reveals the organic relationship of the movements, culminating in the Presto, the most remarkable of the three movements. There is, here as elsewhere in this set, a confident balance between intelligence and passion: I’ve never heard this movement so thrillingly played. In fact Kuerti’s whole approach to this sonata makes it not only fresh and exciting, but shows just how serious and important it is in Beethoven’s oeuvre. This is crucial: it is Kuerti’s understanding of this music that makes his performance so uniquely valuable.

Op. 101. The later piano sonatas are increasingly emotionally complex, and increasingly delve beyond the veil of emotions into the realm of spirit. And the later works also make unprecedented demands of the pianist, not necessarily in terms of technical difficulty, but in terms of wisdom, of the quality of heart and of mind. One simply cannot adequately play what one does not understand. (This why such music performed by the latest genius-du-jour of the music establishment fails so profoundly.) Kuerti’s handling of the first movement (Etwas lebhaft und mit der inningsten Empfindung, which Rosen translates, somewhat lively and with the most intimate sentiment) is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Indeed, it is an experience so multifaceted and intense that I sometimes stop the CD player at its conclusion, to allow my emotions time to percolate and resolve. This is followed by a march, which, to my untutored ear, has some of the qualities I love about the Grosse fuge from the B-flat string quartet: energetic nobility interwoven with profound implication. Kuerti plays the following Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll (slow and full of yearning) with deep emotion, but without emotionality. It is one of those miraculous slow movements of Beethoven, albeit a brief one, of almost unbearable depth and honesty. This introduction flows without pause into the final Geschwinde, doch nicht zu sehr, und mit Entscholssenheit. Here again is tremendous energy, but Kuerti takes it at a slower-than-typical tempo. Nothing, no detail or nuance, must be missed. This seems to me not simply a matter of taste, but of coherence with the three preceding movements. Here the energetic qualities of the second movement bloom in a full fugal development; this movement is indeed a flight (Latin, fugere) in the deepest sense.

Beethoven once said, He who understands my music will be free of the suffering of the world. In the hands of a master like Anton Kuerti, this is eminently true. For the duration of the performance, particularly of the later works, one is indeed free of the sufferings, the fears and terrors, than bind us to the quotidian world.