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Beethoven in February (Pizarro, Aimard/Harnoncourt, Reid
& Schnabel)

Live at St John's, Smith Square/ Royal Festival Hall/ Blackheath Halls
CDs: LINN CKD 209 & Teldec Classics 0927 47334-2;
+ Schnabel Vol.4 on Naxos Historical 8.110756Naxos Historical 8.110693 & 8.110756
Beethoven's piano music appeared in various guises this month, live and on CD. Artur Pizarro, the Leeds first prizewinner in 1990, is a pianist to whose playing I have had disconcertingly mixed responses since then. To anticipate his complete sonatas cycle at St John's Smith Square, he gave us a CD calling card, recordings of the ever-popular Moonlight, Tempest, Pathetique and Appassionata Sonatas played on a specially selected warm-toned Blüthner, 'more nimble and transparent' than a normal 20th grand. This offered him 'something different, ridiculously expressive, and old-fashioned'. I was swept along, captivated at first hearing by its élan, even though some speeds were questionable and too fast to allow much detailed articulation or thought along the way.

But Artur Pizarro's launch of his Beethoven piano sonatas cycle, all 8 recitals being recorded by Radio 3, was disappointing after high expectations had been raised by his new CD.

At his first appearance at St John's, on a standard Steinway, he seemed to take little account of the uniqueness of each of the early sonatas he chose for this auspicious event (op.2/1, 13, 14/2 & 22), nor did some of his extreme speeds and pedalling allow for the acoustics there, not-easy for piano (I listened in three different parts of the hall).

The magic did not materialise. A piano recital cycle is a hazardous enterprise, the solo pianist alone and vulnerable at all stages from score to brain, memory and fingers and possible imponderables on the night. I have previously found Pizarro a strangely uneven pianist, and on this evening his playing sounded untidy and unengaged.

St John's is a famously good broadcasting and recording venue, but listening to the piano there can be problematic. From front non-keyboard side (often the best for sound) the tone sounded harsh and uncomfortably loud in Beethoven's first sonata, and even slightly distorted in a mysterious way. Elsewhere in the hall, the general tone quality was acceptable, but clarity was submerged by over-pedalling.

The series runs throughout the year, with all being broadcast on Radio 3, and maybe listeners at home will find themselves favoured - there is an illuminating interview with Arturo Pizarro about the project on the BBC website. It will be interesting to discover as the cycle develops whether Pizarro grows in confidence with familiarity with the venue and the instrument.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard was persuaded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt to perform and record the Beethoven concertos and forsake temporarily his preference to 'do something useful - - for music not found in the catalogues, especially of our own time'. Both are musicians to make you think anew about whatever they perform. Harnoncourt transforms a modern orchestra by introducing period style and timbres, and his live performances recorded in Graz June 2001-2002 are as fresh as new paint, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe revelling in their collaboration with these two keen musical minds, both approaching these famous works 'as if they were waiting to be discovered, with freshness and an absence of preconceived notions', the piano integrated into the orchestra rather than 'primarily serving the soloist's ego'.

Definitely a 'must buy' release, even if you have several contending versions already.

Less persuasive was the third concerto live at RFH, with LPO/Ingo Metzmacher. I suspect a disproportionate amount of rehearsal time went to preparing a powerful account of Shostakovich's bleak and uncompromising 4th Symphony, and the accompaniment to the Beethoven Concerto No 3 was no more than routine. Aimard had shone in his true colours earlier in the month with the LSO in a coruscating account of Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques, and the world premiere of a new major work for solo piano composed for him in 2001, George Benjamin's 15 mins Shadowlines; a continuous sequence of six movements derived from Benjamin's individual treatment of the canon, that underlying constructive principle sometimes elusive at first hearing. Always absorbing, and compelling as played by its dedicatee, Shadowlines demands rehearing - a second performance during the same concert would have been more rewarding than a new work by Jonathan Cole which was quickly forgotten, and a sight of the score to grasp its sectional structure might be helpful.

Finally a recital which drew only a score of people to Blackheath Halls, with its convivial 'salon' atmosphere (tables, and drinks from the bar encouraged).

A BBC Young Musicians finalist, Helen Reid has developed into a thoughtful pianist who had exactly the measure of the Bösendorfer, the Recital Room's acoustics recently improved with a curtain behind the platform. Irresistible, a piano recital programme which began with Beethoven's delectable Op 126 Bagatelles, and its second half with the gentle Op 17 Mazurkas of Chopin. These were given with utmost sensitivity and attention to detail, comparable with accounts by the most prestigious of famous pianists. Only at the end, in Chopin's Fantasie Op 49, was there a little slackening of concentration; I am sure she has played it better and will do so again, perhaps with the staccato march section first time at a steadier tempo? Cecilia McDowall's three short pieces grew from passages in Monteverdi's Vespers, Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty and Scott Joplin's Solace, and made a good recital item in an idiom which would not put off people who don't think they like modern music. The centre piece of the recital was the challenging Black Mass sonata of Scriabin (1872-1915), formerly a rarity (the composer was superstitious and afraid to play it; c.f. The Scriabin Webring: - The Ninth Sonata, op. 68, Scriabin's Black Mass, was absolutely frightening - . Helen Reid's commanding performance showed that she is fully equal to the pianistic and intellectual demands of advanced modern music of any period.


*** Beethoven Moonlight, Tempest, Pathetique and Appassionata Sonatas (Artur Pizarro) LINN CKD 209

***** Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5 (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt)
Teldec Classics 0927 47334-2

**** BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas Vol.4: Schnabel
Naxos Historical 8.110756 etc

Do not overlook the magisterial Schnabel recordings, remastered and now being re-released on Naxos Historical at £4.99 - you can listen to them on the Naxos website.

I am enjoying these immensely, bringing back memories of youth and playing them on 78s at school in the '40s, changing sides after each movement. It is not clear whether Schnabel played Steinways? If so, his pianos sound to have a lighter touch than more modern ones? The restrictions of recording in the '30s have a paradoxical advantage, focussing attention on the essence of the music itself, rather than the wonders of state-of-the-art recording of today. You quickly forget the background noise, and may well feel that these accounts from 1932-34 leave little for younger generations of pianists to add? They are benchmark performances which put in perspective most newcomers who feel an urge to perpetuate 'their Beethoven'.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf