Ludwig van Beethoven
CD Number: Analekta FL 2 3187
Last month I heard Kuerti's Hammerklavier at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, a performance that divided the critics for the two local rags. The Globe & Mail correspondent was spellbound while the Toronto Star's critic trashed the performance. What gives? Truth be told, Kuerti's performance involved fistfuls of errors, which clearly upset some present, but the playing brought to life the titanic struggle between powerful forces, especially in the fourth movement fugue. This was dangerous playing, and it had me on the edge of my seat. Kuerti risked everything, never letting the limitations of his technique interfere with the musical picture he set out to paint. This was a great performance, albeit flawed.
After the concert, I spoke to Mr. Kuerti and bought this CD and another, which he signed in broad strokes. This disc is a new release on the Analekta label, recorded in June 2003 at the Willowdale United Church, which I pass on my way to work. The sound is clear but rather too clinical for my liking, with little sense of space or warmth. It also fails to capture the enormous dynamic range, thunderous bass and tremendous attack that Kuerti brought to live performance.
In the extensive liner notes, Kuerti writes, "No other sonata matches the heroic ecstasy of its opening movement, the profundity and sorrow of its Adagio, or the dizzying complexity of its last movement Fugue. It thrusts instrument and performer to the limit of their capabilities — and perhaps beyond, as it probes those frontiers of music where the genial borders on the deranged."
Sadly, Kuerti's new disc does not bring the same intensity or pace that thrilled me so recently. The first two movements are well played, up-tempo and well nuanced. The third movement is taken at a slow pace, but he does not sustain the impetus and it leaves the impression of a series of passages rather than the organic development this movement craves. In the finale we have some superb fugal playing, but some flat, uninvolving slower passages as well.
Kuerti continues, "Some performers try to observe [Beethoven's metronome markings], but it is like trying to play the Minute Waltz in 60 seconds; the music simply does not wish to go so fast, and it becomes impossible to hear the magnificent details which are so abundantly present."
I must disagree with him here, since this movement is successfully played much faster on a number of other recordings. Maurizio Pollini takes 12m12s, Solomon 12m24s, Brendel 12m33s, Horszowski 11m27s, while Kuerti runs all of 13m24s. I don't feel the others are missing the required detail, and I miss the excitement they bring.
I heartily concur with Kuerti's assessment of the profound nature of this work, and it has drawn the very best out of some of the greatest pianists over the years, starting with Artur Schnabel in 1935 [EMI LP HMV Treasury RLS 758]. His is a superb performance that, like Kuerti's live concert, throws caution to the winds. The slow movement in particular engages the full measure of Schnabel's colossal intellect. The sound is fair for the vintage, the engineers in no doubt about the historical significance of this project, the first complete recording of the Beethoven cycle.
One of Kuerti's teachers was Mieczyslav Horszowski, and his 1951 recording can be found in a Vox Box [Vox CDX2 5500]. This is a smaller scale performance and offers profound insights, but it fails to reach the heights of Schnabel's powerful playing. Yet one performer in my collection not only matches Schnabel's insights, but also excels through the greater virtuosity he brings to the task. Solomon [EMI Classics 077776470825], recorded in 1952 at the height of his sadly abbreviated career, brings every quality to the task. Fingers of steel, a mighty intellect, a singing tone, quicksilver reflexes and sheer poetry combine to penetrate the mystery of this music. Kuerti's new disc sounds cautious and meandering where Solomon is direct and flowing. Solomon can play slower than anyone, as he does in the adagio sostenuto, and yet there is an impetus within every bar, subtleties abound, and he creates a great tension which he ultimately releases in the concluding fugue.
Solomon's recordings, which also include Opp. 90, 101, 109, 110 and 111, date from before the stereo era and offer acceptable sound. If you are looking for great performances with sound to match, consider Alfred Brendel's live 1995 disc [Philips 446093-2]. Here he offers his third recording of the Hammerklavier, and all three are excellent in their own ways. This particular performance is full of well sprung rhythms and has a satisfying natural flow. Brendel conceals the intellectual process while plunging the depths as well as any.
The second work on Kuerti's program is the A Major sonata, Opus 101. The first three movements are taken at a steady pace and Kuerti presents the music in a clear, tasteful manner. This is a poetic reading, with subtle changes in intonation and pace to underline his interpretation. The impression is of an artist constructing his performance note by note. But the fourth movement is a disappointment. Here Kuerti slows down the music when it needs to race with excitement. He plays this movement in 9m14s, while Brendel takes 8m1s and Solomon just 7m7s. My problem is not only with the tempo, but also with the deliberate nature of his phrasing, which lacks the spring that Brendel and Solomon bring to the rhythms. They also outshine Kuerti in the dynamic range they offer. On the plus side, Kuerti's tone is clear and bold, and he makes it easy to follow all the fugal voices in the development.
This disc misses my recommended list, but if you get the chance to see Kuerti live in recital, go for it. He has important things to say in this music. His live performances, warts and all, go much further in capturing the demonic and passionate nature of this transcendental music.