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Dunelm Records

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Piano Sonatas, Volume 1
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 "Pathétique" (1798)
Sonata No. 9 in E major, Op. 14, No. 1 (1799)
Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14, No. 2 (1799)
Sonata No. 24 in F sharp minor, Op. 78 (1809)
Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a "Les adieux" (1809-10)
Bagatelle WoO 56 (1804)
Murray McLachlan, piano
Recorded at Whiteley Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, Summer 2003

This is the first entry of Murray McLachlan’s traversal of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas for Dunelm Records. It represents a decided departure from the 20th century repertoire that dominates his many other recordings. Needless to say, McLachlan is entering a field of fierce competition ranging from legends such as Schnabel and Richter to future legends including Pollini and Barenboim.

On the basis of this first volume, McLachlan’s cycle promises to be highly rewarding without staking out any particular niche in the catalogues. His are fine mainstream performances idiomatic of the composer’s soundworld. Tempos are well within the usual boundaries, rhythmic patterns are those we expect, and McLachlan always conveys the appropriate emotional themes.

Most appealing is the rugged nature of McLachlan’s music-making. He eschews any trace of suaveness and the cosmopolitan environment, giving listeners a taste of basic humanity and primitive urges. His approach, one that I feel corresponds to Beethoven’s personality, is often compelling and steeped in the juices of life. Whether it is a playful melody, poignant refrain or aggressive declaration, McLachlan nails each quality in convincing fashion. Textures are lean, and the piano sound is placed slightly toward the rear of the soundstage. However, McLachlan’s tension is admirable, and power is amply provided when necessary.

Those of you familiar with Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas will notice from the heading that the program of Volume 1 features Beethoven’s playful and exuberant side except for the "Pathétique" where desperation and tremendous tension often reside. McLachlan’s performance of the "Pathétique" is an excellent one. In the outer movements, McLachlan offers abundant excitement as he conveys Beethoven’s most aggressive utterances, while the 2nd Movement Adagio is attractively poignant and delivered with confidence. McLachlan does not whip up the primitive turbulence offered by Annie Fischer on Volume 2 of her Beethoven series on Hungaroton, but he isn’t far behind.

The two Opus 14 Sonatas were composed shortly after the "Pathétique" and dedicated to the amateur pianist Baroness de Braun. Both works are primarily of good cheer and are compact and exuberant. The Sonata in E major begins with a good natured Allegro in sonata-form followed by the 2nd Movement Allegretto offering fine mystery and lilting phrases; the work concludes with the 3rd Movement Rondo that is quite exhilarating and demonstrative. McLachlan is consistently slower than Rudolf Buchbinder in his exceptional version for Teldec. The slower tempo pays some dividends in enhancing the Allegretto’s mysterious nature, but it diminishes the exuberance of the Rondo. Overall, I remain faithful to Buchbinder, but McLachlan is a fine alternative.

McLachlan also does well by the zesty Sonata in G major that has a wonderful 2nd movement Andante dominated by broken march-like chordal patterns. I must admit that Emil Gilels on Deutsche Grammophon can’t be beat for his superb sonorities and balance of voice interaction, but McLachlan delightfully captures the work’s basic themes including the playful nature of the 3rd movement Scherzo.

McLachlan plays the remaining two piano sonatas in an invigorating fashion, although he will not dislodge current favorites. The Op. 78 Sonata is in the two-movement form Beethoven used for a few of his piano sonatas. In each of them, one movement is relatively spacious and lyrical while the other is dynamic, sharper and more aggressive. In the Op. 78 Sonata, the 2nd movement Allegro vivace is particularly impetuous and filled with surprise and mischievous passages. McLachlan well conveys these qualities, although he does not muster the music’s excitement as convincingly as Alfred Brendel’s 1994 version on Philips. In the "Les Adieux" Sonata, which gives us a Beethoven tribute to Archduke Rudolph, McLachlan finds an attractive blend of hard-driving momentum and lyricism in the outer movements.

McLachlan concludes his program with the miniature Bagatelle WoO 56. Although of little substance, the piece does generate interest with its contrapuntal devices and left-hand scale runs.

Summing up, Volume 1 of Murray McLachlan’s survey of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas represents a fine effort fully competitive with most other versions on the market. He uniformly strikes the appropriate emotional moods and does so with minimal use of the pedals and a keen sense of Beethoven’s view of the world. I would heartily suggest investigation into McLachlan’s series. Although there is nothing astounding or revelatory to be found, the pianist offers highly idiomatic performances without any of the perfume often possessed by other pianists in this repertoire.

Don Satz


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