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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas Volume III

Sonata No.15 in D major Op. 28 – ‘Pastoral’ (1801) [22:50]
Sonata No.16 in G major Op. 31/1 (1802) [23:07]
Sonata No.18 in E flat major Op. 31/3 – ‘Hunt’ (1802) [22:45]
John O’Conor (piano - Hamburg Steinway)
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, USA, 31 October, 1-2 November 1988. DDD.
TELARC CD80185 [68:53]

Telarc are reissuing at mid-price John O’Conor’s recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, made in the late 1980s.  The named sonatas – Volume 1 (CD-80118: Moonlight, Pathétique and Appassionata Sonatas) and Volume 2 (CD-80160: Waldstein, Tempest and Les Adieux - see review) – have already appeared singly. The complete 9-CD set has been issued as a package on CD-80400, reviewed by Christopher Howell here on Musicweb in May 2007.
CH was not entirely happy with Volume 3. Though he praised the clarity and crispness of the playing in Op.31/1, he found Op.28 rather deadpan and Op.31/3 lacking in the expressiveness of many of the older generation of players.
I found O’Conor’s light and nimble playing in Op.28 just about right – neither over-expressive nor understated.  The notes in the booklet refer to the first movement as “a lyrical melody ... leisurely in its flow”, which accurately describes O’Conor’s playing.  At times I was reminded of the debt which Schubert owed to Beethoven but O’Conor is also well up to the bigger-boned sections of this movement.  He may not be as expressive as some would like, but that is preferable to spoiling this comparatively early work by over-egging the pudding.
The second movement of Op.28 was, according to Czerny, a favourite for Beethoven to play for himself.  O’Conor is perhaps a shade too brisk here, offering a fast-paced Andante at the outset, but the D-major episode is played with great felicity – an episode of Mozartian charm within the more ‘Beethovenian’ D-minor of the movement as a whole.  When D-major returns at the end with what the booklet describes as “a sinister shudder”, O’Conor is perhaps a little inclined to remind us of the perkiness and playfulness of the earlier episode.  A little more shudder would have been in order.
The Scherzo is genuinely playful, yet with plenty of power when it is called for.  I’m not sure that O’Conor’s version of the Finale evokes the work’s nickname, Pastoral(e), but, then, Beethoven never gave the sonata that or any other name.  O’Conor evokes much more the booklet’s description of the Rondo as “roll[ing] along in its elegant way”, with a “virtuosic outburst at its conclusion.”
These notes, by Steven Ledbetter, are informative and helpful, though UK readers will have to ‘translate’ such terms as “sixteenth-note” and he fails to explain why Op.31/3 is given the name ‘Hunt’.  The writer actually seems to be describing O’Conor’s performance, not just his own general concept of the works.
Op.31/1 takes us into Beethoven’s middle-period style, in which a beautiful melodic line is often sacrificed to pursue a range of alternative possibilities.  If Beethoven’s contemporaries were often as puzzled by this as most modern listeners are by today’s avant-garde, they were to be more perplexed still by his late sonatas and string quartets.
O’Conor’s performance of this sonata is just right – crisp, elegant and nimble playing in the melodious sections and equally convincing when he follows Beethoven down his more quirky side-tracks.  Overall, he makes sense of the music in a way to which even Beethoven’s contemporaries might have responded, essentially by keeping everything straight.  Only very occasionally did I feel that the playing might have been more expressive.
CH thought the second movement well balanced between grace and profundity.  I might just have preferred a little more of the latter but, as always, slight understatement is preferable to overdoing things.  Pedalling makes some of the right-hand ornamentation a little less crisp here than elsewhere; perhaps a modern Steinway is not quite the right instrument for this music.
The Finale goes well, the finger-work here seemingly crisper than in the previous movement, and the playing in general suitably vigorous.  The Hayden-esque trick ending is especially well done.
I understand what CH is looking for when he wishes for more old-fashioned generosity of phrasing in the first movement of Op.31/3 – I’m thinking especially of the Schnabel 78s from which I first got to know this sonata – but I’m not sure that that is what Beethoven wanted when he threw away so many promising melodies to pursue his excursions.  O’Conor is prepared to follow Beethoven on those excursions, however quirky.
The playing in the second movement again frequently reminded me of Schubert’s debt to Beethoven.  If O’Conor elsewhere is a little too disinclined to play affectively, the third movement, Menuetto, is the exception.  Here, without overdoing it, is really affective, even soulful, playing, as moderato e grazioso as one could wish, if, perhaps, just a trifle slow.  After this the zestful performance of the Finale comes as a real breath of fresh air.
Only occasionally in these three sonatas did I feel a slight lack of Innigkeit.  For someone beginning a collection of Beethoven sonatas, this CD would be a safe choice – at least as safe as, say, the generally dependable and slightly cheaper Jandó performances on Naxos (differently coupled).  I don’t believe that any other currently available recording offers these three sonatas.  At 68:53 (actually 68:49 according to my Arcam and Marantz CD decks and as stated in CH’s review, a minor quibble) this is a more generous coupling than the earlier Volume 1 on CD-80118.  I haven’t yet heard any of O’Conor’s recent recordings of the Beethoven concertos but this reissue leads me to have high expectations of them.
CH thought the recording somewhat inferior to other discs in the set – not entirely lacking in reverberation but of a slightly padded cell variety.  The recording certainly seems a touch dry at the outset, but the ear soon adjusts.  Despite Telarc’s usual detailed notes on the scrupulousness of the recording process, this is good-broadcast quality rather than a sonic spectacular.  I tried the CD on both my systems with satisfactory results on both.
Brian Wilson


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