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A survey of some recently released recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas
by Brian Reinhart

Recordings
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos CHAN10798 (review copy downloaded from eClassical)
Jonathan Biss on Onyx 4115 (review copy downloaded from ClassicsOnline)
James Brawn on MSR Classics MS1466
Inna Faliks on MSR Classics MS1446
Steven Masi on Concenzio Productions
Maria Perrotta on Decca 4810575
 
For full details on all six albums, please see end of review.
 
When it rains, it pours. I am currently drowning amidst no fewer than six new Beethoven sonata albums, four of them part of intended complete cycles. I’m going to list the pianists alphabetically, along with the sonatas they perform on their discs. Furthermore, whenever a pianist’s CD is discussed in the review, I’ll bold the performer’s name for easy reference. Here they are: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos (11-21), Jonathan Biss on Onyx (15, 16, 21), James Brawn on MSR (8, 14, 19-21), Inna Faliks on MSR (32), Steven Masi on CD Baby (9-10, 23, 31), and Maria Perrotta on Decca (30-32).
 
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s cycle continues with the middle sonatas, in the same stylish mode of his previous volume. His playing is still clean, graceful, and Haydnesque. Bavouzet plays Beethoven like Cary Grant does movies: a smooth cosmopolitan who remains unruffled while enlivening the party. His classical elegance and attention to long-term structural ends make the earlier sonatas in this box - think of No. 11, Op. 22, or the tiny “sonatinas” Op. 49 - especially successful.
 
That said, Bavouzet is a little more restrained than his reputation lets on. The funeral march in Op. 26 is cold, appropriately you might say, and when I listened to his readings for an hour straight, everything started to feel mechanical. A quick comparison of certain works with Murray Perahia reveals that Bavouzet’s classicism means some poetry is left out. If you think Cary Grant is a little aloof at times, well, that’s here too: Bavouzet feels restrained in places like the finale of Op. 27 No. 1 or the finale (again) of the Moonlight.
 
Jonathan Biss offers a speedy Pastoral which works so brilliantly I played it twice in a row. He doesn’t plow through it; instead it feels like he’s being lifted up, the wind under his wings. The speed isn’t nearly as important as the poetry. This is one of the best recordings Biss has made. His Op. 31 No. 1 is very much to my taste as well, but for the Waldstein, keep reading.
 
Biss, Bavouzet, and James Brawn all offer Waldstein sonatas on their discs. Biss and Brawn have broader conceptions, slower than the norm, which - in contrast to the Pastoral, for whatever reason - is how I like the piece. Bavouzet brings the sonata more in line with its predecessors.
 
I grouped these Waldstein sonatas and launched a blind “taste test” over at the Good Music Guide discussion board. The listening panel of 18 voters heard clips which included the back half of the slow movement and the first half of the finale. I also threw in clips of Emil Gilels (DG), Rudolf Serkin (now Sony), and Andrea Lucchesini (now only available on Spotify).
 
James Brawn’s Waldstein was very popular. Only one voter of 18 actually disliked it, although only two made it their top choice. Three different people compared him to Glenn Gould. “Powerful, clear left hand.” “Good rather than great, although it does grow on you.” “Sweet-toned, very even delivery.” The word “solid” came up a lot. Rudolf Serkin placed first. James Brawn placed second, and it was close. Someone speculated that Serkin and Brawn were the same person at different ages.
 
Behind him was Gilels, and then Bavouzet, whom everyone agreed was a prim, proper classicist. The word “cold” got used by both admirers and detractors. Several listeners thought he was Alfred Brendel. “Quite logical”. “Too straightforward and direct”. “The second movement comes across as too fast”, although that voter enjoyed the sample overall. Someone compared it to a “sewing machine”. Several people who like this type of reading named it their favorite.
 
Only two of my 18 listeners liked the recording by Jonathan Biss. The judges’ comments on it are rather hard to read. “No subtlety or mystery. In general, I find myself irritated”. “Hard, steely, muscular”. “Loud”. Most damningly, “Pedal everywhere. Everything is blurred, this is awful. Not even a touch of elegance, phrasing is heavy, vulgar, and nothing seems alive here. This is not piano, this is profanation”. You might like it if you appreciate “Fire, spirit, passion, and drama,” or virtuosity that earned a comparison to Marc-André Hamelin. I’ll poke my nose in to say that I prefer Biss’s reading to Bavouzet’s, although Brawn is my favorite of the trio.
 
The Waldstein is the highlight of James Brawn’s CD. That’s not to disparage any of the other performances (Pathétique, Moonlight, the two tiny sonatas Op. 49), but these interpretations grow on you slowly. They belong in the category of solid yet unspectacular, the kind a connoisseur can appreciate because Brawn never makes a poor choice. The Moonlight is distinctive for a very slow, graceful minuet; it really feels like a minuet. Rhythmic tweaks in the Pathétique call to mind my listening panel’s note that he sometimes can be a little eccentric, but in a persuasive way. Brawn is very good and clearly will improve further.
 
Inna Faliks has a limitation. She’s a very interesting artist, who here pairs the final sonata with the early Eroica Variations and then throws in two much less commonly-heard short works. I had actually never heard the Polonaise before. Her performances are distinctive, too, emphasizing the years separating early and late Beethoven. These Eroica Variations are sturdily classicized, sounding only one step removed from the late variations of Mozart and Haydn. For a grand romantic epic, turn to somebody else, like Emil Gilels on DG. On the other hand, Faliks has Sonata No. 32 pretty much under control; the first movement blazes with energy and intensity, and the arietta is almost perfect. I do so wish she hadn’t botched the trills near the end: the only blemish on a fantastic reading.
 
What’s wrong with Faliks’ album? The sound. It’s not that bad, to be fair but the microphones are very closely placed, and the acoustic is very small; you can almost hear the walls. With mikes this close to the piano, it’s hard to gauge Faliks’ skill as a colorist, or to hear the difference between loud playing and soft. If Faliks was recorded in a concert hall on a warmer piano - I don’t favor Yamahas - the results could have been great. This really is an artist who deserves better.
 
The recording engineer and producer, Joseph Patrych, has a track record of this sort of thing. Faliks’ is the fourth Beethoven sonata album engineered by Patrych that I’ve reviewed in two years. It’s also the best-made. Beth Levin’s was an engineering fiasco. Steven Masi’s Volume I was noticeably unflattering to its pianist. The sound on Steven Masi’s Volume II, out now, is limiting again.
 
Masi continues to be good. Still, he doesn’t inspire me and I don’t reach for his album with enthusiasm. At the start of Op. 110, his phrasing is clearly expressive and elegant, and his Steinway is clearly a great instrument, but the sound is glassy and grating. He also puts together a surprisingly good Appassionata, but, again, the sound-space is too constricted for the epic feel that this work requires. I sometimes hear ambient noises from the studio. If you can hear “past” the acoustic, or use your sound system to work magic, you will find rewards here.
 
I’ve saved the best surprise for last. Maria Perrotta delivers a live performance of the last three sonatas on Decca. Decca really made zero effort with this production: they did not edit out any applause after any sonata; they did not take Perrotta’s encore (by Scriabin) from the end and put it first, which would have made more musical sense; they did not even give Perrotta a biography in the booklet. This is a pity, because a Google search reveals that she once played the Goldberg Variations in concert, nine months pregnant, with an ambulance on standby in case she went into labor but boy oh boy is her playing good.
 
Like James Brawn, Perrotta never does anything wrong. Like Brawn, Perrotta has a quirk: in the first movements of both Op. 109 and Op. 110, she starts slowly, gets more excitable, and then calms back down again. She reminds me of Penelope Crawford, in that her playing is so clear, emotionally honest, and timeless-feeling. Crawford, using a gorgeous period instrument, is one of my favorite Beethoven CDs of all time. Even making the comparison is high praise. Unlike Inna Faliks, Perrotta nails the trills near the end of the final arietta, and like Faliks she comes very close to capturing all the meditative majesty of this piece. The only limitation might be an aria section in Op. 110 that takes a moment to develop the right poetry and voicing. Despite the applause and coughing, sound quality is not a major issue.
 
What do I recommend? Maria Perrotta is a huge, delightful surprise, the best of this new crop. Bavouzet is as classical and formal as you’d expect from the first volume. Biss seems to be getting better all the time; this is the best volume yet in his cycle. Be aware, though, that his Waldstein is divisive. I’m sure his Pastoral will make enemies, too. Inna Faliks can be recommended as a talent to watch, even if the album has limitations. Her debut recital included piano works by author Boris Pasternak. Steven Masi and James Brawn are good too, with Brawn’s cycle more interesting. Heck, Brawn’s cycle is at least as deserving of your attention as Bavouzet or Biss, and depending on your taste you might like him a lot more. After this review I look forward to the Brawn series more than any other. Stay tuned.
 
Brian Reinhart 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven sonatas

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Sonata No. 11, Op. 22 [24:31]
Sonata No. 12, Op. 26 [19:57] 
Sonata No. 13, Op. 27 No. 1 [15:50]
Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight,” Op. 27 No. 2 [15:54]
Sonata No. 15, “Pastoral,” Op. 28 [24:33]
Sonata No. 16, Op. 31 No. 1 [23:24]
Sonata No. 17, “Tempest,” Op. 31 No. 2 [23:06]
Sonata No. 18, Op. 31 No. 3 [22:35]
Sonata No. 19, Op. 49 No. 1 [7:33]
Sonata No. 20, Op. 49 No. 2 [7:51]
Sonata No. 21, “Waldstein,” Op. 53 [24:06]
Andante favori, WoO 57 [8:16]
rec. 16-18 January (Opp. 22-27), 4-6 June (Op. 31), 20-22 September, 2013 (Opp. 28, 49, 53, WoO 57), Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
CHANDOS CHAN 10798 [3:37:43]
 
 
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Sonata No. 15, “Pastoral,” Op. 28 [22:53]
Sonata No. 16, Op. 31 No. 1 [23:00]
Sonata No. 21, “Waldstein,” Op. 53 [24:30]
rec. 12-14 August, 2013, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
ONYX CLASSICS 4115 [70:23]
 
 
James Brawn (piano)
Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Sonata No. 8, “Pathétique,” Op. 13 [18:45]
Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight,” Op. 27 No. 2 [15:54]
Sonata No. 19, Op. 49 No. 1 [8:08]
Sonata No. 20, Op. 49 No. 2 [7:49]
Sonata No. 21, “Waldstein,” Op. 53 [25:58]
rec. 21-23 April (Moonlight) and 2-4 December, 2012, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
MSR CLASSICS MS 1466 [76:35]
 
 
Inna Faliks (piano)
Polonaise in C, Op. 89 [5:48]
Eroica Variations, Op. 35 [24:25]
Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77 [8:57]
Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 [26:23]
rec. January 2013, Yamaha Artist Services, New York City
MSR CLASSICS MS 1446 [65:34]
 
 
Steven Masi (piano)
Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 [20:12]
Sonata No. 9, Op. 14 No. 1 [15:10]
Sonata No. 10, Op. 14 No. 2 [17:15]
Sonata No. 23, “Appassionata,” Op. 57 [26:41]
rec. 30 January and 5 and 27 February, 2013, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City
CONCENZIO PRODUCTIONS (no number) [79:19]
 
 
Maria Perrotta (piano)
Sonata No. 30, Op. 109 [19:49]
Sonata No. 31, Op. 110 [20:21]
Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 [26:14]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Étude in F sharp minor, Op. 8 No. 2 [2:24]
rec. live 26 February, 2013, Aula Magna University Bocconi, Milan, Italy
DECCA 481 0575 [68:48] 


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