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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Six Bagatelles, Op.126
Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op.109
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op.110
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op.111
Interview with Badura-Skoda
Paul Badura-Skoda (piano)
rec. 15 October 2017, Golden Hall, Musikverein, Vienna
Video PAL, Format 16:9, Region Code 0, Audio 2.0 stereo
GRAMOLA DVD 20002 [81:22]

Paul Badura-Skoda’s 90th birthday in 2017 was marked by some excellent restorations from his back catalogue, not least DG’s multi-disc box set, the contents of which were selected by the pianist himself. From 15 October of that year comes this video presentation of his recital in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in the city of his birth, Vienna.

If one had expected the nonagenarian to take things easy one would have reckoned without his rigorous intellect, and his appetite to perform some of the greatest of all music on this, of all occasions - the three last Beethoven sonatas. Opening the concert with the six Bagatelles may be seen as a charming entrée but in point of fact, despite their essentially good-humoured disposition, they represent a decided challenge, and are, in fact, Beethoven’s last solo piano works.

He walks on to great applause in conventional formal concert dress but a decidedly informal multi-coloured headgear. It’s certainly not the kind of arrnagment worn by Joe Zawinul, his fellow Viennese pianist contemporary, which was plain stripes. It adds a genial, eccentric and somewhat grandfatherly element to his appearance. The long shots are clearly from a single camera prone to be a little unsteady. In fact, the film itself throughout is not ideally clear; it’s certainly not of the professional standard that one might have hoped for. Definition is somewhat lacking and whilst colours don’t bleed, it’s all slightly underwhelming, especially in a hall as golden and burnished as this one.

Still, it is a chance to see and hear – the sound is reasonable but not outstanding – one of the finest pianists of his generation, even at so advanced an age, in a truly heavyweight recital. The hand crossings in the first Bagatelle cause no problems and he illustrates the music’s geniality, and very occasional cloudy paragraphs, with poise. He plays Op.109 at a fine tempo though it inevitably lacks something of the weight and intensity – in the second movement, in a couple of the variations of the finale – that he would have brought in years past. There’s a fade to black between the second and third movements, possibly because he paused excessively (it’s hard to say) but it saps tension. There are also a couple of tricksy split screen shots in the variations; a normal shot from the back of the stage out into the audience – the principal manner of shooting the recital – with a shot just of his hands at the right-hand side of the screen. This kind of directorial contrapuntalism either works or falls flat on its face. I tend to find it annoying, feeling myself turn into Marty Feldman as I try to watch both images simultaneously.

There’s more of this in Op.110 – a colour shot and a black and white one in a kind of Edwardian oval frame – but the playing itself is full of repose and wisdom. I’ve not mentioned his technique which is remarkably resilient. There is a brief instability in the Fuga but hardly anything at all; the focus is concentrated wholly inward, but there is no self-regard in his projection. Op.111 concludes the recital, a gauntly impressive reading where one can just hear Badura-Skoda’s murmurings, not least in the Arietta. The shots through the pianist into the audience and split-screening continue here too.

There’s a six-minute interview with Badura-Skoda (in German) as a bonus in which he talks about his use of the Bosendörfer here, and about the selection of his programme, which he calls a kind of ‘abschied für piano’. There’s a brief segment where he plays part of the opening of the Moonlight sonata.

The gatefold presentation houses programme notes in German and English, written by the pianist.

Longevity of itself hardly confers distinction, except perhaps in matters of endurance. Few allowances need be made for Badura-Skoda in this recital and those who wish to watch his still remarkable mechanism, and his still more musically developed imagination and reach, will find this concert of real interest. But they ought also to bear in mind the rather limited nature of the camera work and consequent lack of clarity.

Jonathan Woolf



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