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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Overture in the French Style in B minor, BWV 831 [26:47]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 No. 1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ [16:11]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’ [24:50]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Siciliano, from Flute Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, BWV 1031 [3:53]
Largo, from Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056 [3:20]
Andrew von Oeyen (piano)
rec. September 2020, CitÚ de la Musique et de la Danse GrandSoissons, Soissons, France
WARNER CLASSICS 9029502051 [75:14]

Andrew von Oeyen signed for Warner Classics in 2016; this, his third release for the label, is an album of solo piano works and transcriptions, pairing short works by J. S. Bach - often piano transcriptions - with Beethoven piano sonatas. This programme makes total sense, as it provides striking contrasts between music of the late-Baroque and the early-Romantic eras.

Born in the USA to parents of German and Dutch origin, von Oeyen was only five years old when he started piano lessons in Los Angeles. Prodigiously talented, he was only ten when he made his solo orchestral debut. His studies took him to New York City both at Columbia University and later the Juilliard School and he made a notable debut as a sixteen-year-old soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. Among his music prizes are the Gilmore Young Artist Award (1999) and first prize in the Leni Fe Bland Foundation National Piano Competition (2001). Before the coronavirus pandemic, he had been undertaking a busy international schedule of recitals and concerts with renowned orchestras, visiting many of the greatest concert halls in the world. 

Von Oeyen’s debut release for Warner in 2017 was a well-received, Franco-American themed programme supported by the PKF - Prague Philharmonia under Emmanuel Villaume. It comprises of piano concertos by Saint-SaŰns and Ravel, shorter concertante works, the Gershwin Second Rhapsody and as a bonus track Massenet’s MÚditation from Tha´s in von Oeyen’s own solo piano transcription. Released in 2018, his second Warner album also consists of French works by Ravel, Debussy and Bizet, with the same Prague orchestra and conductor Villaume. Von Oeyen’s contribution to the album is Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (revised version), a work that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

For this his third Warner album, von Oeyen has handpicked a programme of J.S. Bach and Beethoven that stems from his experiences of living through the coronavirus lockdown. During the first lockdown, he came to realise that he gained strength from playing Bach, coming to believe that ‘[p]erhaps more than any other composer, Bach expresses the clearest sense of order in a chaotic world’. Next, von Oeyen explains that ‘If Bach served as my first musical mooring in confinement, I returned to Beethoven for second-wave pandemic relief… Crises, for all their destructiveness, can also lead to renewal and discovery.’

The first work on the album is J.S. Bach’s Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 which is an eight-movement suite or partita, published in 1735 together with the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 as the second part of his Clavier-▄bung II. Von Oeyen has revealed that he studied Bach’s works at music college, yet prior to the covid pandemic had scarcely ever performed Bach and did not consider himself a Bach authority, yet in this performance of the French Overture, von Oeyen gives a splendidly engaging and pretension-free interpretation that I find entirely commendable. One senses that Von Oeyen is relishing the mixture of cathartic and comforting qualities with the restorative and rejuvenating potential he finds in the score. Listening to von Oeyen’s account of the French Overture has given me considerable satisfaction and I will certainly play it again. Although I have never really settled on a definitive first choice recording of the French Overture, if pushed, I would probably opt for Angela Hewitt’s captivating account from 2000 at Henry Wood Hall, London on Hyperion.

Beethoven’s group of piano sonatas, composed between 1782 and 1822, numbers thirty-five including the three early piano Sonatas, WoO 47. On this album, von Oeyen has opted to play a pair of piano sonatas composed some four years apart. The first work chosen is the four movement Piano Sonata No. 13, Op. 27/1, one of two sonatas from 1801 subtitled ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (sonata in the manner of a fantasy). Although not played here, its much-loved counterpart the Sonata No. 14, Op. 27/2 has become renowned as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. Von Oeyen adopts a naturally assured and rather urbane approach to his playing of the Piano Sonata No. 13 ‘Quasi una fantasia’. He imbues it with a curiously liturgical feeling which is especially perceptible in the opening movement. Undaunted by the contrasting weights of the Scherzo movement, von Oeyen uncovers an undertow of foreboding and an aching sorrow in the Adagio con espressione.

For the second piano sonata, von Oeyen has chosen one of the peaks of the piano repertoire, the celebrated Piano Sonata No. 23, Op. 57. Written around 1804/05, the three-movement masterpiece is famously known as the ‘Appassionata’ (meaning “passionate” in Italian) an evocative name given by a publisher. Beethoven himself considered it to be his greatest sonata; it might be described as Beethoven voicing his intense rage at his life and von Oeyen takes in his stride the technical and emotional complexities of the score, displaying admirably relentless drive in the opening Allegro assai and generating a sense of peril. Serving as a calm and secure anchorage between stormy seas, the middle movement Andante con moto, a reflective theme and set of four variations, is lovingly played at a pace which is measured yet sufficient to prevent any lifelessness. Described as a ‘torrent’ by Beethoven specialist Denis Matthews, the Finale sees von Oeyen produce bold, determined impressively turbulent playing. 

My first choice from the Beethoven discography of the Piano Sonata No. 13 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ is Maurizio Pollini’s highly accomplished account from 1991 on the Herkulessaal, Munich, on Deutsche Grammophon. For the Piano Sonata No. 23 ‘Appassionata’ I have a long-held preference for Wilhelm Kempff’s penetrating account, recorded in 1964 in the Beethoven-Saal, Hannover, also on the famous yellow label.

Von Oeyen closes the album with two further J.S. Bach works, both piano transcriptions prepared by Wilhelm Kempff. The first is the Siciliano from the Sonata for flute and harpsichord in Eb Major, BWV 1031 (attributed to Bach) and the second is the Largo from the Concerto No. 5 for harpsichord, strings and basso in F minor, BWV 1056. Although both are short in duration, von Oeyen takes Kempff’s beautiful transcriptions entirely seriously, lavishing them with the utmost care and attention.

I certainly respond to Andrew von Oeyen’s playing here, especially his predilection for precision and clarity. There are recordings of the Beethoven sonatas which provide more cut-and-thrust and emotional depth than von Oeyen but there is vitality and strength here, even if it is more controlled. Whilw von Oeyen is nowhere near as experienced a Beethovenian as, say, Kempff or Pollini, he is a serious-minded, cultivated player. One senses that he is developing an understanding of the music’s structure and Beethoven’s many faceted intentions. He seems to savour each individual detail but rarely at the expense of line and phrasing. He has not yet developed Kempff’s and Pollini’s remarkable feeling for nuance and tone colour, but he has the gift of communicating easily with the listener. Of course, there is more than one way of playing Beethoven and von Oeyen’s fresh, sincere playing certainly engages me, yet to equal Kempff and Pollini, who drill down to the emotional core of the works, von Oeyen must plumb greater depths.

The engineering team has achieved clarity and balance; von Oeyen’s Steinway piano produces a simply glorious tone. Recording producer Michael Fine has written a forward in the booklet and von Oeyen has provided an essay about his personal relationship with the music of Bach and Beethoven but which explains little about the works themselves.

Maurizio Pollini and Wilhelm Kempff remain my first choices in this pair of Beethoven sonatas. Nonetheless, Andrew von Oeyen has recorded a very fine album deserving of attention.

Michael Cookson

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