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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 7 in D major, Op 10/3 (1798) [24:05]
Piano Sonata No 23 in F minor, Op 57 “Appassionata” (1805) [25:51]
Piano Sonata No 31 in A-flat major, Op 110 (1821) [19:59]
Naum Grubert (piano)
rec. November 2018, Westvest 90, Schiedam, Netherlands
NAVIS NC20010 [69:55]

We frequently see young pianists record the Beethoven sonatas to prove themselves. It’s less common for artists to let them grow and think them over for a lifetime before committing their thoughts on the epic cycle to record. With this second release of what appears planned to eventually comprise a full set, Naum Grubert (b.1951) has taken the latter route, and he offers some interesting insights and instills every phrase with meaning.

As he did on the first volume, Grubert selects one sonata from each of Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods, giving variety to the listener. The relatively unheralded Sonata No 7, Op 10/3, opens with a very fluid and antic Presto. Grubert offers subtle variations of sound, making the piano seem like an organ in places. His control of touch is exemplary, with his pianissimo really being pianissimo, and not just played gently. The second movement Largo e mesto is taken at an exceedingly slow, almost funereal pace. Grubert’s gentle style works so well here, and the fortepiano strikes that punctuate the movement leave a vivid impression against this backdrop.

The third movement Menuetto is given a Mozartean music box treatment at moments, and then Grubert suddenly reminds us we are listening to Beethoven as he delivers strong contrasts and emphasizes the discords. Just before the close, it shifts into a misterioso that effectively sets up the return to the theme, but almost painfully wrought. The final Rondo is built of a halting three-note figure that inexorably builds to a dramatic conclusion that is very satisfying. Grubert manages to find sensitivity I had never considered in this youthful piece, and it’s quite remarkable.

Not everyone, however, will find the Sonata No 23, the Appassionata, entirely to their liking. Whereas most pianists take the nickname to mean “fast,” Grubert renders the sonata instead at a very slow and deliberate pace. In fact, among the forty recordings of this sonata that I have, only Sviatoslav Richter’s 1992 recording of the first movement runs longer than Grubert’s; Arrau, Gilels and Tirimo are nearly as slow, while Gulda’s version runs nearly three minutes faster. Grubert focuses on intensity rather than velocity, and one would be unlikely to be bored by his rendition. I would have liked a bit more of that intensity in the final movement, however, which does sag a little.

Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, Op 110, is to my mind one of the great mysteries of music; after forty years of listening and playing it, I admit I don’t understand it at all. Part of that may be related to the circumstances of its composition. In 1820, Beethoven had committed to delivering three sonatas to his publisher, but only managed to finish one of them (Op 109) before he took ill early in 1821. He spent the next six months suffering repeated bouts of rheumatic fever, and then in July came down with jaundice (an early sign of his failing liver) that lasted another two months. But by Christmas he had completed this sonata, which was the only significant piece he wrote during the entire year. How much of the sonata was written during his illness is unclear, and I suspect some of its strangeness may well have to do with the piece percolating in his head as he floated in and out of fever delirium.

In any event, Grubert does a fine job of making this sonata somewhat accessible to the listener. Part of his method is to treat the piece almost as if it were a vocal work, using a very cantabile style throughout. The first movement has a dreamlike quality, while the second is sprightly, if a bit off kilter. Both of these movements include foreshadowing of the Impressionists, as melodies slip away, harmonies shift and it’s difficult for the listener to get an orientation. One gets a feeling of intense mysticism and internal reflection from this performance. The final movement Adagio includes a recitative-like section that is followed by an Arioso Dolente. Grubert’s choice of treating the entire work like a vocal work is amply rewarded here, as the recitative is magnificently rendered, and the following Arioso is heart-breaking. Finally, we arrive at the conclusion, a sprawling and complicated but still singing fugue that alternates between aiming for heaven and falling into earthly despair. While Beethoven’s mysteries here remain inscrutable, Grubert does manage to shed some light on them.

The recording quality is excellent, with solid and clean sound. The shadings of volume, particularly on crescendos, are communicated with subtlety and strength.

Mark S. Zimmer

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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