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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 7, op. 10 no. 3 in D major (1798) [24:04]
Piano Sonata No. 23, op. 57 in F minor (1804/5) [25:52]
Piano Sonata No. 31, op. 110 in A flat major (1821) [19:59]
Naum Grubert (piano)
rec. Westvest 90, Schiedam, the Netherlands
NAVIS CLASSICS NC20010 [69:55]

This recording follows on from a previous album from Naum Grubert, NC14002 (review) which similarly has the attraction of three contrasting sonatas from Beethoven’s early, middle and late periods. This approach gives each disc a satisfying, self-contained feel, and with the three works placed in chronological order in this case the circle is even more complete. In the past I have been involved with the booklet notes for these recordings, and I did indeed work on a commission to generate some interview style content for this one, but for this recording Naum took off on his own and has written substantial, informative and uniquely personal notes on each sonata. One of the side-effects of this was that I was privileged to receive an early edit of the recording so I have been living with it for a while now, but questions on interpretation with this artist rarely come easy. The reason for this is that his approach is basically that of faithful adherence to Beethoven’s scores - by no means in a mechanical or unimaginative way but, as Jonathan Woolf put it in his review of the previous CD, these recordings capture “the playing of a thoughtful, experienced, devoted musician unconcerned with excess gestures.” These performances are both deeply personal and relatively self-effacing, resulting in an alchemy that puts us close to Beethoven while at the same time drawing us in to Grubert’s view on the works, through which “a whole universe appears to unfold within each sonata, arranging the infinite variety and drama of life in a rigorous and cohesive order.”

Just to pick out a few highlights, the Largo e mesto second movement of Op. 10 No. 3 is representative of this confluence between composer and artist, seen as it is by Grubert as “a poem of sorrow, indescribable in words. This is one of Beethoven’s most tragic works.” This certainly comes through in playing that suspends time, standing as it does at the core of a performance that ensures that our appreciation of this entire work is raised to a higher level than usual. Being recently been impressed by Kristian Ofstad Lindberg’s “Appassionata” on the 2L label (review) has been another reason to hold off writing this review, but I need not have concerned myself. Returning to this recording reminded me of how Grubert manages to emphasise the architecture of this piece, unifying considerable dramatic impact with clarity of shape to engage both mind and emotion. There isn’t a vast amount to add, other that to connect Grubert’s comments for instance on the “male choir” resonance of the chorale theme of the second movement, and his insistence that the “real catastrophe must befall in the finale” on both psychological and musical grounds. Reading comments while listening runs the risk of facile responses to direct suggestion, but to my ears Grubert delivers on every important point.

The Sonata Op. 110 is, as with much of late Beethoven, a confluence of disarming simplicity and astounding sophistication that will always keep bringing us back for more. The contrasts of repose and intensity, joy and sorrow, are all explored here with the kind of rigour that reminds me of Igor Levit (review), though comparison also throws up an extra layer of operatic showmanship from Levit from which Grubert holds back. While by no means shirking dynamic contrast or dramatic content, Grubert’s Beethoven is more philosophical - not so much introverted in character, but contained in a way that invites you to consider common ground between composer, player and listener, with less of an emphasis on the concert stage as a dividing force between ourselves and the performance. This is perhaps also a side-effect of the recording perspective, which is more distant and concert-hall for Levit, and closer and more intimate for Grubert, the piano sound of which has an appealing warmth to go along with the detail and range you would expect from a modern recording. Also this is not a criticism of either version, merely an observation on the kind of thing that affects your choice as to which recording you might prefer while in a particular mood, or depending on the weather.

Lack of track timings is a minor gripe when it comes to the print design for this release but, in short, with its superb recording and presentation, Naum Grubert’s Beethoven on Navis Classics can stand comparison with anyone, and his playing certainly always opens my eyes to new possibilities in these works.

Dominy Clements

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