Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete). Konstantin Scherbakov,
piano. Steinway & Sons. $49.99 (9 CDs).
One positive thing that the year 2020
brought was a mass of excellent releases of Beethoven’s music on the 250th
anniversary of his birth. In addition to “complete” sets purporting, more or
less accurately, to present all the music he ever wrote, there were innumerable
issues and reissues focused on his symphonies, piano concertos, string
quartets, etc. etc., etc. – and, of course, his piano sonatas. And among the
highest-quality and most compelling recordings of the sonata cycle is the
nine-disc Steinway & Sons release featuring Russian pianist Konstantin
This is not a cycle focused on
historically informed performance: Scherbakov unashamedly uses a modern concert
grand and does not hesitate to bring forth its tonal and expressive capabilities
when he believes they add to the impact and understanding of the music.
However, this is an exceptionally carefully-thought-through cycle, reflecting
not only Scherbakov’s comprehension of the music and comfort with its many
technical challenges, but also his perception of Beethoven’s compositional
progress throughout the sonatas: Scherbakov recorded the works in order between
October 2019 and June 2020, they appear in numbered sequence on the discs, and
there is a definite sense of development and continuity here that makes
Beethoven’s experimentation – when it comes – all the more apparent and
Certain elements of Scherbakov’s
performances are scarcely a surprise: the technical mastery, the generally
quick tempos that are almost always quite convincing, the ability to bring out left-hand and
right-hand focuses with equal adeptness, the strength of chords and willingness
to play them very forcefully indeed. Other elements, though, come as a pleasant
surprise: many listeners do not realize how often Beethoven ended his sonatas
softly, but Scherbakov skillfully draws attention to the times this occurs,
with the result that when Sonata No. 32, the last of them all, ends both its movements quietly, this seems
altogether fitting and a capstone for the cycle. By the same token, Scherbakov
very skillfully makes the sonatas that are in only two movements – the early
Nos. 19 and 20 (both of which he plays seriously and refuses to trivialize) and
the later Nos. 22, 24, 27 and, yes, 32 – sound complete and as well-thought-out
as the three-movement and four-movement ones. Scherbakov also treats every
sonata as a character piece of its own, never allowing the less-known ones to
be given short shrift simply because they are heard less frequently than the
most famous pieces. Thus, Sonata No. 13, Op. 27, No. 1, which comes between the
“Funeral March” and “Moonlight,” gets an exceptionally fine performance here
that fully justifies Beethoven’s indication that it should be played “Quasi una
fantasia.” And the unnamed Sonata No. 16, Op. 31, No. 1, comes into its own
here and shines just as brightly as No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2 (“Tempest”) and No.
18, Op. 31, No. 3 (“The Hunt”).
Scherbakov’s handling of Sonata No. 16
also brings out something specific that many performers underplay or miss
altogether: humor. The second movement of this work, marked Adagio grazioso, is exceptionally funny,
a parody of the overdone styles of other composers of Beethoven’s day and of
Italian opera in general. The movement – Beethoven’s longest slow movement
except for those in Sonatas Nos. 29 and 32 – is full of unneeded cadenzas,
overdone technical display and multiple cascades of ornamentation. Scherbakov
handles it with exactly the right light touch, refusing to try to make it any
more serious than it is. The result is exhilarating and provides a wonderful
counterbalance to the many much more serious elements in Beethoven’s sonatas.
The exuberant handling of the first three sonatas, Op. 2, is another of the
many instances when Scherbakov’s willingness to present the sonatas
light-handedly pays substantial dividends.
Where Scherbakov sometimes misfires a bit
is in the best-known sonatas, as if he is determined to put his personal
imprimatur on hyper-familiar music and perhaps trying a bit too hard to do so.
Thus, in No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”), he interrupts the flow repeatedly
by holding notes just a touch too long. And he employs similar mannerisms, such
as holding back briefly before proceeding to the next phrase – not always, but
occasionally – in No. 21, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”) and No. 23, Op. 57
(“Appassionata”). In the latter case, though, the overall performance is so
praiseworthy than it seems like carping to notice the small instances of
inelegance. Scherbakov is also exceptionally thoughtful in most of the
late-period sonatas. No. 28, Op. 101, is a standout, and No. 31, Op. 110, is
also highly impressive, despite somewhat overdone bass octave sforzando playing – a consequence both
of Scherbakov’s interpretation and of the sound of a modern piano. No. 29, Op.
106 (“Hammerklavier”) does not fare as well: often accused of simply going on
too long, that is how it sounds here, with a very intense and driving first
movement and a somewhat too-heavy-sounding second-movement Scherzo – although
the playing in the concluding Fuga is exceptionally clear. Scherbakov also
tosses off the variations that conclude No. 32, Op. 111, with trills that sound
nearly effortless – testimony to his remarkable technical prowess.
The Beethoven 250-year celebration proved to be far less than it would have been if 2020 had not also been a year of pandemic and international societal upheaval. In fact, Beethoven’s music can be and ideally would have been a unifying force for the disparate elements so often at odds, and even at war, throughout the year: that is how Leonard Bernstein handled Symphony No. 9 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to cite just one famous example. Troubling events unfortunately got the better of most of humanity during the 250th-anniversary year, leaving the uplift and affirmation of Beethoven – including some music, for piano and other instruments, in which he is clearly heard progressing from illness to health – with insufficient impact. Over time, though, Beethoven’s struggles and successes will surely become transcendent again, and that means that performances such as Scherbakov’s Beethoven piano-sonata cycle will resound and impress, and will move audiences, far beyond the tumultuous time period in which these recordings were made and released.