January 21, 2021


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 Scherbakov.

     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 impressive.

     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.

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