September 28, 2023


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29; Stockhausen: Klavierstück X. Marc Ponthus, piano. Bridge Records. $16.99.

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 13; Adagio in B minor, K. 540; Variations on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint,” K. 455; C.P.E. Bach: Twelve Variations on “Les Folies d’Espagne”; Rondo in C, H. 260; J.C. Bach: Harpsichord Sonata in A, Op. 17, No. 5; Clementi: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 13, No. 6. Anna Khomichko, piano. Genuin. $16.

     The magnificent effrontery of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 is scarcely encompassed by calling it the Hammerklavier, since the composer gave that title to No. 28 as well. Rather, it is the sheer scale of the work and its monumental technical difficulties – as well as its decidedly peculiar proportions – that give listeners pause, even today, when the work is quite well-known. How much greater and more intense the reactions must have been to the sonata when Franz Liszt first performed it in 1836, nearly a decade after Beethoven’s death and 18 years after the work was written, can only be surmised from reviews of the recital (including a famous one by Berlioz) and assumptions about audience taste in that time period. Or perhaps there is another way to get at the intensity of response provoked by this Beethoven sonata: by presenting 21st-century listeners with a different extended piano work that requires a kind of aural expansion, the sort of thing that George Ives meant decades later when he told his son Charles, “You’ve got to learn to stretch your ears.” Whether or not this sort of thinking underlies the Bridge Records recording pairing Beethoven’s sonata with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X, it certainly could be the rationale for this fascinating release. Marc Ponthus sounds as if he is attacking the music, regarding it as an edifice to be conquered and, through conquest, explored in detail. He performs the Beethoven with unrelenting speed and power, producing a reading that get through the sonata in barely 40 minutes – significantly more quickly than is the norm. Yet the music feels not so much rushed as relentless, unstoppable in its communicative strength. The potency of the opening movement and speed of the tiny second (only two-and-a-half minutes here) combine with an effect that contrasts to an extreme degree with the expansive Adagio sostenuto, which is speedy in clock time (some performers take 50% longer to play it) but never seems hasty or unemotional. Ponthus then handles the finale as a genuine capstone, its mighty fugue’s dissonances brought to the fore as if the pianist wants to emphasize just how forward-looking this sonata was in its time. And in some ways it does look forward to the 10th of the 19 Klavierstücke by Stockhausen (1928-2007). For example, the Stockhausen begins with a descending third (although it quickly moves into other organizational methods); Beethoven’s Sonata No. 29 uses a descending third (major or minor) as an organizational principle throughout. It is easy, however, to overdo the seeking of parallels between the pieces, since Ponthus’ pairing of them is as much (if not more) about contrast as about hints of similarity. Stockhausen’s work, more than half a century after it was completed in 1961, remains very difficult to listen to and can be aurally unpleasant even for audiences now quite familiar with atonality, tone clusters, and the other elements employed by Stockhausen to produce the effects he sought. Interestingly, one important element of Klavierstück X is the use of pedaling to shape the sound world of the piece – and Beethoven, in Sonata No. 29, also used pedaling (specifically, extensive use of the una corda pedal) to produce the effects that he sought. Ponthus’ intensity in Klavierstück X is as great as in the Beethoven, with the pianist tossing about the note cascades, highly varied dynamics, different forms of attack, and other characteristics of the piece with abandon. The whole thing is splendid in its own way – but it has to be said that it is also rather strange. It is impossible to equate or even approximate the effect of Stockhausen’s work today with that of Beethoven’s sonata in the 1830s, although trying to do this is a somewhat salutary experience. What Ponthus does in pairing these pieces is enormously impressive, and his handling of the two large-scale works is thoughtful and technically first-rate. There remains, however, the whiff of the exceedingly odd about the entire CD: it is far from easy to listen to the recording, in which the Stockhausen precedes the Beethoven, from start to finish – the newer composer’s aura produces an intriguing but not entirely appropriate overhang once Beethoven’s sonata begins. As knowing and intricate as Ponthus’ performances are, the CD as a whole is ultimately more satisfying intellectually than emotionally. It is, however, quite an experience.

     If the Ponthus disc seeks comparison and contrast, a recent Genuin release featuring Anna Khomichko has a different reason for mixing disparate works. Khomichko seeks context – a sense of the ways in which Mozart, for all his genius, was part and parcel of an active and very attractive musical scene in Europe: Mozart was influenced by it, and he in turn influenced other composers of his time. Khomichko’s way with Mozart is one of poise and delicacy balanced with seriousness: the B-flat sonata K. 333 has considerable warmth and elegant style; the later B minor Adagio is thoughtful and quietly melancholic; and the deservedly popular variations on a theme from a Gluck opera retain their underlying marchlike elements in a performance distinguished by the pianist’s close attention to rhythmic changes. Khomichko actually builds up to the Mozart works, in the sense that she places them last on the CD – after offering pieces by his contemporaries. Two of the sons of “old Bach” were among the most-influential composers of Mozart’s time, and Khomichko performs works by both. The variations on a theme by Marin Marais, by C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788), contrast interestingly with Mozart’s handling of Gluck’s tune, being more delicate and less virtuosic. Similarly, the C.P.E. Bach rondo heard here is well-made and nicely decorated in what is almost but not quite Baroque style. The two-movement harpsichord sonata by J.C. Bach (1735-1782) is too slight to be fully effective on the piano, but Khomichko handles its extensive ornamentation well and avoids overwhelming its essentially simple lines with pianistic flourishes or too much pedal. The three-movement sonata by Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), who remains underrated as a composer despite the high regard in which he is held as a publisher and piano manufacturer, opens with a darker and more strongly felt Allegro agitato than might be expected, moves to a tearful (if scarcely profound) Largo e sostenuto, and concludes with an intriguing Presto that blends intensity with an almost bucolic sensibility – all in all, a most interesting work, and one that contrasts quite effectively with Mozart’s K. 333. Khomichko nimbly explores the differences among these composers while retaining an overall sensitivity to the mid-18th-century style that they all share, albeit with a few twists and turns along the way. In addition to offering some very enjoyable Mozart performances, the disc does a fine job of contextualizing Mozart without in any way diminishing his genius or the uniqueness of his piano music.

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