|Site review by ramesh May 1, 2008
|This innovative piano recital features Beethoven's last piano sonata. The programme concludes with early works by the three seminal figures of what has come to be known as the 'Second Viennese School'. The Webern items are a sequence for violin and piano. For those unfamiliar with these latter items, all this music is tonal. In the eloquent words of the pianist's booklet notes, 'Whereas Beethoven in his Opus 111 pushes the sonata form to its limits, allowing the tonality of the music to act as an anchor to hold everything together, the opposite is the case in Berg's work. Here it is the formally strict sonata form and stringent scheme which keeps the radical, progressive harmonic language at bay.' In historical terms, the Beethoven sonata was composed a few years after the Napoleonic wars, and the three other compositions predate the First World War : there is no need to utilise purely musicological justifications to unite what are disparate works.
This issue is one of the new releases recorded with DXD technology. Its 32 bits @352.8 KHz is a vast advance over CD's 16 bits at 44.1 kHz. The result is extraordinarily lifelike and refulgent piano sound. This is immediately apparent in the bass sonority, which has a harmonic trueness never found to this extent on CD. Beethoven's late style of piano writing, with the left hand plumbing the bass while the right hand ascends to keyboard heaven, is especially well served by this state of the art technology. In comparison, Sviatoslav Richter's late Beethoven has not been well served on CD, generally being preserved with clangy or lacklustre recording quality.
Aspaas' performance of the sonata is majestic. Tempi for both movements are broad, a full minute longer than Schnabel's celebrated 1932 recording of the final movement. The left hand octave passages ring out with a decisive splendour I have never previously heard in this work save in the concert hall, and sitting close to the instrument, at that. Unlike many recordings on CD, it is emphatically clear that these are octaves rather than single notes. From bars 20-35 in the allegro section everything in the score is easily audible, which isn't the case on many CD transfers of this work.
The full harmonic weight of the second movement's opening arietta is registered. Comparing Aspaas to Richter's 1991 concert recordings, it is Aspaas who comes up trumps even in terms of interpretation. Every nuance in the Norwegian's inflection of the arietta is exquisitely captured. Richter's relatively uninflected rendition is caricatured by the shallow, rather brittle digital recording, making the first few minutes of his interpretation sound sonically shallow, and perfunctory in musical effect.
The only interpretative query I have in this release lies in the l'istesso tempo variation and its denouement. Here, the brisker speeds of Richter, Schnabel and Brendel suggest a desperate longing. Ironically, Schnabel's technical flaws highlight this effect. Aspaas' impeccable technique and slower speed don't set the music on fire to the same extent. The transition out of the succeeding variation is achieved by a long trill, superbly even and sustained from his fingers. The ensuing bar 120 is a passage which has always been enigmatic for me, since immediately after this intense trill, Beethoven specifically indicates 'espressivo'. This is written for the passage where, as if the pianist's fingers are exhausted by the preceding demands, the theme recurs but is interspersed with delicate pauses. It is as though the music itself has become breathless with emotion. This is a haunting and elusive passage. In the concert hall, I have only heard Annie Fischer capture the fugitive eloquence of these bars. I can't say that Aspaas matches her, but he does come very close. Here, the recording he receives is beneficial, for the decay of the notes into the pauses can be heard down to the finest harmonic filigree.
Artistically I would rate this performance as one of the better ones on record. In terms of the unhurried tempi, the ability to sustain concentration over long passages of soft sustained tone in the variation section, technical security and contrapuntal clarity, this interpretation is much as I would have imagined Emil Gilels committing to record had this great musician lived to complete his DG Beethoven cycle.
The three works of the Second Viennese School are also performed more deliberately than those I have previously encountered. A couple of Schoenberg's Op 19 are apparently favourite encore pieces for Mitsuko Uchida. The fifth piece, which in the excellent BIS CD by Pontinen of [ BIS CD 1417 ] lasts a mere 29 seconds, lasts nearly 45 seconds with Aspaas. Uchida plays the final bars of this piece as a cheeky cadenza-like flourish, wheras Aspaas draws it out in the manner of Leonard Bernstein conducting Mahler's 'Adagietto'. The sixth and final piece is marked as 'sehr langsam' [ very slow ]. Aspaas is nearly twice as slow as Pontinen. This work was composed in the aftermath of Mahler's funeral, and the implication of this stylised dirge is clear. The whole balance of this suite is altered by the gravity. What comes immediately to mind is the similar effect which Sviatoslav Richter obtained in the final Schubert 'Moments Musicaux', also distended to nearly half speed. Aesthetically, Aspaas' tempos here and in the Webern are justified, for no fewer than five of the ten items in the combined Schoenberg and Webern are marked as 'langsam' or 'sehr langsam'.
The Berg 'sonata' was composed when he was Schoenberg's pupil. This is only one movement for the simple reason that the rest weren't completed. For me, this work never quite sheds the smarty-pants-student effect. Its extreme technical complexity seems contrived, although one has to admire the ingenuity in the abandonment of the classical exposition-development-recapitulation in favour of a quasi 'through-composed' style. As has been the case with the rest of this recital, this performance is also on the expansive side. I find this entirely to the listener's advantage, especially as I once saw Maurizio Pollini scamper through this work so quickly that it was impossible to absorb anything beyond superficial impressions. Glenn Gould recorded this Berg sonata movement several times, revelling in short term effects by highlighting the exotic harmonies as though this was Scriabin overengineered by Mercedes-Benz. Aspaas' performance is as perceptive as any, not exaggerating the harmonic lushness in the manner of the early Gould performances.