Since April, Ive been devouring Beethoven piano sonata cycles. Im working my way through my eleventh new cycle right now, but I figured Id go back over prior reviews and post them here, in order, over the next couple weeks or so. Here goes: Friedrich Gulda, Amadeo cycle (1968) What would happen if you could combine, in one pianist, the best traits of some of the best pianists? Say you could combine the passion of Annie Fischer, the mercurial wit of Artur Schnabel, the serious-mindedness and technical acumen of Maurizio Pollini, and even a degree, however small, of the tonal grace of Wilhelm Kempff. Youd end up with Friedrich Gulda! Okay, I exaggerate, but only a bit. While its not possible to combine all of those elements to an ideal degree hence the impossibility of any one pianist being able to play this New Testament of the keyboard perfectly it is possible to experience a pianist who encompasses them to a certain degree. Friedrich Gulda does that to an extent. Since receiving the complete piano sonata and concerto cycle yesterday, Ive already managed to listen to the first seven sonatas and the Emperor. Ill save my thoughts on the concertos for later, and will instead focus for now on the early sonatas. Gulda is almost uniformly superb across the board. Almost. Ill just start with the Op 2 sonatas. These are winners! Unlike a number of other pianists, including even the great Wilhelm Kempff, Gulda takes all of the works at a refreshingly brisk clip. Some may find his tempi a bit too fast at times, with Allegro sections veering closer to Presto relatively often. But thats a good thing. The first sonata is delectably delivered: Guldas articulation is truly remarkable, each note so utterly clear and perfectly executed, and the textures so clear, that one revels in all of the puckish humor while never once losing sight that this is Beethoven. (See, Schnabel meets Pollini. I wouldnt have thought it possible.) The closing movement is very swift and quite passionate, at least compared to some accounts. Sure, Annie bests him in this department, but the lighter sound benefits Mr Gulda. The second and third sonatas leave the indelible impression of a pianist moving from strength to strength. Perhaps one may want to hear more of the influences of Haydn and Mozart though those influences can be heard and perhaps the unrelentingly determined passion of Ms Fischer still makes her impossible to top in my book, but Mr Gulda now assumes a place of pride in my collection of the first three works. The Op 7 is not quite as successful. The watchword here is speed. The next watchword? Swiftness. Gulda brings the whole thing in at just over 25 minutes, and at times the excessive reliance on speed detracts from the piece. The opening movement, for instance, more or less completely lacks a nice, flowing feel. Theres no early, quasi-Pastorale (as in Op 28) feel. For those who like jaunty, punchy playing, this recording is a feast, though. The second movement, though labeled Largo never really lingers or hangs on an idea in the fashion I like. Its swifter, emphasizing that clear articulation. Guldas tone, which varied rather nicely, if within a limited range, in the first works, here is relegated to either a coarser, more percussive and sharp staccato with little in the way of pedal enhanced flavor or to an unusually dainty and quiet, feathery sound. Take those delicious little three note arpeggios about mid-way through; things go from near-hammering to too soft. Wheres them notes? I wondered. Anyway, as the final two movements are played, the unyielding swiftness remains. Clearly this isnt for me? Well, I noticed something. As well as I know this piece, I was listening unusually intently more so than when I last listened to it just over a month ago, in John OConors extraordinary rendition and I noticed my toes, they were a-tappin! This is thought provoking pianism, even if its not perfect. My final works for now are the Op 10 sonatas. Tis back to form! Like Claude Frank, Gulda launches the first sonata very quickly and succeeds marvelously. Hes not straining, and his rock-steady rhythmic prowess ensures that the right hand can crank out the melodies while the left hand keeps everything on solid ground, as it were. Perhaps his experience playing jazz helped here, who knows? One thing is certain: that rhythmic prowess is there in each of the first seven works. Anyhoo, back to the sonatas. After the rapid-fire open, its on to an equally successful second and then third movement. The finale is a joy. So, too, is the entire second sonata, including that almost incomprehensibly delightful Presto finale. Here Gulda doesnt ever push the speed barrier; it is never in danger of veering into prestissimo territory. Its more of the same for the final sonata, and here Friedrich is right on target in every way. Indeed, as a set, this emerges as the only uniformly credible rival to Claude Franks take on this batch. A welcome addition to my collection, indeed! I shall post my reaction to more sonatas from time to time as I work my way through the cycle. (I dont think it will take very long.) For the boring physical attributes: the piano sound is close, immediate, and dry, with a bit of break-up in some very loud passages (though blessedly few so far), and dynamic range, while quite good, is not as good as can be had. That written, it does hang between and behind the speakers well enough. Amadeo did a good job. Decca did an even better job by repackaging it as a budget box five years ago. I cant wait to hear more! -- Another couple days, another seven sonatas. And this time Gulda goes from strength to strength. Going in sequence how else to optimally enjoy LvBs sonatas? I started with the Pathetitique, and what a treat! While Gulda established his ability to play quickly from the start, and while he certainly does that here, its not his only trick. The work opens in dramatic fashion, with nice pauses between the chords, and then Gulda goes onto play nice n quick. He never just lets loose, though, keeping everything under control but always passionate or at least just this side of passionate. It is an excellent reading that compares favorably to anyones. The two Op 14 sonatas both fare well, but Guldas tendency toward seriousness prevents them from assuming that charming aspect that Gieseking brings. No matter: fleet fingerwork and ultra-clear textures combined with Guldas remarkable rhythm makes em enjoyable. My toes were tappin again. Op 22 hits like a ton a bricks. Here, Gulda is all speed and drive, all constantly supported by his remarkable sense of rhythm did I mention Guldas rhythmic abilities? and all of the most complicated passages are dashed of with ease and brio and damned if I didnt detect just a hint of nonchalance in the air. This is without question one of the best versions Ive heard of this work, probably superceded only by Jean-Bernard Pommier. It kicks ass! So does the Op 26. Gulda starts out quickly, but then he changes moods at just the right time, his percussive, borderline-sharp tone doing wonders for the piece. The funeral march comes off splendidly, but in an appropriately macabre sort of way, and it is decidedly Beethovenian. That is, it fits within the sound world of the Bonn born master. Claude Franks tale, which may still be my favorite (Ill have to listen soon to know for sure) includes some inspiration from Chopins great funeral march, but boy, oh boy am I glad to have Gulda in my collection! Ditto the first of the two Quasi una fantasia sonatas. I admit to preferring the first, and dammit, I hate to sound like a broken record, but Gulda again goes straight to the very top! Quick, jaunty, heavy and light as needed, always flowing forward, with some punchy playing here and flowing playing there, heres another case where I listened so intently I blocked out everything else, including the beginning of dinner. And I like dinner. Im hard pressed to really think of a version I like a whole lot better. Maybe a detail or two, but probably not the whole thing. The Mondschein fares very well, too. This probably over-recorded work starts of slow n somber, with a dash of moodiness thrown in, transitions to a perfectly paced and sprung second movement before the rapid-fire concluding movement reveals all it can reveal. Yes, this is turning out to be one fine cycle, if one for those who like their German music suitably German. Seriousness and meticulousness are increasingly becoming the hallmark traits of this pianist. And did I mention Guldas got rhythm? My opening from my last post still stands he does combine a number of traits but hes quite a serious guy overall. God, I need to hear more! -- Another day, another six sonatas. (Well, I guess you can count the two itty bitty ditties grouped in Op 49 as sonatinas, but you get the idea.) My opinion of the esteemed Mr Gulda grows with each day. Today I celebrated the end of another dismal, unrewarding workweek er, um, I mean five glorious days of unique challenges and growth opportunities by listening to some core Beethoven. The Op 28 and 31 sonatas form one of the primary groups of work I use to assess a pianist in this repertoire. If a pianist blows it here, they just aint a great Beethoven pianist. Period. Mr Gulda has the makings of a truly great Beethoven pianist. I approached the Op 28 with a bit of weariness. Guldas approach to the (somewhat) similar Op 7, while good and thought-provoking, just wouldnt cut the mustard here. Apparently he thought the same thing! While still on the quick side, his sound is more flowing and relaxed and suitably pastoral in nature. Each movement is perfectly sculpted, and I swear that each note can be clearly heard and was completely thought through before the red light went on in the booth. Its just plain fun to listen to. More substantive yet are the trio of Op 31 sonatas. Again, speed is the name of the game, sometimes dramatically so. (Should any movement labeled Largo sound so Presto and still be so good?) The first work is staggering. Nimble, dodging, alert Gulda unloads not only his usual speed, seriousness, and rhythmic perfection, but also a suitable amount of drama, humor, and punchiness. Claude Frank has a new challenger. I think its time for a shoot-out! Better yet is the Tempest. I do believe I have a new favorite. Wilhelm Backhaus has reigned for a while, his uncompromisingly German sound and approach fending off all comers, most notably Stephen Kovacevich, Walter Gieseking, and Mr Frank again, but along comes Mr Gulda to show me the light. Impossibly assured playing his fingers dodging in and out of harms way as he battles with this piece Mr Gulda brings out the, well, the tempestuous nature of this piece with its contrasting, moody movements. Its got real drive and drama, and is so serious that it almost makes one want to read Sartre. Almost. I cannot praise it highly enough. Not quite as successful that is, merely exceptional when compared to any recording by anyone is the last of the trio. Id say Gulda makes the piece dance, makes it swing, but its too fast and propulsive for that. Yes, speed dominates, but it works! Really, really, really, really, really well. Really. I know in my mind I shouldnt like it he brushes over some things to quickly but that scherzo, that conclusion; forget my mind, Im following my tappin toes. The little Op 49 works come off about as well as can be expected, the first one with a surprising gravitas. I always love revisiting the second one to hear the a la carte theme from the Septet, and Mr Gulda does not disappoint. This is shaping up to be a major cycle. Perhaps Ill listen to more tomorrow. -- Another seven down, with a couple doubled up. I started up with the Waldstein, of course, and what Waldstein it is! Guldas hallmark traits are everywhere evident, and if ever one of Beethovens sonatas benefits from rapid play with little in the way of overt romanticism, it is surely this one. Gulda opens the work with a nearly breathtakingly quick opening movement, and once again his remarkably clear articulation and rhythmic sureness pay enormous dividends. A quick second movement followed by a quick final movement, albeit one with heaving and swelling playing, really fills the bill. This goes straight to the top, sharing honors with Rudolfs Firkusny and Serkin, John OConor (notable for making a more romanticized version work), and of course Pollinis live account. Next up finds the Op 54 sonata, and what turns out to be a mini-slump in the cycle. Keep in mind that when I say slump I mean merely very good to excellent, not staggeringly great. I cant really pinpoint what it is about this work that doesnt quite work. All of Guldas traits are there, and one would think they would be enough, but even with every element in place and each admirable by itself, it just doesnt click, or at least optimally click. Its still very enjoyable, but when one considers Annie Fischers crushing intensity, Sviatoslav Richters fleet and passionate account, or Wilhelm Kempffs poetic and contemplative approach, Gulda just seems to fall short. So he doesnt bat a thousand. Thats okay. The Op 57 is relatively less impressive still, and I had two to choose from. The Amadeo recording is the relatively more successful of the two. His omnipresent speed, flawless staccato and generally urgent drive all work quite well, but hes somewhat rigid in overall conception and doesnt bring enough passion to the piece. In this work, obviously, that just will not do. Less successful is his 1973 Decca recording. Here, Gulda allows himself more breathing room, more flexibility, especially in the first movement, and he manages to extract substantially more passion. Its just not quite enough. The second movement comes off quite well, and the final movement starts off promisingly enough, but he again lacks that last bit of power, and he cuts the third movement repeat. That does the interpretation in. Without it, the piece comes to an end much too quickly, and I sat there thinking to myself: Thats it! That cant be it! Crap! The Decca sound is markedly different from the Amadeo sound: it is much richer, with far greater lower register weight, but the low frequencies overwhelm the middle and upper registers a few times, and the whole thing sounds oddly distant and veiled. Sounds like Gulda didnt get Deccas top engineers. Ill take the closer, dryer, leaner sound of the Amadeo recording any day. So, Annie Fischer still overwhelmingly dominates this work, with only Richter able to muster a truly satisfying alternative. (And at least two of em at that!) Next up are the two little sonatas, Op 78 and 79. (I always consider them together.) Guldas back in fine form here. The two versions of the Op 78 have so much in common as to make any distinction between them rather futile. Richly, strongly, and quickly dispatched, they both come off very well indeed. Same with the Op 79, though the mood here is suitably livened, and those delicious and hilarious out of tune notes are perfectly done. These recordings fare quite well when compared to anyone elses. Both the Les Adieux and Op 90 sonatas come off quite well, but both also fail to reach the summit of interpretive greatness. Heres where Gulda needs to start adding more tools to his formidable arsenal. While one can hear the emergence of a more contemplative, introspective, indeed philosophical sound, its not quite enough. Granted, neither one of these works aspire to the same things that the last five sonatas do, but I find that how an artist approaches one or both of these early late sonatas, if you will, tends to predict the relative success of the crowning achievements in Beethovens solo piano output. Of the two, Id say the Op 90 fares better, which is certainly good news for the last five, as he opens strongly enough and doesnt delve into quickness for the sake of quickness. This is serious business for Gulda, as it should be. (Can you imagine light-hearted late Beethoven?) So, they are excellent, dont get me wrong, and Ill no doubt spin them both again many times, but they aint the greatest. That written, I now feel as though I need them. After all, how else can one arrive at the truth in these works? Now its time for the late sonatas. -- I had nothing to worry about. Op 81a and Op 90 both fared well, but represented a slight step down in quality from the best recordings in the set, but in the last five sonatas, Gulda returns to form. The Op 101 comes across as remarkably and powerfully compact, the powerful utterances of the final movement bold and controlled and probing. Gulda maintains his penchant for quick speeds and he does through all five works but he is so assured in his interpretation that nothing ever sounds rushed or out place. Things can sound choppy from time to time, I suppose, but only when they should. A slight though not entirely unexpected sigh of relief was forthcoming, followed by a deep breath. Which was needed for the Op 106. This is a work for the heaviest of heavyweights Pollini, Serkin, Annie and now I can add Gulda to the list. This is a staggering, stupefyingly great reading. Gulda comes flying out of the gate, but under absolute control. Sharp accents; strong, spiky staccato playing; a thundering, thrusting opening theme: its got it all. Its an almost breathless experience for the listener, and invigorating. No ponderous, thick opening this! The second movement is dashed off with brio and dynamism to match anyones. Then the magnificent slow movement, here taken markedly faster than normal, engrosses ones attention during each note, each phrase, each chord. It is desolate and haunting and moving and searching, all in the appropriate proportions, and all at the right times. The grand fugal conclusion is as breathtaking as the opening movement perhaps more so. Guldas playing is beyond assured, achieving sublime mastery as he spins off each contrapuntal section with ease, brio, and, perhaps oddly, sternness. This is serious business, but he likes being serious. Overall, this is the second fastest version of this work I have heard at just a few seconds over 37 only Gieseking is faster, and nowhere near as successful and it is everything I hoped for and more. A few hints of steel not only dont hinder the recording, they actually enhance its stature. The final three works all inhabit a similar, wonderful world in this set. Again, Gulda plays briskly, but it never intrudes on the proceedings. All that contemplative, philosophical goodness contained in these three works is amply displayed. The 109 opens strongly, moves quickly through the compact middle section and unfurls magnificently through the concluding variations. Even with his tempi choices, when an air of slowness is appropriate, it is there, even though the notes go by the way they do. This is even more profoundly realized in the opening to the 110. Ethereal and marmoreal at the same time, its as though time stands still. The grand ending movement is as wondrous as that for 109, but also just a bit better. How, I dont know. I cannot describe it. Throughout these works, Guldas tone is more varied and his touch more nuanced than in many of the earlier sonatas. One just sits in wonder. The concluding C minor sonata possibly, possibly Beethovens greatest sonata comes off remarkably well, if perhaps not as comparatively well as the preceding three works. He just tears into parts of the opening movement, belting out the dark, ominous sounding chords with ferocity and intensity perfectly fitting what is to come. And what is to come is a meticulously, swiftly played final movement, with a glorious Arietta followed by some variations dashed off with remarkable speed and others delivered with just the right degree of distanced contemplation. I enjoy this recording more than the Orfeo recital recording, and indeed it rates very highly overall, but the competition is stiff here. And rightly so. So, yet another Beethoven sonata cycle down, and a welcome one it is! So I guess I must ponder its relative worth as a whole, and invariably it must be compared to my other cycles. Ultimately, Annie Fischer remains my benchmark. Her serious, passionate, uncompromising readings just get me every time. But Gulda, with his serious, virtuosic, committed, and serious playing is not far behind. (There are hint of lighter things as noted.) Had I got my hands on this cycle seven or eight years ago, I may never have even bothered with Ms Fischer. (Okay, thats unlikely; curiosity would have gotten the best of me.) Gulda certainly rates right up there with Kempff and Schnabel in my book. This is easily my favorite new recording(s) of the year. Bring on the Decca cycle! -- I figured I should finish off the box by back-tracking to the first four concertos. In my review of the Emperor, I determined that while there are some fine things to listen to, the performance is not the best around. Pretty much the same can be said of the first four concertos. Dont get me wrong, theyre all good the B flat and C minor, especially but better can be had. One problem plagues all of the recordings. The too distant for my taste recording is obvious rather reverberant, and Horst Steins conducting while capable, rarely elevates much beyond that. Guldas sound is cutting, steely, and a bit harsh from time to time. I assume this is due to some combination of the voicing of the specific piano used, the recording, and his playing style. The performances all display some of the same traits, too. They mostly sound a bit studied and unduly restrained, and Gulda keeps a tight rein on his tempi in contrast to his sonata cycle. The C major is big-boned and injected with a bit of fun, but its a bit to ponderous at times, and never really excites. The Second Concerto fares better. Here Gulda lets loose a bit more, and Stein is in his best form of the cycle, with both artists bringing out the youthful, playful, but already titanic Ludwig van splendidly. This recording actually does fare well against most versions Ive heard. The C minor, likewise, is quite successful. Appealingly dramatic and explosive, the tandem work very well together, and Guldas impressive seriousness of purpose is on effective display. A little bit of relaxation from this seriousness is displayed in the fine concluding movement. The G Major largely resembles the C major in overall feeling. The music is of course markedly different and presented as such, but the occasionally ponderous feel dilutes an otherwise fine performance. Ill no doubt spin all of these recordings again, but other, more successful cycles are out there. At least his sonatas are of the highest order.