Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Beethoven : Hammerklavier - Sokolov 1975

A wonderful diatribe by Boom against the Austrian pianist Till Fellner sparked off this upload. Fellner said, in an interview "Life is too short to play Rachmaninoff or drink bad wine."  to which Boom, in his typical understated fashion, replied "life is not too short for him, Till Fellner, to spend on playing meticulously planned, immaculately executed, and incomparably faceless all-Beethoven recitals season after season."  You can read the full blog entry here.

Anyway, I find myself listening to the Mount Everest of pianism - the Hammerklavier. I have a recording by Richter in Prague that has me on the edge of my seat, and a live version by Brendel that I relish because he conducts you through the music as if it were a personal guided tour of his castle. In the past few days I've listened to Martina Filjak, a pianist full of ideas and the technique to bring them off, and to Valentina Lisitsa. What can I say about Lisitsa? A sort of musical Lang Lang - total technique, but also a grasp of the large scale that makes her readings fascinating, if not always easy listening. Her fugue, for example, takes less than eleven minutes, and has an almost nightmarish lucidity that can only be produced by a technique that you got from the devil in exchange for the souls of your children. 

And here is another oddity: Sokolov. Love him or hate him, he's got his own ideas. It's the longest slow movement on record, as far as I know - nearly 24 minutes!! - but somehow he manages to maintain a fascination almost unbroken throughout.

The recording's an oddity too: it's apparently from an LP of a live performance in 1975, but there's no applause or audience noise. Looking at the waveforms between movements, they could have resulted from the audience noise being faded to zero, but could equally well just be track breaks. 

One way or the other, this recording has something of a cult status. I leave it to the reader to judge if the status be deserved or no.

mp3 192 kbs

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  1. The British-based pianist Edith Vogel made a studio recording of Op.106 in the mid-1970s, with the slow movement running to 24 minutes (if not a bit over - can't remember at the moment). This studio recording was once issued on CD by BBC Music Magazine. I would have loved it, especially for the Wagnerian build-up of the Adagio, if it weren't for clearly audible (to me) differences between different takes in that studio recording. (Vogel's live 1985 Op.111, on the other hand, has been one of my Beethoven treasures.)

    Sokolov's slow tempo, while indeed extreme, is not unique in the recorded history of Beethoven playing. Did not Gould also take about this long to get through the Adagio of Op.106 in his CBC broadcast performance? I seem to remember that Gould's Adagio lasted about 24 minutes...

  2. Sokolov's adagio is a long way from Egon Petri's 14 mins and would have most Teutonic pedagogues regurgitating their strudel...However, Solomon's marvellous 106 has an ample 22 minute adagio and is one of my favourites. Sokolov seems to me on this performance to play the adagio like he's never seen the score but is interpreting the piece having overheard Shostakovich practicing it... That said, it has something compelling and all together Olympian about it.

  3. Boom - hadn't heard Vogel - does your upload have a link, as such?

    rhinnonsdad - what a wonderful description! It does seem a) being invented on the spot and b) very much in the soviet tradition.

  4. Sokolov is a fantastic pianist.

  5. Thanks for posting this recording, new to me. It certainly backs up Boom's strong preference for live performances - the concentration, the intensity draw you in and keep you alert all the way through. I put this one near the top of my Hammerklavier list (though that's not long!). For me, the fugue was the most enlightening part, somehow a clarity that I've missed elsewhere. The slow movement - well, I join with those who are surprised at its improvisational feel; maybe not so much that he's never seen the score, it's almost as if he's inventing the score as he plays, the music appearing note by note out of the ether. A very strange sensation for me as a listener! But an entirely uplifting one; thanks for making it available.

  6. Eschenbach (DG vinyl and a Brilliant Classics reissue) takes 24:16 for the slow movement. Strange to tell, I believe he did it for another label as well, with similar results.

    1. Eschenbach EMI, 25:17. Apparently from the late 1970s.