BEETHOVEN: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120 – Beth Levin, piano – Centaur CRC 3046, 60:38 [Distrib. by Naxos] **1/2:
BEETHOVEN: Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31 No. 3; GRANADOS: Goyescas; SCHUMANN: Humoreske, Op. 20 – Amber Yiu-Hsuan Liao, piano – MSR Classics 1368 , 62:08 [Distrib. by Albany] ***1/2:
Recordings of the Diabelli Variations seem to be coming out fast and furiously lately, and I’ve been doing a lot of listening and comparing. Close on the heels of Paul Lewis’s fine studio recording for Harmonia mundi (HMC 902071) comes this very different live recording set down in November 2009 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. With it, pianist Beth Levin returns to her roots: her first teacher was the Polish-born pianist Maryan (or Marian) Filar, at the Settlement School. Eventually, Levin moved on uptown, studying with Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute. So Levin’s Beethoven-performance creds are deep and broad. And as you might imagine, there are admirable qualities to her rendition of Beethoven’s late masterpiece. But there are also features that take it out of competition with the many other recommendable recordings of the work.
First and most significant are Levin’s tempi. I’m guessing there are other performances out there that exceed the hour mark, but I haven’t run into one yet. To give some context to the argument, Paul Lewis’s performance clocks in at 52:46; this seems to be a fairly standard timing, give or take a minute or so. Vladimir Ashkenazy, in another generally well-received recording on Decca (4758401) dispatches the work in under 49 minutes. Some reviewers have commented that this is a bit too fast (though I don’t agree). But in tooling around the Internet, I learned that earlier pianists, including Friedrich Gulda and Mieczyslaw Horszowski, polished off the work in their recordings at around the 45-minute mark, a full fifteen minutes faster than Levin!
Lest my argument become too pedantic, let me return to Levin’s performance. Things start well, with a witty rendering of Anton Diabelli’s waltz theme: Levin emphasizes its galumphing naïveté, inducing a smile. Beethoven’s first variation—marked Alla marcia, maestoso—is designed to unhinge Diabelli’s cozy little Biedermeier world. Unfortunately, Levin’s tempo is so slow that the march becomes a joyless slog, certainly less than maestoso. As she proceeds, it is especially the slow variations that suffer, slowed sometimes from a walk to a crawl, from a crawl to a creep—for example, Variation 20, marked Andante, which Levin turns into a lugubrious Largo. But even fast numbers suffer: the penultimate variation, marked Fuga – Allegro, plods along at less than an allegretto pace, while Variation 15, marked Presto scherzando, is slow enough to be a polite minuet.
And so it would seem to go, except that Levin injects quite of few of the variations with deep feeling and significance. Variation 15 is followed by a fiery, echt-Beethovenian Allegro, and while Variation 19 may not be quite Presto, Levin really gets to the bottom of the keys, producing a wonderfully robust, commanding tone. Then there is the profound expressivity she brings to Variation 29. . . .
Thus what we have is a frustratingly variable performance, with moments of real insight and others that I just don’t want to sit through again. Incidentally, the recording is pretty much standard live-recording fare, neither state-of-the-art nor execrable, but the stereo perspective shifts dizzyingly in that fugal variation, No. 32. I don’t know why the engineer or his equipment was challenged at that point, but Levin certainly didn’t need any more strikes against her performance.
No such strictures about the tempi—or other interpretive features—of Amber Liao’s performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, the third of Opus 31, which includes the more famous “Tempest” Sonata. This is Beethoven at his suavest and wittiest. Liao shapes the call-and-answer of the open phrases with care as far as dynamics are concerned, and she goes on to enlist dynamics and subtle rubato in producing a clearly defined structure and character for each of the movements. This is a very pleasing performance of one of Beethoven’s finest Cinderella works.
Two excerpts from Granados’s Goyescas form a surprising, surprisingly effective second act. In her brief but well-written and informative notes, Liao tells us they make up a contrasted pair, the first piece a series of restlessly shifting variations on an eighteenth-century Spanish song. If this piece resembles the lively Jota of Northern Spain, the second, named Quejas ó la Maya el Ruiseñor (Lament, or the Girl and the Nightingale), is dark-hued, sober, unfolding “through a haunting melody modeled on a Valencian folk song. . . .” Liao captures the folk element in the music very well, bringing color and dash to her performance.
With Schumann’s Humoreske, we make another hairpin turn, back to the early nineteenth century and the composer’s brand of passionate early Romanticism. As Liao relates, when Schumann wrote the piece in 1838, his future wife Clara Wieck and he were suffering a separation forced on them by Clara’s father, Friedrich. Thus, far from humor, the work reflects anguish and frustration as well as dejected resignation. “Schumann’s understanding of the word ‘humor,’” Laio writes, “derives from Jean Paul, a German Romantic writer, who in his essay interprets humor as ‘a kind of laughter in which both a pain and a greatness abide.’”
Liao’s performance does less than full justice to this heady mix of laughter and tears. The work doesn’t fume and flare it should, and some of the pianist’s phrasing in faster passages is unattractively clipped and blunted. To some extent that may be a concomitant of the instrument Liao plays, an 1881 Steinway.
So this is not the place to turn for Schumann’s work, though the program as a whole and the playing for the most part are attractive enough to warrant a qualified recommendation, as is the bright fulsome recording of the venerable Steinway.
— Lee Passarella
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre