BEETHOVEN: Josep COLOM – Late Sonatas and Bagatelles – Eudora SACD 1901 (3/2019) – *****:
We at Audiophile Audition have been deeply impressed by the work of Gonzalo Noque at Eudora records. Located in Madrid, this label has been slowly and patiently putting out recordings for the discriminating audiophiles by outstanding artists who combine interpretative and technical talents of the first order. The acoustic space at Senor Noque’s studio is special indeed. His equipment Sonodore and Schoeps microphones, the merging Horus preamplifier and AD/DA converter achieve that rare wizardry of conveying a life-like and potent musical experience into one’s own living room. Josep Colom has featured on two memorable Eudora productions, Two recitals are attempts at exploring contiguities between Chopin and both Bach and Mozart. They were favorably reviewed on these pages.
In this issue, Colom again seeks a larger narrative to connect the late Beethoven works for piano, the three sonatas as well as the final set of Bagatelles, opus. (which thankfully do not include that horrible ear-worm fur Elise). With permission we include the fine essay by musician and writer Luca Chiantore which offers an intriguing angle on these works and this remarkable project. (ed Fritz Balwit)
The latest installment by the house pianist of Eudora records, one of the finest audiophile labels in the world.
INTERWOVEN PATHS by Luca Chiantore
Beethoven was more than just a great musician – over the years, his name has come to represent an entire culture, a way of conceiving music that seems inseparable from his legacy as a whole. Throughout the course of the nineteenth century, the very concept of “classical music” – its values, its modes of listening and its supposed capacity for elevating the human spirit above the trivialities of everyday life by transporting it to a metaphysical dimension in a way that was thought beyond more “popular” forms of music – established itself around Beethoven, his music and the myths that became associated with him.
As time went on, his late works began to be considered the ultimate representation of the force that pulsed within his music. This soon led to a very particular way of thinking about performance: at a time when it was standard practice for musicians to “personalise” their playing style by modifying the printed score at their own discretion, Beethoven’s works were the first for which any such alterations were considered anathema. And while this applied to all his music, the greatest veneration was reserved for his final works.
These late works, which have always fascinated musicologists, were in fact the most enigmatic and most difficult to categorise. Full of unprecedented brilliance, they also featured many backward glances; and although it was possible to see an impressive level of coherence between them, it is also true that we have first-hand evidence of Beethoven’s pragmatism and his willingness, on more than one occasion, to allow economic interests to prevail over artistic considerations, as for example when he left it up to his pupil Ferdinand Ries to decide on the structure of the celebrated “Hammerklavier” Sonata, op.106 for its first English edition.
What Beethoven’s contemporaries saw in the major compositions of that period was, above all, the diversity of a series of benchmark works which happily incorporated fashionable elements, such as the use of cymbals, bass drum and triangle in the Ninth Symphony. But that was not what was appreciated about the Ninth from Wagner’s time onwards. In fact, tradition has sought out “unity” and “coherence” not only when it comes to viewing as a whole the various movements of a particular work (especially for structures as unusual as those of his late sonatas and quartets), but also in collections of short pieces such as the Six Bagatelles, op.126 which appear on this album.
Things are changing, however, and this recording is part of a process currently affecting both music scholarship and live performance. The itinerary offered here by Josep Colom rejects the dictates of tradition; rather than submission to past dogmas, what we find is freedom. The freedom to combine, surprise and invent, as befits the growing creativity that characterises every aspect of the career of this most individual of pianists.
While analysts and musicians have managed to detect unifying elements even in works as diverse as the Sonatas opp.109 and 110, or between the two antithetical (in terms of scale, tempo, structure and character) movements of Op.111, what we find here is a different process: one which creates, through performance, a single narrative path to weave together the individual movements of these three sonatas and the six bagatelles by means of a fascinating play of analogies and contrasts. The bagatelles act, in a way, as preludes to the sonatas, with transitional passages that stem from the pianist’s own imagination.
I don’t know what posterity will make of recordings like this, but rarely have I come across one so redolent of a change of era. Of course, Josep Colom is not alone: the wealth of ornamentation employed by Tom Beghin in his recording of the same three sonatas, together with other recent and acclaimed experiments by high-profile artists, suggest that these scores, which seemed to have become fossilised over the years, are starting to benefit from a far more flexible approach.
Part of this process, Josep Colom is becoming, album by album, an key performer for those of us who are keen for music that elicited such contrasting reactions when it was first heard to enjoy a vibrant, imaginative future. Listen, for example, to the changes in tessitura in Op.109, the dynamic subtleties that literally reinvent the Bagatelle, op.126 no.5 with which this album begins, or the phrasing in the Arioso section of the Sonata, op.110, with its rubato so open to the flexibility of speech and its dynamic variations suggesting a declamatory style which, without leaving the codes of opera seria behind, appears to embrace the emotional immediacy of song. Not to mention Colom’s ability to make the openings of all three sonatas sound fresh and unexpected even to a listener familiar with these works – they flow seamlessly from his transitional passages, as if they were natural extensions to the preceding bagatelles.
In a world that seems to feed on quick listening and permanent fragmentation, this album rewards a different kind of attention: that which comes from appreciating the fluidity of a sound-world full of internal and external references, enabling us to discover unexpected connections between works, or even bridges stretching towards realities that once seemed distant.
The first surprise to strike the listener, of course, is the freedom with which the text is treated, reminiscent of those bygone days when pianists did not necessarily confine themselves to the notes on the page. There are plenty of other references to the past as well. Not for generations, for example, has the Arietta of Op.111 been heard at a tempo at which a human voice could sing it and which is in keeping with the simplicity Beethoven himself calls for by marking it Adagio molto semplice e cantabile. That indication is difficult to square with the way in which, for the last fifty years, pianists have tended to opt for very slow tempos, breath marks a singer would find impossible, a tonal refinement pushed to its limit, and an excessive attention to detail.
The faster tempo chosen by Josep Colom and a use of accentuation that shows a respect for the simplicity of folk tunes both have the flavour of an ancient wisdom, rescued from other, very different priorities. And the final chord is kept short, as marked in the score (light years away from the prolonged versions to which tradition has accustomed us, which seem to project it into a metaphysical timelessness). This gives it a purity which, in itself, would be enough to make this album the focus of a discussion about what this music still has to offer us today, having already adapted itself to so many cultural changes throughout the two centuries of its existence.
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