BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 – Mari Kodama, piano – PentaTone

by | May 27, 2006 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 – Mari Kodama, piano – PentaTon Multichannel SACD 5186 063  72:00****:

Mari Kodama is an Alfred Brendel protégé and wife of conductor Kent Nagano. She appears to have initiated a strong Beethoven-sonata cycle, and this set of Op. 31 sonatas dates from 26-29 April 2004, recorded in the Netherlands. The piano sound is exemplary, especially as a piece like the G Major Sonata exploits contrasting registers in quick succession, and the high trills and bass tones neither ping nor shatter. We might approach Op. 31 as a set devoted to ambiguity – rhythmic, harmonic, and structural. Beethoven’s revolutionary temperament wants to renegotiate the musical wheel. Everything about the G Major Sonata suggests an air of experimentation, another of those products of Vulcan’s laboratory. The fierce humor of the first movement lies in its awkward syncopations, the failure of the hands to coordinate a steady pulse. The sudden urging of the mediant to develop the second theme might urge us to think Schubert is an influence here.

The Adagio plays like a parody of an aria, utilizing a trill and other ornaments that overstay their visit and collapse upon each other. The development is an abridged ABA pattern with occasional motivic development, a procedure Haydn liked late in his career. The last movement, played by Kodama with a breezy, light hand, is a Rondo which insists on dissolving its own thematic pattern, settling into a muted Adagio then a stormy Presto. The air of disingenuity in this piece links it to later mockeries of Classical form, like the Eighth Symphony.

Beethoven’s only Sonata in D Minor is an anomaly unto itself, melting our expectations of thematic definition. Stability emerges from the bass line, since the treble arpeggios and major seconds fail to delineate a song-like tune. Alternating between toccata and recitativo elements, Beethoven refuses to allow the piano to claim its identity as a singing or percussive instrument. The stormy impulses threaten to demonize the opening movement, and suddenly they disperse, only to allow the opening elements, arpeggios and quavers, muted then forceful reassertion. Nice graded dynamics from pianist Kodama, with deft pedal. Alternating dialogue patterns move the Adagio along, a three-voice procession with a march-like undercurrent. Kodama tenderly caresses the dolce theme, the pentatonic figure rising in muted waves, presentiments of Schumann. The most lovely playing of the moto-perpetuo Allegretto I ever heard on record is Dohnanyi’s, from a deleted Remington LP. But it was not the most texturally exact playing.  Kodama combines digital accuracy and dynamic savvy, alternating urging the music to sing and to gallop. High gloss in the upper register, lush bass harmonies, moments of Aeolian harp. As in the Moonlight Sonata (and Ravel’s Bolero), so little music goes a long way.

The E-flat Sonata, long a favorite of Haskil and Rubinstein, plays with harmonic identity, which gets lost in the staggered and running figures. Kodama plays the opening movement as a parody of Mozartean cleanliness of form, urging the four note motif as an adumbration of later works in more dramatic guise, the Appassionata and Fifth Symphony. Playfully resonant is Kodama’s realization. Her 2/4 Scherzo enjoys clear articulation and a decided bite in her sforzati and staccato notes, right along the lines that made Haskil a demon on this piece. Providing the only true cantilena in the entire Op. 31 opus, the Menuetto in E-flat basks in its own serenity. The Presto con fuoco is a Mendelssohnian tarantella in the virtuoso spirit, exploiting non-legato touches and charming hunt effects. Kodama meets Beethoven’s hurdles with a healthy, driven panache, a real sense of brio throughout.

— Gary Lemco

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