BEETHOVEN: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Mari Kodama, piano – PENTATONE multichannel SACD PTC 5186 490 (10 SACDs), [9/9/14] (Distr. by Naxos) ****1/2 :
Mari Kodama is probably all but unknown to most of the classical music world with the exception of two groups: those who follow conductor Kent Nagano, to whom she’s married, and those of us who still have an appreciation for the SACD format and multichannel recordings. She was one of the format’s early stars with her excellent traversals of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, which have been collected here for the first time in a bargain-priced 10-SACD disc set. The set is currently available for $86 U.S. [and as little as $66 on Amazon…Ed.], which even at less than nine dollars per disc is an absolute steal for multichannel SACDs – catalog reissues of standard CDs often easily sell from $12 to $15 each, and SACDs as much as $39 (and lots more for Japanese imports). [Of course these are all hybrid SACDs, playable on all CD players…Ed.]
These discs are all reissues, many of which have been covered here over the past decade or so, so I’m not going into specifics about each individual disc. There seems to be a broad divergence of opinion with regard to Beethoven sonata interpretation, and a handful of pundits out there seem to be of the opinion that Ms. Kodama doesn’t inflict enough of her own character into her readings here. Here’s my opinion: hogwash! Mari Kodama obviously knows her Beethoven, and her readings are filled with superb technique and tons of emotion. Last time I checked Beethoven didn’t really leave a lot of space for individual interpretation with his works; unlike with Mozart, not every soloist writes their own cadenzas, etc. These performances are first-rate throughout, and while they may not displace any of the historical favorites for definitive status, they definitely go toe-to-toe with any current traversal of the Complete Beethoven Sonatas.
And the sound here is absolutely glorious – Mari Kodama doesn’t inflict the vocal mannerisms or very heavy breathing that for me trouble so many of the current crop of pianists out there. On the one hand, I really want the sound to reflect as much of the live performance as possible, but I definitely don’t want the guy in the third row coughing his head off – I think you probably get my point. These recordings are truly magnificent, and that’s regardless of which layer you choose to listen to with any of these hybrid discs from Pentatone. If only they all got it right from a sound perspective, the way Pentatone seems to have from the very beginning!
Now, here is my unfortunate single quibble with this otherwise fantastic, bargain-of-the-century box: there’s a timing error on disc five, tracks 2 and 3. This was brought to my attention by a fellow reviewer, who also took the extra step of contacting Pentatone to get them to address the situation. He was playing the discs on an Oppo unit, and at the very tail end of tracks 2 and 3 of disc 5, the tracks are abruptly truncated before the playing time has finished. Pentatone’s response was that they were unable to duplicate the error with their own SACD equipment, so the error obviously must be on his end. End of story.
I currently have two SACD units, a Sony and a Yamaha, and I get the same error with both units, when playing either the stereo-only or multichannel SACD layer. Curiously, the Redbook CD layer plays through perfectly, and the listed track length for the CD layer is a few seconds longer for each of tracks 2 and 3 of disc 5. I find it very strange that three players from three different manufacturers all suffer from the same problem, and that Pentatone chose not to reveal which unit they used as their reference. I’ve also gone through every disc in the 10-disc set, listening to strictly the last few seconds of each to investigate the possibility of further timing errors and have come up empty-handed, so apparently the problem is limited to disc five of the set. [I’ve also seen this fault mentioned online, played on three Oppo D970s, and Oppo said they had no problem on their players. Very odd…Ed.]
While this is regrettable, it is what it is, and only impacts a probable total of perhaps ten seconds of the entire length of the 10-disc set. In this modern age of higher-resolution formats, I’ve noticed a number of problems with both SACDs and hi-res downloads; for example, even with SACDs, some of them still have that digital “fade to black” between tracks – I find that highly annoying. I’ve also found that with certain hi-res downloads, there’s an audible click between tracks – that also drives me crazy! But for 99.9 percent of my listening time with this otherwise exceptional set, the sound quality is crazy good! Very highly recommended, even with the very minor quibble.