Late Beethoven: Commentary and Performance = Piano Sonatas 28-32; Diabelli Variations; 11 Bagatelles; Piano Piece in B-flat, Wo0 60; Piano Piece in F-sharp; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126; Cello Sonatas: No. 4 in C, Op. 102:1; No. 5 in D, Op. 102:2 – Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, piano/ Philipp Weihrauch, cello – Del Aguila 55306 (6 CDs), 245:07 ***1/2:
I am not sure it has been done before—coupling these late piano works (okay, cello sonatas don’t exactly fit the bill of piano-only, but these are late works and so fit the bill nicely) together in one set. One set I say—this is a large one, the six discs not absolutely needed (you could get everything on four)—packaged in the weirdest way I have ever seen, not unlike a Chinese puzzle of sorts. You can’t open either side of the box (the shelves pull out from the sides) without opening them both, and at once. Strange. Once I figured it out it was easy, but I don’t see the rhyme or reason in having to do this in the future since all the discs are on one side and only the very detailed and excellent commentary booklet on the other side.
The performances here are fascinating—I wish that meant always successful but this is not the case. Guembes-Buchanan is an extraordinarily deliberate and cautious pianist—there is little penchant for taking risks. Sometimes this works and other times it does not, especially when dealing with Beethoven. The first three of the late Piano Sonatas are what I would term noble failures. Especially the “Hammerklavier” a monumental work of unbelievable structure and requiring incredible fortitude, also requires a lot of throwing caution to the wind in order for it to sound the way Beethoven surely intended. Here we have a mountain climber uncertain of the terrain; Step by step she proceeds, fearful of a fatal misstep, and she makes it to the mountaintop only to realize that she took the public footpath instead of the more treacherous and rewarding steep climb. ”The road less travelled” is definitely an apt description of what should be done in the sonata and is not in most instances including this one. We get to view the terrain from the top but are left without the thrill of getting there.
Also suffering from this approach are the two late cello sonatas, very straightforward and monochromatic in tone with little excitement. The playing of cellist Philipp Weihrauch doesn’t help—his indecisive and tepid approach to these works render him uncompetitive with virtually every recorded performance I know, and Guembes-Buchanan is out to sea here as well with an accompaniment that lacks passion.
But there is a definitive flip side to this strange collection. When Sonatas Nos. 31 and 32 are performed I am completely transported; due to the more constrictive nature of the formal properties of these last two piano sonatas, Guembes-Buchanan’s natural propensity to veering neither to the right nor to the left pays outstanding dividends. Quite honestly these two readings are among the best I know, the sheer intellectual exuberance of both performances translating into vibrant and exciting experiences well worth having. Likewise the often difficult to put across Diabelli Variations, Beethoven’s last attempt at this form, receive a soaring reading here, one that catapults this recording to a rarified place among the best available. If you don’t know—or don’t like—this piece, you must try this reading. It will convince you.
The last disc is full of fragments and the two late sets of Bagatelles, some of the composer’s most colorful and tightly-knit works. Guembes-Buchanan does them all beautifully, again displaying a rigorous and solid internal concept of the pieces and an ability to convince a willing hearer. The whole set, despite the excellent concept, cannot be regarded as wholly successful; but the clear and very warm sound, along with some other performances that are far more than convincing, and even sterling, make it recommendable.
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre