Beethoven's earliest sonatas can be regarded in different ways. Many prefer them as references to the style of Haydn and Mozart, and like them played in a very classical, lyrical style. Kovacevich doesn't. He approaches the early works as fully mature, powerful and stormy Beethoven. I've heard of people who don't like this, and I can understand why. Simply put, if you prefer Beethoven's early works as high-classical pieces this disc is not for you. On the other hand, those who like to hear a very adventurous and `new' take on these sonatas will find a lot of interesting playing here. And in my opinion, these three sonatas make a very interesting listening program together in Kovacevich's renditions.
Kovacevich treats the first F minor sonata as if it were almost equal to its big F minor brother, the Appassionata. He takes the first movement with an exhilarating aggressiveness and makes the final a very stormy happening. I'm not saying that this is *the* way of approaching the sonata but it's really interesting to hear the work played with so much mature-Beethovenian power. In the sunnier second sonata, he plays with a lot of power held in reserve, which is quite unusual for the work. Yet it sounds really humorously and full of life. The first movement sparkles, Kovacevich never loses grip on the subtle second movement and the capricious scherzo, and contrasts the outer and middle sections of the final allegretto (its exchange between major and minor returns in some of Beethoven's later rondo finals) very well. Finally, there's the third sonata that may be the best of the three: the light-fast first movement makes a very energetic and powerful statement, and so does the final. However, the Adagio is somewhat too fast for my taste: here I would prefer Arrau (Philips) or Richter (Praga). The Scherzo is heavily articulated but not to any excess.
So, this is an interesting disc with a rather different approach to the early sonatas than usually, but I think it works very well. If you like the early works played in a more `classical' style, try Perahia on Sony. I might prefer him over Kovacevich when it comes to general `reliability' and authenticity, but Kovacevich's powerful statements in these pieces are very well worth listening to. Of course I recommend getting the complete sonatas set instead of this single disc, but if you have bought the cycle in separate items you won't want to miss this.