Recently two difference performances of Beethoven's last three piano sonatas came into my gravitational orbit, both of which are played on a fortepiano. The first is played by Penelope Crawford (an American academic), the second by Alexei Lubimov, a pupil of Maria Yudina and Heinrich Neuhaus.
Yes, one can focus on their respective instruments and temperaments but surely such considerations are mundane - what an ominous word to use of late Beethoven; one's focus, rather, should be on payload. Come immersion into this music of the spheres, is one left earthbound or airborne?
Crawford is a fine exponent of her art - I wish I could play like that - but once the novelty of the fortepiano has worn away, she has to compete with any number of virtuosos who have measured themselves against these stupendous creations. Indeed, Opus 109, 110 & 111 could be likened to an African watering-hole where predators congregate in search of `easy meat'. I marvel at Crawford's technique and musicality but vision is lacking, particularly in the second movement of Opus 111. Likewise, her Opus 110 is enjoyable but explicable. Come the final bar, I looked down at my feet: those big Size 14 paddles were still anchored to the third rock from the sun.
Lubimov is another matter. One soon forgets that he is playing something other than a Bosendorfer with a V12 engine under the bonnet; in my mind, this is always a sure-sign that a period-practice performance is right on the money. He is far more successful in evoking the Cosmic Clock which chugs away at the heart of Opus 109 (Andante molto cantabile ed expressivo, 3'48"ff). Even Prospero would marvel at the magic on display at Opus 110 and its Fugue in particular - Beethoven was surely right to claim that music is a higher revelation than all the tenets of philosophy combined. Likewise, Lubimov undercuts any number of tour-operators who offer a trip to the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt Tabor; why fork out such cash (and endure such danger) when you can hear Alexei evoke eternity so iridescently in the finale of Opus 111?
I would not say that Lubimov necessarily supplants Kempff 1964 in my affections - but there is now a forty-five minute or so period in my life which I cannot account for.
All power to Penelope Crawford but there is a key distinction between a fine player and a virtuoso on whatever instrument; a comparison of these discs makes that abundantly clear. The recording is excellent in each instance.
If I am invited to watch a godchild perform in a school play or choir, I do not apply the same critical standards that I would if I had paid serious money for a West End seat. I smile indulgently, look for the spirit and enthusiasm behind the performance and even genuinely admire certain aspects of the raw talent on display. Standing about afterwards, a glass of warm Chardonnay in hand, I don't launch into a critical diatribe in which I detail the artistic, technical and aesthetic failings in the evening's offering.
This is rather laboriously to convey, dear reader, how I feel about recordings of Beethoven sonatas on the forte piano. This instrument, nicely reconditioned, hails from 1828, two years after LVB's demise, and sometimes sounds it. True, it's not clattery, nor is it out of tune, but by 'eck, it's clearly old; it revived fond memories of my banging about as an eight year old on the sturdy beast in the upstairs parlour above the corner shop belonging to my maiden aunts. Or, to borrow another comparison, have you ever heard an elderly singer attempt to reprise lost glories? More Adelina Patti than Florence Foster Jenkins, I grant you, but still...
OK; enough whimsy. If you want to hear a clearly splendid musician make the best case for these works on the fortepiano, this is it. I don't; five minutes into Lubimov chuntering and puttering his way through the Arietta of Op.111, I find myself screaming for Serkin, Gilels and even Paul Lewis on a modern instrument. Lubimov phrases most sensitively and is dynamically nuanced; he understands the music and has a vision of it which is as effectively and nostalgically conveyed as his old Joanna permits.
Of course, my reaction flies in the face of current received critical wisdom, whereby every paid critic goes into hyperdrive to pay homage at the HIP shrine and would rather be arrested for indecent exposure in a public place than seem out of step with the new orthodoxy. But that's how I hear it.