Ludwig van Beethoven
A pianist who records any of the Beethoven sonatas knows that he or she will be compared to the countless recordings that have gone before and those listeners' previous experiences will colour their judgement of the performances. Therefore, to meet with any critical acclaim for their recording the pianist must either produce an interpretation that ranks alongside one of the greats or alternatively, come up with something new. Either feat is hard to accomplish. However, when the main reason for producing a new CD of the sonatas is for your own personal pleasure this is not a problem. I believe this is the case with these two discs.
Donald Isler is not a name you will necessarily recognise even if you are a native New Yorker like he is. He has given recitals at Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls which is an accomplishment in itself. His teachers include Constance Keen and the late Bruce Hungerford.
So how does Isler play Beethoven? He is certainly not a Gilels or a Richter in his technical facility but he obviously knows and loves this composer. In the two discs reviewed here his ability to capture Beethoven’s essential ‘Sturm und Drang’ is self evident. What I do find interesting is that of the four sonatas played on these two discs, the higher the number the better the performance.
The opening bars of Op 10/1 show that Isler has thought about the structure of the opening movement. Where most pianists play the demisemiquavers of the upward running fifths as grace notes he rightly plays them as they are written. The gives the movement a different sense of rhythm and the key of C minor is given a softer hue. This is Beethoven, not Haydn, and the use of the correct device in the opening ties in with latter parts of the movement, making it coalesce in a far more coherent manner.
While I said that Isler didn’t have the technical ease of a Richter he certainly could have given him some pointers on how to play Beethoven slow movements. The temptation to rush parts of the Adagio is resisted and he draws out the drama with varying tones of light and shade.
I wish he’d taken the finale just a bit more slowly as this would have matched it up with the opening movement quite well. Once again Isler emphasizes the rhythmic motifs of the movement and to good effect.
Op 109 is one of the great sonata masterpieces of any era and while it doesn’t sound too difficult to play, to bring it off successfully takes quite a bit of thought and work. Many a pianist has fallen on their own sword here.
In the opening of Op 109 Isler’s rhythm is a bit uneven in places and you can hear him working hard to keep the tempo on an even keel. However, the Beethovenian essence is still there. The second movement is a very different matter with a much stronger sense of rhythm and the pianist brings out the dramatic climaxes well.
The last movement finds Isler on very firm ground. His ability to keep the momentum going in slow movements while keeping the listener interested is a lesson for many better known keyboard artists. He also maintains the overall shape of the movement and brings the whole sonata to a very satisfying conclusion. He contrasts the variations successfully and one is left with a feeling of satisfaction and repose at the end.
The CD ends with two works by Schnabel. Both are modern in tonality but by all means listenable. Isler brings a sense of vitality and flair to both works.
The Dance Suite, written to commemorate a wedding, is in five movements starting with a foxtrot followed by a passionate second movement which leads to the centerpiece of the work – a huge waltz. Schnabel asks the performer to hold up his hand at the end of the waltz to stifle any applause, wait for about 30 seconds then begin a completely atonal and shapeless 4th movement. The finale is lively and energetic and harmonically more daring than the first half of the work. It ends (to quote the pianist) with a “glorious bombast”. This is its first recording.
The Seven Pieces from 1947 is Schnabel’s last composition and according to his son, the finest. It is atonal in nature and the pieces are a collection of contrasting tempi and moods. They are quite listenable and are a good introduction to atonality for those wishing to dabble for the first time.
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Ludwig van Beethoven
Donald Isler - Piano
Beethoven - Piano Sonata No.5 in C, Op.10, No.1
- Molto Allegro E Con Brio
- Adagio Molto
- Finale: Prestissimo
Beeethoven - Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
- Vivace Ma Non Troppo
- Andante Molto Cantabile Ed Espressivo
Artur Schnabel - Seven Pieces for Piano
- Agitato, Vivace
- Con Moto
Artur Schnabel - Dance Suite
- First Rest/Wooing
- Second Rest/Relating Atmospherically