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Positive Feedback ISSUE 50
july/august 2010


Notes of an Amateur: Beethoven
by Bob Neill




Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, Daniel Muller-Schott, cello. Angela Hewett, piano. Hyperion CDA 67633 and 67755.

Foolish fellow me. I avoided this pair of albums when they came out a while back because I had decided that Angela Hewett for all of her undeniable merits was too pedagogical for Beethoven. I had no idea who the cellist was and moved on by. Then sometimes over-enthusiastic Fanfare reviewer Jerry Dubins, who nevertheless can usually be trusted on cello matters, began raving about Daniel Muller-Schott as the not-to be-missed new cellist on the block.

He got that right—and if I get around to it, I'll report on Muller-Schott's Elgar, Walton, and Shostakovich cello concertos down the road. This young man is a marvel. Marrying the lyricism of the French style (most recently Anne Gastinel) to the vigorous and robust sound of Rostropovich and Heinrich Schiff (one of his teachers), he brings just the stylistic complexity and contrast that Beethoven demands. And pairing this strong singing voice with Hewett's controlled, formal style turns out to be programming genius. Hewett provides a crisp, highly articulate 'background,' Muller-Schott a forceful and virtuosic foreground. Even when they are playing lines close together as a duo, their clearly different styles complement each other, letting us here Beethoven's two sides simultaneously.

This may be the most faithful recorded performance of this essential music we have, one that combines the different strengths of others, giving us what sounds and feels definitive. I've yet to hear a more beautiful and commanding performance of the Opus 102/2 sonata: it's as if the too musicians are dancing together.



Beethoven, Complete Piano Concertos, Paul Lewis, piano. BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek, conductor. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902053-55. (3 CD's)

Which brings us to Paul Lewis' new set of the piano concertos. With the reception of his complete set of the piano sonatas received, it made good business sense to move on to the concertos, though musically this doesn't always work out.

In this case, it works out fine. I am intentionally not consulting my review of the sonatas [] and giving Lewis a fresh take here. What I hear from him in these performances is restraint. And Belohlavek goes along, not that he had a choice! This is graceful, poetic, Viennese Beethoven. If you've had enough of bold and brash Beethoven, you will welcome Lewis. There is plenty of energy and flair where it's called for (the Rondos), but it is Mozartian energy. I think I remember comparing Lewis with Alfred Brendel (one of his teachers) in the sonatas review, and that comparison still feels right. Both pianists have their eye on the beauty. Lewis may be a little quicker off the keys, giving his Beethoven a bit more zest.

These are performances that will not wow but may well wear well and grow on you. I usually prefer more vigor in my Beethoven, but I gave Lewis time to make his alternative case and he did. Refinement and restraint are underrated virtues in performances of this music, by me and many others, I'm sure. They offer what we sometimes call a European view of the music. Lewis taught me a good deal here, which is one of the reasons I write these columns. I like being surprised, having my established opinions challenged. I will be interested to hear how this set is received by the major reviewing organs.



Beethoven, The Symphonies, Osma Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra. BIS SACD 1825-26. (5 discs)

Which takes us to Osma Vanska's splendid new edition of the Beethoven symphonies. We get a new release of the symphonies every few years, most of which pass by without much fuss, which is as it should be. The last few years there have been a couple that deservedly caught the eye: David Zinman's and Jos Von Immerseel's, each of which had something fresh to say, at least about the even numbered symphonies, which respond well to the fashion of light and brisk. Immerseel uses period instruments, Zinman modern ones that sound a good deal like Immerseel's. Both are genuinely exciting to listen to but neither is entirely satisfying on the odd numbered symphonies, which really need more weight to move us than either Zinman or Von Immerseel can muster. No one recently has found a way to get all of the symphonies in the way we used to think they were gotten. With both air and well, beef. To play Symphonies 3, 5, 7, and 9 without sufficient weight is to risk trivializing them, as critic Richard Taruskin wrote about Roger Norrington's ground-breaking Symphony No. 9 on period instruments.

Enter Vanska, who got here by way of Sibelius. Vanska's Sibelius is the best I've heard. And its virtues have passed to the Finnish conductor's Beethoven. Vanska plays Beethoven lighter than Szell and Von Karajan, but not as light as the period instrument bands. He plays him dynamic and stunningly clear a la Zinman and Immerseel; but unlike them, he plays him full. The sound has body that the period groups lack. And, as with his Sibelius, Vanska understands their poetry. He grabs us with the first notes of Symphony No. 1 and refuses to let us go, all the way through No. 9. His tempos are not especially fast but the performances have forward momentum and drive which makes them seem fast. This is key to his success with especially Symphonies 3, 5, 7, and 9. And he gets Beethoven's essential ingredient—rhythm—absolutely right. Shifting accented beats and syncopation in particular sound both arresting and natural. And he gets the dynamics right, from piano to piano forte and back again on cue. Most important, Vanska's Beethoven hangs together as a compelling emotional narrative better than any I've heard in years. This music sings! His Sibelius has the same quality: utterly involving, utterly convincing.

Again, in case you missed it, Vanska's approach works for all of the symphonies: grace and power abound. Symphony No. 9, the ultimate test, captures all of Vanska's virtues: it is dynamic, full, transparent, and powerful but without the thickness treasured in the early 1950's and 1960's; and there is no hint of 1990's 'authentic' astringency. Vanska and his modern incarnation of Dorati's Minneapolis Symphony have emerged from the twentieth century with a new vibrant, full, weighty, and crystal clear sound. I can't wait to hear their new Bruckner 4!

A review of an album this great should go on and on but there is really nothing else to say. If you want a definitive performance of Beethoven's symphonies in state of the art (CD and SACD) sound, this is it.

System used for the audition: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature. Blue Circle FtTH hybrid integrated amplifier. Jean Marie Reynaud Cantabile Supreme loudspeakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas and AN/Vx interconnects; Audio Note Lexus speaker cables.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.