BEETHOVEN: Fantasia in G min./B maj. Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, 14 & 17 / Sophia Agranovich, pno / Centaur CRC 3828
This is the sort of CD that I normally do not review simply because the material has been done to death by hundreds of other pianists over the years, but since I know from past experience that Sophia Agranovich is an artist who brings intense commitment and a fresh “take” on music to her performances, I decided to include it.
And indeed, she is different—quite different, in fact—in her performance of the Fantasia (less recorded than the sonatas but not as rare as one might think). Her take on it is that it is the closest we can probably come to the way Beethoven improvised in his concerts, that it is an improvisation which he wrote out and published, and that is how she plays it.
The result is indeed quite different from other pianists, almost startling in fact. For one thing, she uses less legato and less pedal than Alfred Brendel or Jenő Jandó as well as introducing moments of rubato and “spacing” the music differently. In the quiet section around 3:40, she almost makes it sound as if she herself were “thinking the music through” as if improvising it into being herself. This is a performance that has the same odd but invigorating effect as her recording of Schumann’s Carnaval, which I consider to be both a unique and a masterful interpretation unlike any other.
Agranovich plays a Steinway D model piano, yet the way she plays it closer resembles the Steinway CD 318. the model Glenn Gould used. This approach lends a sort of “halfway historically informed practice” feeling to her playing here, using a bright, focused tone without the lushness one normally hears from a Steinway D. If I have any issue with this performance, it is that dryness of tone does not always “bind” the phrases as one is used to, but the utter spontaneity with which she plays makes up for this.
Another good example of what I mean can be heard in the first movement of the “Pathétique” Sonata, where Beethoven quite explicitly instructs that the sustain pedal should be used for the forte chords in the slow introduction. Agranovich does indeed use the Steinway’s sustain pedal, but once again the sound is quite different from what one hears from larger-framed instruments. There is also a certain amount of détache used in her playing of the remainder of the first movement, a way of articulating the notes that took me by surprise. I’m not sure that it’s stylistically correct, but it’s certainly different. She also plays much of the first movement somewhat slower than Beethoven’s written tempo. This puzzled me a bit since she has a sterling technique and could easily have taken it at the quicker pace. In the famous second movement, her pace is Beethoven’s and the phrasing more conventional, and it is played with great lyricism. The finale is closer to score tempo than the first.
Agranovich’s reading of the first movement of the “Moonlight” sonata bears a striking resemblance to the famous recording left us by Cutner Solomon, only not quite as slow as his. Here, the feeling of détache in her playing fits the mood perfectly. The second movement, however, is taken a bit slowly, but you know what? It sounds good this way. I’ve long felt that writing such a fast, jaunty second movement in triple time after the moodiness of the first was not really such a great idea. Interestingly, Paderewski also played it at this tempo, at least on one of his recordings. The third movement, also a bit slower than normal, closes out the performance.
Agranovich’s idiosyncratic phrasing can also be heard in the “Tempest” sonata. By this point, most listeners will have adjusted their ears to her very personal sense of phrasing. One thing you have to say about her, she is no mere cookie-cutter interpreter. She has her own way of hearing and presenting the music she plays, and sounds like no one else in the world, thus her Beethoven is entirely unique. Would that all modern-day pianists had a personal style as she does!
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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