Beethoven, Piano Sonatas, Opus 2 (Nos. 1 in F minor, 2 in A major and 3 in C major), performed by Alfred Brendel (Philips Classics 442124) and Murray Perahia (Sony Classical 64397)
Alfred Brendel's disc is part of his current cycle-in-progress of the sonatas -- when completed, it will be his third. That Perahia's disc contains all three of the first sonatas for piano Beethoven published suggests that it may have been intended as the first volume in a complete cycle. If that is true -- and if the cycle is completed -- that would be very good news: Perahia's performances of the composer's first triptych of sonatas are tremendous.
The reason one uses the conditional case in describing Perahia's disc is misgivings about the pianist's health. He did not perform publicly in 1992 and 1993. The reason given was that he wanted a sabbatical to re-think his repertory and learn new pieces. Rumors in the music community, however, suggested that Perahia had seriously injured one of his hands. He resumed performing in 1994 -- which is when he recorded the first two sonatas of Opus 2 and a superb disc of Chopin's Four Ballades -- but canceled all of his concerts in the second half of the 1994-1995 season.
If Perahia, now 48, does not resume recording and concertizing, these Beethoven performances indicate what a major loss that would be. No one needs to be told what a distinguished Beethoven player Brendel is, but Perahia's account bests the older man's in almost every way. In the C-major Sonata, for example, Brendel cannot match the American's muscularity. In the first movement, both pianists lay out the music's architecture intelligently, but Perahia makes the trip much more exciting, and he has the power to make the tremendous coda dramatic while Brendel sounds labored in comparison. In the same sonata's slow movement -- the composer's best up to that time -- Perahia makes the transition at bar 11 from song-like lyricism to tragic intensity more mysterious and moving. In the final two movements, Perahia's scherzo is wittier and his finale is more virtuosic; similar comparisons, mostly favorable to the American, could be made about the remaining eight movements in Opus 2.
Tchaikovsky, Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Saint-Saens,
Concerto No. 2 in G minor, performed by pianist Andre Watts and the Atlanta Symphony, Yoel Levi conducting (Telarc 80386)
Both of these warhorses have been part of the Watts repertory for years -- he recorded the Tchaikovsky about 20 years ago with Leonard Bernstein -- and these performances provide few surprises. They are pitched, by soloist and conductor alike, to produce excitement. But some listeners -- this one, for example -- will find them merely loud and vulgar. A note on the recording informs that Watts has left Yamaha to resume using Steinways. But the Watts tone is as brazen and as relatively colorless as ever.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear an excerpt of Murray Perahia playing Beethoven's piano sonatas, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.