Solzhenitsyn Plays Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos 27 in e minor, Op. 90 (1814), 28 in A, Op. 101 (1816) & 29 in B-flat, Op. 106 (1818); Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano (Steinway, New York, model D, CD 403); Illuvium IL 1770-2, © 2013, TT 79:16, $14.97 @ CDBaby.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn,* a regular visitor to NC, has chosen for his first recording of Beethoven to offer the trio of sonatas that precede the famous final three. In his informative, interesting, and thoughtful note in the accompanying 20-page (including the covers) booklet entitled “From Philosophy to Revelation,” he describes them as the “bridge between the so-called middle and late periods of Beethoven’s output” (p. 5). The note is in English and Russian by him with German and French translations following. Track listings with timings are on p. 3, recording credits on p. 19; the venue was LeFrak Hall in the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College, NYC, shown on p. 18. All eight photos are in color.

Some of the members of this trio of sonatas are much less frequently played than those of the final one, and than many of the earlier sonatas, even if we exclude the ubiquitous nicknamed ones from consideration, so his choice is a welcome addition to the inventory, and it is interesting to hear his interpretation of them as a group, since the last five are often treated as a group, with No. 27 thereby being eliminated from the equation.

Solzhenitsyn’s touch is clear, crisp, and precise, and his dynamics are well controlled and restrained; there’s little exuberant or inordinate banging. He does not succumb to the temptation, as many pianists do (probably for perceiving Beethoven as a Romantic rather than a Classical era composer) of overly dramatic and powerful executions. His music is about the musicality and the uncommon and untraditional, sometimes characterized as revolutionary invention, not the overt physical display of emotion.

As an aficionado of historically informed performances on period instruments or replicas thereof, I have come to view Ronald Brautigam‘s traversal of Beethoven’s works (three or four volumes are yet to be released, but the sonatas are complete) as a benchmark for my evaluations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Beethoven on a modern Steinway, the sound is completely different from any that Beethoven ever heard, in his real or his mind’s ear(s), and likely from anything he might have imagined. In addition to being more powerful, something which Beethoven is said, rightly or wrongly, to have always wanted, the sound is also more glaringly bright, harsher even, heavier, weightier, less light, less airy, and less musical than that of the pianos he knew, owned, and played. It is not plausible to assert, as many do, that he would have loved the modern Steinway.

A modern Steinway is also far more uniform across the registers, with less differentiation between the sonorities of the bass and the treble, for example, and it is not at all certain that Beethoven would have liked sacrificing that attribute, one that I personally especially enjoy, or the other lost qualities of the sounds the instruments of his time offered. As it happens, a pianist acquaintance of mine owns examples of the exact same replicas that Brautigam uses in his recordings, and I have the occasion to hear them from time to time in the flesh, as it were, so this admittedly influences my choice of benchmark.

Although Solzhenitsyn’s tempos do not seem inordinately slow, he takes longer to execute these sonatas than does Brautigam  – from 1.75 minutes more for No. 27 to just under 3, for No. 28, to 3.25, for No. 29. Brautigam’s performances do not seem in any way rushed, although they do seem to have greater differences between the slow and fast tempos.

In his note in the booklet, Solzhenitsyn speaks of the difficulty of playing the Op. 29, “Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier” (the name given by Beethoven, unlike the other “nicknames,” that he does not mention), the longest of all the sonatas, and universally said to be the most demanding to play: “The immense challenges begin at once with the audacious left-hand leaps of the first theme and continue with stretches, jumps, octaves, split-hand trills, and close-knit writing where the hands can barely keep out of each other’s way, all unfolding at a dizzying tempo (assuming that one attempts even an approximation of the composer’s forbidding metronome mark ♪ = 138” (p. 6).

He likely would have fewer of these problems on an instrument of Beethoven’s time because of the differences in construction. The keys are narrower and shorter and travel a shallower depth to activate the mechanism; therefore, more can be struck in rapid-fire succession and in a shorter time, and octaves and stretches aren’t as wide, suggesting that the metronome mark might be more easily attainable. Of course, I have no way of knowing if Brautigam attains it, but he must come closer.

For No, 28, Solzhenitsyn plays in a single final movement what most, including Brautigam, play as two separate ones. He gives his justification in his note: “[…] such a view fails to account for the pivotal role played by the Zeitmaß des ersten Stücks [tempo/expression marking at the junction of the two movements] not only in illuminating the thematic genesis of the Geschwinde [doch nicht su sehr und mit Entschlossenheit (mvt. 4)], but in effecting the crucial psychological shift from the sacramental symmetry of the Langsam [und sehnsuchtsvoll (mvt. 3)] to the unbridled jubilation of the Geschwinde” (p. 6). I cite this to illustrate the careful reasoning that I attributed to Solzhenitsyn above; I am not qualified to pass judgment on the decision, but the music flows along smoothly.

This is a fine, well nuanced, sensitive, and convincing performance, one that is very pleasing and satisfying. Solzhenitsyn handles the Steinway extremely well and tames its power that might compromise Beethoven’s music, even managing to create some differentiation between the bass and soprano registers, although there is no question that the fortes are less musical than on a period piano, as is evidenced by those in Brautigam’s generally much more aggressive, insofar as dynamics are concerned, reading of these works (not in order and split between 2 CDs), readings that would be disastrous on a modern Steinway. That Solzhenitsyn chose this trio of sonatas for his Beethoven début recording speaks volumes about his considered perspective and restrained style that is eminently on display in the superb playing readily apparent to the ear. He makes a good case for his view; whether it prevails or not needs to be determined by a greater expert than I.

*Son of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.