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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 12, 13, 15, 24 & 27 - Kodama

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 12, 13, 15, 24 & 27 - Kodama

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186390 (2 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 26, 27/1, 28, 78, 90

Mari Kodama (piano)

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - January 2, 2013

With the exception of sonata no. 27, this two disk set is a selection of sonatas from Beethoven’s first decade (1792-1802) in Vienna; the Haydn-Mozart inspired or influenced ‘classic’ period, covering about half of his 32 sonatas.

For most, these sonatas may not be a top choice, but it certainly is an interesting mix, with Nos. 13 and 27 being the best known. Each sonata has its particularities; none are the same. The excellent liner notes deal in detail with each one, which, composed towards the end of the decade, belong in fact to Beethoven’s ‘middle period’.

Mari Kodama’s technical capabilities are widely appreciated; from a musical standpoint her performances have, however, sometimes met with mixed feelings: too polished, too ‘soft’, too predictable, and too mechanical. Is it because some hold the view that Beethoven should always be played with more ‘oomph’, with more speed and urging pressure, like ‘the maestro himself would have played them’?

The question how Beethoven would have played these sonatas, is not easy to answer. The more so, since not many clues to this effect are readily available. As I mentioned in a previous review, some of his friends were often appalled by his rough and loud playing. This can be explained by a steadily deterioration of his hearing, the fact that Beethoven was not only not able to hear himself playing, but also because of his frustration that such was the case. If so, it must be noted that the sonatas in this set were composed when his hearing was still not too impaired, thus giving no reason to play it any louder, bolder or angrier than the music and, indeed, the markings ask for.

Moreover, Beethoven said on several occasions that he could not understand that pianists did not ‘see’ anything when playing his sonatas. In other words he did. It would seem to me that not all of his ‘visual’ thoughts require force, speed and urging pressure. Many of his early, ‘classic’ sonatas suggest other images than in his subsequent ‘romantic’ period, where reflection and emotion often seem to ‘battle’ with ‘sehnsucht’, hope and glory.

Kodama observes (with one or two exceptions) all the markings in the score, showing restraint and intuition. On the other hand, as it is not always clear what moved Beethoven and what were his guiding compositional ‘visions’, there is room for further interpretation. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that where music stands out from other forms of art, like, for instance, painting and sculpture? These works of art are finished. You admire it or you don’t. Music still needs to be interpreted when passing on the artistic value to the listener. Interpreters can make it or brake it, but it also allows for enjoying various approaches and not just the (in my view the non-existing) ‘definitive’ one.

In her interpretation Kodama seems to have a secret formula. Some will like it, others maybe not so. Since she has not to worry about the technical problems many of the Beethoven sonatas pose, and since she does not have, nor want to prove how good she is, she is able to take ample time for reflection on the intrinsic value and the subtle elements in each of the sonatas as she sees it. The fact that she is Japanese and a woman brings out the extra flavour that is sometimes missing in routinely played and recorded ‘male’ versions: i.e. elegance, tenderness, finesse, sensibility and even a kind of meditation, to name but a few qualifications, while at the same time not shunning extrovert and powerful expression where needed to get Beethoven’s assumed imagery feelings across.

It is a pity that right in the first sonata, No. 11, Op. 22, she did not inject some more ‘expressione’ in the second movement, as this may set a negative tone for what is to follow. As far as I am concerned, it is only a minor disagreement in an otherwise fine recital.

One of the center pieces in this set, the No. 13 ‘fantasy’ sonata, thoughtful and judiciously played, with clear ‘attacca subito’, not too heavy and certainly not too fast. After all, this sonata must have been meant to please Princess Josephine of Lichtenstein, to which it was dedicated.

And although sonata No. 27 does not belong to Beethoven’s classic, but rather to his subsequent romantic period, it fits in well with the overall programme. Here, too, she takes time to express herself, combining ‘Lebhaft’ with ‘Empfindung und Ausdruck’ (liveliness with sensibility and expression) in the first movement, letting the music sing in the second.

In spite of a ‘marcia funebre’ in sonata No. 26 this positively shaped recital leaves the listener with a sense of happiness. A welcome start for a new year, which to most, if not all, does as yet not give much reason to optimism.

True, Mari Kodama is not a power house, nor a Speedy Gonzales; but she is fascinating all the same. If you are looking for a different, more feminine approach, then she should be on your short list. I shall eagerly await the final installment.

The sound is, once more, exemplary. Recorded in Concertboerderij Valthermond, The Netherlands. The same venue where Nareh Arghamanyan’s amazing Rachmaninov recital has been recorded by the same Polyhymnia team.

Copyright © 2013 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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