The Compact Collection

Rob Cowan on the Week's Classical CDs
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The Independent Culture

Stephen Kovacevich's Beethoven sonatas fit the season, though their storms are mercifully free of keyboard clatter. Big on both brawn and brain, he thunders through the Appassionata's first movement, but knows how to ease the tension, holding back for those massive chords that send the finale spiralling to its conclusion.

Stephen Kovacevich's Beethoven sonatas fit the season, though their storms are mercifully free of keyboard clatter. Big on both brawn and brain, he thunders through the Appassionata's first movement, but knows how to ease the tension, holding back for those massive chords that send the finale spiralling to its conclusion.

He's equally adept at modulating his tone. The E major's disarmingly simple opening motive spins a peaceful illusion before fierce staccato chords raise the alarm. Kovacevich also does a fine job with the second movement, a riot of colour rushing this way and that.

The little G major's first movement is a like a bagatelle with ambitions, especially here, with the rustic element underlined. And what a joy to hear Op 7's feel-good first movement given with such gusto. The Largo is rich in nuance, while third movement harbours a dramatic, Eroica-like trio.

If Kovacevich's efforts give rise to the odd grunt, Maurizio Pollini's singing on his new Deutsche Grammophon Diabelli Variations runs Glenn Gould close. Where Kovacevich's Beethoven is an impulsive charcoal sketch, Pollini's is aural sculpture. Not that it lacks spontaneity or depth of feeling. After driving us through fearsome crescendos (variation 5), dancing a polka (9), riding a helter-skelter (10), prophesying the musical future (15), summoning Mozart's Don Giovanni (22) and fuguing à la Bach (23), Beethoven suddenly draws a halt. Arpeggios signal a brief, humbling glance at the heavens before we're ushered back to the start with a quaint variant on the opening waltz. If the millennium witnesses a greater set of Diabellis, I hope I live long enough to hear it.

And if there's a wilder version of Beethoven's fourth Op 126 bagatelle than Richter's at Aldeburgh in 1975, I'd like to hear that too. Three other bagatelles share this BBC Legends CD with the C major Sonata Op 2, No 3 and a big statement of the Hammerklavier. Richter's dry-eyed Adagio will not please those weaned on Schnabel or Solomon, but the closing fugue is like musical scaffolding scrutinised by searchlights: crystal clear, an amazing feat of concentration. And the technical team has done wonders with the tape, if you can turn a deaf ear to a few coughs.

Beethoven Sonatas Opp 7, 54, 57 & 79 Kovacevich EMI CDC5 56965 2

Beethoven Diabelli Variations Pollini DG 459 645-2 (released 20 Nov)

Beethoven Bagatelles from Op 126, Sonatas Opp 2/3 & 106 Richter BBC Legends BBCL 4052-2

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