International Piano

There are several dozen single- or double-disc sets combining Beethoven’s Pathétique, Moonlight and Appassionata Sonatas available in the shops (the present R.E.D. Classical Catalogue lists over 40 of them), one of music’s most enduringly popular programmes. Is there that could be new to say about such overplayed works?

Well, a clear scholarly purpose lies behind at least Anthony Goldstone’s recording for The Divine Art of the Pathétique, unusually with the first movement’s exposition repeat including the entire Grave introduction. To do otherwise, as he writes in the booklet (quoting Denis Mathews), unbalances the “dual-tempo movement and makes nonsense of the ‘first-time bar’ pause”. To prove his point, he adds a bonus track of the whole first movement with the conventional repeat from the start of the Allegro di molto e con brio. However, as Jean-Pascal Vachon notes in his accompanying essay to BIS’ rival newcomer, older editions such as those by Kalmus and Schnabel, included the introduction as a whole in the repeat—which is also how Freddy Kempf plays the work.

The two performances make for intriguing if unexpected comparisons. Goldstone’s is undeniably the product of intimate knowledge and long experience of the score through the fingertips as much as the eye, yet his is substantially the swifter, by over two-and-a-half minutes. This is not due to any lack of impulsion on Kempf’s part; indeed there is something of the impulsive, a young man’s music-making here, with extremes of tempo close in spirit to Beethoven’s intentions. Goldstone is noticeably fleeter throughout the first two movements, preferable in the lovely central Adagio cantabile where Kempf seems to me more generically ‘modern’ (and slightly too slow), albeit beautifully phrased.

The same virtues and differences of approach colour the Moonlight and Appassionata. There’s little to choose between them in the latter though in the Moonlight Kempf’s dreamier, more impressionistic way with the opening span won me over, aided by BIS’ sensational sound. By comparison, the close acoustic of Wisbech Grammar School for Goldstone seems harsh (though never claustrophobic) and may be rather more in keeping with the acoustic Beethoven might expected. (For the sound, wait for Ronald Brautigam to reach these in his fortepiano series, also for BIS; John Kitchen enthusiastically reviewed the first volume, including the Pathétique in the November/December issue.) Goldstone throws in two extras apart from the alternative Pathétique movement: the delightful Variations on “God Save the King”, which should be much better known, and Moscheles’ splendid transcription of the “Fidelio” Overture. So which then is preferable? For interpretation I do prefer Goldstone’s clear-sighted views of these works, but there’s no denying the ravishing nature of BIS’ sound, which matches Kempf’s ardent, more heart-on-the-sleeve approach. You could always buy both.

—Guy Rickards