Pastoral Sonata (op. 28) - Ludwig von Beethoven - two options for a singular masterpiece
Option 1 - Album Title: Beethoven the complete piano sonatas  / Bagatelles op. 119 – op. 126
Performer: Stephen Kovacevich.
Label: EMI Classics
Year: 1998.
Option 2 - Album Title: Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op.14 Nos 1 & 2; Op.26; Op.28
Performer: Murray Perahia.
Label: Sony Classical
Year: 2008

Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas constitute a great classical treasure and refer also to very large and extended choices. But what should be the one or two readings one ought to consider essential? This question will have us face many supporters of various pianists and undoubtedly many contestations. My personal preferences are definitely not the way to 'properly' understand Beethoven's music. I completely dislike any kind of musicologist assessment that refers to what would Beethoven might have wanted or thought. The score has been preserved. That’s it. Why must we understand what kind of subliminal message Beethoven might have hidden in his works? I am aware of the maestro's key role in the transformation and evolution of the sonata form and the impact of his strong personality on contemporaries and followers. If you are completely attached to this slavish notion of referring to Beethoven's original thoughts, I would ask how Beethoven would perform his sonatas were he still alive? Nobody knows. Even so we can be quite certain that he would play them differently. The man himself did not take much care naming his own compositions. The publishers at the time named his sonatas without consulting the composer. Yet the strength of each musical theme is so remarkable that it would be quite impossible to not recognize it easily even if the harmonic, modal or tonal aspects were to different.

What seems completely obvious to me is that each Beethoven work always highlights the impressive concept of natural strength. Beethoven needs to neither seduce nor beguile us. He takes us directly inside his music with firm authority and confidence. With certain pianists it simply becomes more evident as a natural unavoidability than others. To cover the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, it was named “Pastorale” by Beethoven's publisher at the time, A. Cranz. Published in 1801 it was dedicated to Count Joseph von Sonnenfels. The sonata was written at a time when Beethoven's alarm at his worsening deafness was on the rise. Nevertheless this sonata is a surprising image of serenity.

The entire sonata remains in the key of D major and follows the typical four-movement form of the classical sonata. It remains a delicate blend of tightness and fantasy: Allegro - Andante - Scherzo e Trio: Allegro vivace - Rondo: Allegro non troppo. Here I ought to explain what compelled me to write about this most overgrazed of the classical piano repertoire. I was listening last Sunday to France Musique, one of the most important French radio stations. In particular I paid attention to the “Tribune des critiques de disques”. This is one of the eldest French broadcasts which was launched in 1946 by the state's main radio channel. The concept is based on comparative listening of several versions of a given piece to solicit the opinion of four music critics or journalists. Last Sunday the chosen piece for the two-hour broadcast was the Pastorale Sonata. I will not list the various versions the panel considered but only cover the two most interesting ones. These are completely opposing readings and as such true polarities.

The first one I was very familiar with as I own the complete 32 Sonatas with Stephen Kovacevich on EMI Classics. The second was a new discovery despite an easily recognizable style. This was a recent Murray Perahia recording on Sony Classical . It is not difficult to distinguish these versions. Even the pianos sound radically different due to personal touch and mastering choices.

Kovacevich's sounds dark and wild. The microphones are very close to the instrument. Perahia's sounds elegant and at the same time full and meticulous. The microphones are placed farther away and the sound is undoubtedly more piano-like.

There of course are common features between two recordings which are separated by just ten years to make it a bit difficult invoking any big generational progression. First there is the sheer density of delivery which is truly compelling for either. I would again refer to the natural strength of Beethoven’s music. Both men are completely inside it and each delivers a truly masterful reading. In comparison to the Pollini or Bliss versions here there is no room for scholarly interpretation or simple boredom. Articulation too creates common ground between our two American protagonists. It is perhaps the key factor in Beethoven's repertoire. Both deliver perfect timing and rhythm, albeit each in his own style.

Evidently style is a big differentiator. Both are playing their own game without wearing the official Beethoven uniform. Universality in music does not exist. It is almost personal misfortune to believe this. I know many people dislike Kovacevich's complete piano sonatas because too much emphasis is placed on modernity. Does this represent disrespectful behavior? I don’t think so. In my opinion Kovacevich' intense and energetic game is remarkable and combines perfect technical accuracy and interpretative insights.

I must admit that occasionally more than a particular emotion, certain musicians make me embark on dreams. In front of them I experience music anew like a ten-year old without notions of obeisance or 'too much'. That type of experience is very liberating and invigorating. Others will necessarily think the contrary. Regarding Perahia the common reaction could be more dramatic still as he is generally not considered a pure Beethovenian. Despite not being part of the inner circle he taps into true grace here with a very appropriate reading of the 15th. Perhaps he better preserves the 'pastoral' spirit? In this case I would think that publisher A. Cranz was right about the unauthorized christening.

Under Murray Perahia's hands the works on this disc sound familiar yet fresh. The Allegro and Andante movements become quite stellar with a sense of articulation which might mark a kind of Beethovenian perfection. But the Scherzo sounds rather timid and the humorous elements of this short movement seem faded. Most critics point at this third movement as not completely conforming to Beethoven's concept. After listening to his two previous movements I however can't conceive of how Perahia could possibly have played the third differently. The final Rondo probably comes closest to the pastoral sense. Perahia doesn't miss a beat of the technical challenges involved whilst conserving a unique  delicacy, depth and amazing textural diversity. This exciting brilliant ending rounds off what is generally a calm sonata where Beethoven employed in one final movement many different moods, rhythms and harmonic textures.

Which is the better version, Kovacevich's or Perahia's? For me the answer is impossible. Both are quite perfect in their own way. Both have the intelligence of inspiration and coherence. You simply have to forget what Beethoven might have thought when he composed the 15th. Personally I think he could play it today either way if he were still alive. That makes these two CDs a highly recommended twofer buy.