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Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 30 - 32 - Kodama

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 30 - 32 - Kodama

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186389

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Op. 109, Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat Op. 110, Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111

Mari Kodama (piano)

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 7, 2012

Reviewing Beethoven sonatas is hazardous. Several ‘definitive’ recordings exist, most recently by Alfred Brendel; though experts disagree. Is it a matter of personal taste or, maybe, even of ‘make believe’? What makes a good interpretation? It is not easy to get a clear idea about the emotional roots of the sonatas. This may not be essential for Beethoven’s early sonatas, but, to my mind, increasingly so for the later ones. Beethoven said: ‘I compose what I feel in my heart’. For all I have read about the life and works of Beethoven, there is so much controversy that it is still a mystery to me what really went on inside on any particular moment and what ‘vision’ moved him to compose a particular sonata.

One thing is certain: Beethoven has always been intrigued by young and beautiful women. This has clearly found reflection in several of his sonatas. For instance in Op. 27/2 ‘Moonlight’, and Op. 78 ‘For Therese’. But in his continuous striving for fame and recognition, especially amongst nobility, he also drew inspiration from a mixture of impatience, anger and disappointment. It would be interesting to know how Beethoven himself played his sonatas.

Remarks to that effect from his old friend Wegeler were not always flattering: too rough, too loud. He (Wegeler) once took him to the pianist Sterkel, whose playing was light, gentle and feminine; Beethoven stood by and immediately copied. Others, like Romberg and Czerny were impressed by his ingenuity and virtuosity, though agreed that his playing was more often fierce and savage. And as his hearing grew worse, his hammering on the keys got worse too, until he decided to no longer play in public.

Another typical phenomenon is that Beethoven’s sonatas seem to be a man’s affair; complete cycles with women are rare. Annie Fischer’s cycle (Hungaroton) is fantastic, but the recorded sound is not optimal. The only new female cycle that I know of, is the one of the young Korean ‘You Tube’ piano acrobat, HJ Lim, to be issued shortly on EMI/RBCD. Does Mari Kodama stand a chance against stiff (male) competition and pre-conceived ideas about ‘Wunderkinder’ from the Far-East?

It is a known fact that the piano is amongst the most difficult instruments to record. Wide frequency spectrum and dynamics are demanding. If we take Arthur Schnabel, whose musical and emotional, yet very personal interpretation, seen by many as a landmark, as an example, we must sadly note that even in the best re-mastered CD form, it still sounds flat, tinny and, in the end, tiresome. Neither recording technicians nor the medium in those days were able to capture the full frequency band and the dynamics of a concert grand, thus losing much of the ‘real thing’. Other ‘definitive’ recordings (Backhaus, Kempff) suffer, albeit to a lesser degree, from poor sound, as well.

Kovachevich and certainly Brendel profit from modern recording techniques, much more able to convey the real picture. For some, these are ‘must have’ recordings, but I suspect that for RBCD limiters have been used to avoid distortion. (Not everyone is too concerned about that).

For me there is no question that Super Audio, with its superior resolution and dynamics, is by far the best medium for the piano.

In this respect, jubilant reviews of Igor Tchetuev on Caro Mitis are revealing. The more so, because Tchetuev is not one of the current Big Names. Not only is this another example of the fact that there is more talent out there than the big label marketing teams want us to believe, but also that there seems to be another element contributing to his success: Reviewers refer to the recording quality, bringing the beauty of the Fazioli grand piano into one’s living room. It would seem, therefore, that sound quality can and, indeed, does play a pertinent role in an overall appreciation.

Back to Kodama.

Some time ago I bought, out of curiosity rather than conviction, Mari Kodama’s account of the sonatas 16, 17 (Tempest) and 19 (The Hunt). I was immediately struck by the impact of her playing and the ‘realism’ of the recording. As if I was sitting next to her. Here, too, we deal with the same Polyhymnia people, responsible for the Caro Mitis recordings. This confirms my view that sound quality does not only play an important role in the overall appreciation, but also that ‘dynamics’ are an integral part of conveying ‘emotion’.

As for her musical credentials: Kodama’s playing grows on you. I bought several more of her recordings and the more I listened the more I liked what I heard. She has an elegant and a sensitive, female touch, but does at the same time not shy away from the more powerful passages. She combines a male approach with bringing out gentle and sometimes hidden feminine intentions. Her musical ‘palette’ stretches from searching to assertive. She, furthermore, refrains from unwanted glamour by not turning everything into a speed contest. Her playing resembles that of Alfred Brendel. Not surprisingly so, because he was for some time her teacher and mentor (like Paul Lewis, by the way).

At this stage of the ongoing cycle, I do not think that anyone has any doubts about Mrs. Kodama’s virtuosity and technical abilities. Musically, the proof of the pudding may be these complex last three ‘end of career’ sonatas.

Beethoven’s style had shifted away from a more structural approach to a kind of ‘story telling’. (Beethoven has always been surprised that people did not ‘see’ anything but music when they were playing his sonatas). Hence, the interpreter’s capacity to convey a story seems just as important as playing the notes. Kodama does not disappoint. In doing so, her tempi are faster than Brendel (decca), but not as fast as Brautigam (BIS). Maybe due to her cultural, Japanese background, her playing remains delicate throughout, even in the louder passages, and I am glad that she didn’t fall for the trap in the syncopated variation in the second movement of the ultimate sonata no. 32, Op. 111, playing it too jazzy like Pogorelic in his younger years. She thereafter takes you by the hand to the end of the road where Beethoven’s final piano tones die out in resignation and eternal fame.

Does all this make here a preferred choice? For me, there are no ‘definitive’ recordings. It is hard to believe that since Schnabel cs. there have not been others who are at least equally competent; each one perhaps telling a slightly different story. I think that Beethoven’s sonatas are strong enough to accommodate several approaches. And Kodama’s is certainly one of them, with the added advantage of glorious and realistic piano sound.

I, for one, look forward to the concluding issues of this cycle, with, among others, Beethoven’s best (his own words) and perhaps most difficult sonata no. 29 ‘Das Hammerklavier’.

Copyright © 2012 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Comment by wilbur - August 19, 2019 (1 of 4)

This is an outstanding disc, and certainly up there in terms of the quality of performance with the very best. Probably has not gained the attention it deserves on account of Kodama's ethnicity and gender, but that is a shame (and inexcusable). The recording is - by a margin - the best piano sound I have ever heard that is not live (and its plenty better than 90% of the live piano I have heard as well!). Wholeheartedly recommended!

Comment by Adrian Quanjer - August 20, 2019 (2 of 4)

Hi Wilbur,
Perhaps you did not read this review: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 30 - 32 - Kodama . Pentatone has issued the complete cycle in a box set: Beethoven: 32 Piano Sonatas - Kodama.
If you like her playing as much as I do, Berlin Classics is issuing the 5 Beethoven piano concerti with Mari’s husband, Kent Nagano, conducting. I have a preview copy, but I cannot publish a review here as it is a Red Book CD. (I’ve been told though that it will be released in Japan as SACD).

Comment by breydon_music - August 21, 2019 (3 of 4)

Adrian, that's very exciting news. I've had the Pentatone box for some time now and feel it is one of the jewels of their catalogue. Both Kodama and Pentatone deserve credit for not rushing the cycle out; the care taken over each recital really shows.

Comment by DYB - August 22, 2019 (4 of 4)

Personally I thought the set was nicely recorded and played, but terribly dull.