Author Topic: Steven Herbert Smith Plays Beethoven  (Read 527 times)

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Offline Todd

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Steven Herbert Smith Plays Beethoven
« on: March 20, 2016, 10:33:23 AM »

Another set arrives out of the blue.  In January of last year, I found out that Younwha Lee, a pianist I had hitherto never even heard of, had recorded a complete LvB cycle.  I promptly bought, listened to, and enjoyed the cycle quite a bit.  The same thing happened in January 2014, when Yaeko Yamane's cycle appeared out of nowhere.  This year it was Steven Herbert Smith's turn.  Like Ms Lee and Ms Yamane, Mr Smith is a name entirely new to me.  He's a professor at the Penn State School of Music, and has done his fair share of performing and recording and, one presumes, research.  This cycle is of the super-mega-complete variety, with the Diabellis, Op 126, Opp 34 and 35, and a gaggle of small WoO works thrown in.  The set even includes two copies of the cycle: one on regular CDs and one MP3 set delivered on a bonus DVD, which also includes twenty four text pages of program notes, all bundled together in a convenient if not quite luxury multi-DVD box apparently produced by Mr Smith himself.  The big question: would I enjoy this cycle quite a bit?

Starting with disc one, I endeavored to find out.  The cycle opens with piano sonata number one, which is a good place to start.  Smith proceeds to play the sonata in a straight-forward fashion.  No extremes of tempo, no willful dynamics.  It's just good, clean Beethoven.  I could have used more intensity and the repeat in the Prestissimo, but the set gets off to a solid start.  Op 10/2 follows, and things go from good to better.  The Allegro and Allegretto are both on the slightly swift and tense side, and the repeatless Presto sounds both serious and fun(-ish).  The recital then moves on to two sets of opusless variations, WoO 70 and WoO 71.  These may very well be new pieces for me, and at the very least (or rather, most), I've listened to each maybe once or twice before.  I'd have to peruse my entire collection to know for sure.  In any event, both works are enjoyable and largely light.  The disc closes with Op 7.  Smith plays the Allegro with notable forward drive, pecking out the dotted rhythms handily, and adding some oomph where and as needed.  The Largo, taken at a slow tempo, and possessed of some terse chord endings, maintains a nice degree of tension, and the Allegro flows along nicely, with solid rhythm and snazzy sounding rumbling left hand playing.  It closes with an energetic, rollicking Rondo.  A very good opening disc.

Disc two starts off with 2/2.  Smith plays the repeatless Allegro vivace straight.  Quick and vibrant, it gives off the good time vibe.  A few of the more challenging passages display some slightly slower, more labored playing.  Smith plays the Largo at more an Adagio pace, or quicker, but gets the right feel, and the left hand playing is pointed and satisfying.  The Scherzo is jaunty fun, and the Rondo alternates between energetic fun and moderately touching, moderately lyrical playing.  10/1 follows.  Smith plays the ascending arpeggios in restrained fashion, and the movement seems a bit shier of brio than anticipated given some of the prior sonatas.  That's not to say it's bad, just less vivacious than other performances.  The Adagio molto, here more of an Andante, is quick-ish and generally quite vibrant.  No Deep Music here.  I mean that in the best possible way.  The Prestissimo is reasonably quick and vivacious and entertaining.  It seems a pattern emerges with this disc: Slow movements are quicker than normal, or at least sometimes expected (which can be good), and faster movements are a bit slower than normal, or at least usually expected (which can be good or not so good).  Just an observation.  Six Easy Variations WoO 77 follow, and its a nice if not especially memorable or essential work.  The disc ends with 2/3.  Smith takes the opening Allegro at a satisfying pace, but some of the playing lacks the last word in secure sound, and some transitions display hints of strain and stiffness.  (Of course, this is live, so it's also real.)  The Adagio is generally taut, and the tolling left hand notes sound somewhat hefty – they definitely lack ultimate heft; they stick out for not really sticking out.  The Scherzo is fairly conventional, though in the middle section, Smith's left hand playing becomes unusually prominent for a portion of the music, adding some more heft.  Smith plays the concluding Allegro assai with fine drive and rhythmic flair.  A couple strained passages belie the liveness of it all, and the somewhat limited dynamic range begins to become something of a limitation.  Still, all things considered, a very good disc.

Disc three opens with the Op 49 sonatas.  Both are played nicely and lightly enough, though both also sound a bit flat and display very little dynamic variation, or at least less than I normally hear.  The two Op 51 Rondos follow.  A bit more dynamic range is thrown in, and both sound suitably light.  The heavy duty stuff starts with the next work, Op 10/3.  The Presto sounds plodding and unsecure, and while there is dynamic variation, it is contained.  The playing also sounds congested, with the voices sometimes blurring together when they should sound distinct.  The Largo is a bit tense and ever so slightly swift, and while Smith ratcheted up intensity at times, the movement sounds small-scaled and never really offers enough drama to satisfy, and the usually fast playing in the latter part of the movement is slow-ish and blurred.  The Menuetto doesn't really offer a reprieve since one isn't needed and sounds pleasant but bland.  The work closes with a more satisfying Rondo, at least in the more secure outer sections, while the middle sounds a bit strained.  The disc closes with Op 13.  The Grave is swift and dynamically compressed, but tense, as is the Allegro.  When the Grave returns, the playing is a bit on the anemic side.  The Adagio is a bit on the quick side, but sounds appealing, and the Rondo, despite some stiff passages here and there, generally sounds energetic enough.  That written, nothing on this disc strikes me as world matching, let alone world beating.

Disc four opens with the Op 14 sonatas.  14/1 is conventional throughout.  Just about right tempi, nothing exaggerated, just a bit of personal rubato, and some oddly stiff playing before the Allegro commodo coda.  Maybe it verges on sounding just a bit too serious, though that's not serious enough to be a quibble.  14/2 gets much the same treatment, though here the seriousness of purpose is closer to being an issue.  Surely a lighter touch is needed here.  Still, it's not bad.  Op 26 follows.  Smith's serious style works better in Op 26.  The Andante and variations opener is nicely paced and the variations nicely varied, and the Scherzo is swift-ish and potent.  The funeral march is deadly serious and taut and played, or recorded, with a constrained dynamic range, which creates a sense of urgency, as opposed to drama, throughout.  The concluding Allegro has a somewhat indistinct, growling bass underpinning a generally sharp, bright-ish right hand which closes the work on solid footing.  Op 22 closes the disc.  Smith opens with a solid Allegro con brio.  It's got plenty of energy and weight, though the rhythmic sense is a little uninvolving and flat.  The Adagio is on the swift side and is cutting and clear, but it doesn't really engage the listener.  The outer sections of the Minuetto are pleasant enough, but the middle section is a bit slow and sounds as though the pianist is pushing his limits.  A decent disc.

Disc five starts what is called Volume II, The Romantic and Heroic Beethoven.  It contains the two Op 27 sonatas along with the Op 34 and 35 Variations.  In 27/1, Smith plays opening Andante and return pretty straight, with little in the way of personal touches, and the Allegro is nearly aggressive in tone and attack.  The Allegro molto e vivace is a bit slow and heavy sounding, and the Adagio, paced just a hair on the swift side, while not unattractive, is a bit stern.  Smith again comes alive a bit more in the Allegro, though the rhythmic pulse, as with Op 22, stays a bit unengaging and flat, and some playing is a bit rough around the edges.  (And I don't mean endearingly gruff, ŕ la Seymour Lipkin.)  Overall, a decent performance.  27/2 opens with a slightly swift and decently brooding Adagio sostenuto.  The Allegretto is nicely paced and conventional.  The Presto agitato starts off with plenty of energy and weight, and the bass line is vigorous, but some right hand chords sound undernourished.  Overall, a pretty good Moonlight.  The two sets of variations are well done.  I'm not big on either set, really, so I'm sure someone else could offer more pluses and minuses.  A good enough disc.

Disc six contains the Op 31 sonatas.  My kind of disc.  Smith plays the Allegro vivace of 31/1 in a straight-forward, no-nonsense kid of way.  Just a bit quick most of the time, with nice dynamics contrasts and no attempts at frilly refinement, the music shines through, though I could have used a bit more command in the playing.  The Adagio grazioso – plagued by some sub-par sound that is either due to the piano going out of tune or something wonky with the recording gear in some places – is pretty generic.  Nicely paced, sort of serious-lite, with nice trills, it works okay.  The Rondo is high energy and displays sometimes prominent and hefty left hand playing.  31/2 offers more of the same.  A not especially slow, not especially brooding Largo gives way quickly to an assertive, pointed Allegro with a bit of bite.  Nice.  The brisk Adagio displays tension and a jittery, nervous quality in some of the accompaniment.  It's appealing, but something is lacking.  Nothing is lacking in the fast, pointed Allegretto.  Smith saves his best for last.  31/3 is interpretively limited, but when that interpretation focuses on fast, energetic playing, with hands scampering across the keyboard, well-judged chord outbursts in the Scherzo, wit, humor, and more energy, except in a just reserved enough (that is, not too much) Menuetto, that's pretty much all one needs.  A very strong end to a good disc. 

Disc seven opens with Op 28.  Smith plays the Allegro at a sensible pace, with a nice enough rhythmic sense, reasonable clarity, and only a few slightly stiff phrases here and there.  Much the same can be written about the Andante and the Scherzo.  The Rondo is a bit tenser and quicker and makes for a nice ending.  Throughout, there's some low-level mechanical noise, like perhaps HVAC.  It doesn't detract, but it is noticeable.  Op 54 follows, and the opening movement has very nicely contrasted sections.  The triplets section is a bit on the gruff side, but that's hardly a bad thing.  The Allegretto is played quickly, with a few slightly stiff transitions and rough patches, but overall it is nice, high-energy closer.  Smith plays both movements of Op 78 in a non-nonsense, straight-ahead manner, and while it's nice, it doesn't really linger in one's memory.  Op 53 rounds out the disc.  Smith plays the opening Allegro in energetic, suitably fast fashion, with more notable dynamic range than most prior recordings.  The Introduzione is steady and perhaps a bit cool, and transitions to a fast, energetic, at times powerful Rondo.  If perhaps the quieter playing isn't particularly quiet and the louder playing can sound a bit gruff, it nonetheless works exceedingly well and is one of the best performances of the cycle.  A good disc.

Disc eight opens with Op 79, and Smith once again opts for a swift, no-nonsense approach, playing right through the Presto alla tedesca with maybe one pause for breath.  The Andante is a bit on the brisk side, but sounds attractive, and the Vivace is quick and energetic.  Op 81a follows.  Smith opens the first movement slightly slow, but without much feeling, and he wastes no time moving into the faster playing, displaying nice independence of hands while so doing.  But the playing is straight-forward to a fault.  The second movement is more restrained, but lacks much in the way of emotion, or, if one doesn't like that type of approach – thinking music cannot convey emotion – it lacks much in the way of variety of touch, dynamics, and rubato.  The final movement is energetic and quick, but kind of flat.  The disc then moves on to three sets of variations – WoO 79, 78, and 80.  All are ably performed, but how much can one really get into ''Rule Britannia'' and ''My Country, 'Tis of Thee'', er, ''God Save the King'' variations?  Next is Op 57.  Smith's style works well here.  The sonata maintains a high degree of tension throughout, and the opening and closing Allegros are high-intensity affairs.  The comparatively limited dynamics, which appear attributable to the sub-par sound, limits impact a bit, but not enough to hamper the proceedings.  The disc closes with Für Elise, which sounds like Für Elise.  A good disc.

Disc nine moves into late LvB, and opens with Op 90.  Smith plays the opening movement a bit on the slow side, but he still imparts some bite to the loud chords, and the left hand playing during the faster passages sounds nicely constant.  Greater dynamic contrasts would have been nice, but again, that is probably the recording and not the playing.  The second movement flows along reasonably well, but the melody is not presented as attractively as in many other versions.  Op 101 follows.  The opening movement sounds curiously small in scale, but manages to evoke a decent sense of transcendence.  The march sounds forceful and a bit bass heavy, and some of the left hand playing borders on the lumbering at times.  The Adagio moves back to a semblance of transcendence, and sounds quite nice.  The Allegro, which again sounds a bit small in scale, offers only moderate clarity.  When either the left hand or right hand playing is to the fore, the playing is clear, but when both are played equally, the result is muddy, with some of the left hand playing especially indistinct.  There are some nice things here, but it isn’t one of the greats.  Op 109 follows.  The Vivace gets off to a slightly halting start, and while not unattractive, it's also a bit plain.  The Prestissimo is a bit tepid and unclear and lacks dynamics.  The final movement also suffers from lack of dynamics, and the playing, while comparatively better than the last movement of 101, doesn't evoke much feeling or even superficial beauty.  The coda comes close to achieving the late LvB soundworld, or at least one I prefer, but overall something is missing.  Op 110 opens with nicely played but more middle period sounding Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, then moves into a forceful Allegro molto.  Smith then does a slightly better job of establishing a late LvB sound in the final movement.  The ariosos both sound a bit cool and detached, like miniature versions of the 106 slow movement.  The fugue is well done.  The repeated chords that build up to the inverted fugue sound a bit rushed and dynamically limited, but they still sound reasonably effective.  The inverted fugue itself, with a few halting passages, is terse and swift, and a bit more middle period in nature.  A decent disc, but much more than decent is needed here.

Disc ten starts off with Op 106.  Smith plays the opening movement at a relatively fast 10'33'', and his playing is filled with energy, drive, and intensity.  In contrast to Yu Kosuge, who plays with a similar overall timing, Smith never slows down and plays anything with much in the way of subtlety.  This is more a hearty performance, which is reinforced in the the Scherzo.  The brisk Adagio, coming in at not much over sixteen minutes, sounds intense, biting, nervous and almost angry.  The Largo is comparatively swift, and if the fugue isn't the last word in clarity, it is of the high energy variety.  The disc closes with the Op 126 Bagatelles.  The playing is generally solid, but it is comparatively direct and colorless and humorless.  Nothing on the disc is close to bad, but nothing really stands out either.

The cycle ends with the big time paring of Opp 111 and 120.  Smith plays the Maestoso quickly, almost relentlessly, and rushes some chords, to good effect, and hammers out some passages more intensely than often occurs.  The transition to the Allegro sounds like a low growl in the bass, and then the Allegro sounds sharp, cutting, and intense.  The Arietta is quick and neither profound nor beautiful, and then the first two variations are not exactly transcendent or beautiful.  The boogie woogie variation is quick and energetic but displays a somewhat flat rhythm.  The ''little stars'' sound a bit rushed and have no mystery or beauty.  The trills are crisp and bright, but not especially attractive, and they seem to have one volume throughout.  The overall tempo for the movement is fast and at times the playing sounds rushed.  The coda sounds rushed and flat.  This is not a 111 for the ages.  The set ends with the Diabellis.  Smith plays the theme fast to the point of sounding rushed.  The first variation sounds potent enough, but the second variation sounds too gruff by half.  This sort of sets the pattern for the rest of the work.  The more intense music comes off best, but a lot sounds too rushed, nuance is pretty much AWOL, and some of the playing sounds strained.  Due to the fast overall tempo and some repeats being stripped, this performance comes in at just under forty-two minutes, the second shortest I recall hearing after Géza Anda's much better recording.  This is not a Diabelli for the ages.  A disappointing final disc.

To answer my own question: I did not enjoy this set quite a bit.  To be sure, there are some excellent performances in the mix.  Op 31 is a highlight, and that’s always a good thing.  Some of the earlier sonatas fare well, but most of the later sonatas, and especially the late sonatas, just don’t do it for me.  There is never any doubt about Mr Smith’s seriousness of purpose or devotion to the music, and this set is pretty much a straight-forward, nothing but the notes type of set.  But when one considers the regular lack of repeats, the poor sound for something recorded so recently (between 2009 and 2011), which especially impacts dynamic range, and some passages that definitely sound live, it is hard to conclude that this rates among the great or even very good cycles.  There’s a whole lot to choose from out there, and whether considering older, well-known cycles, or newer, lesser-known cycles, I just can’t report that this is competitive. 
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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