Author Topic: Robert Taub Plays Beethoven  (Read 357 times)

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Offline Todd

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Robert Taub Plays Beethoven
« on: October 07, 2017, 06:45:41 AM »

The dollar store cycle.  For a good long time, I owned the second volume of Robert Taub's basically out of print sonata cycle on Vox, and I looked for the other volumes from time to time and found nothing.  Then, Musical Concepts, the company specializing in cheap physical reissues worth considering (eg, Maurice Abravanel's Mahler cycle), starting selling the cycle in MP3 download form for $0.99.  I am generally not a fan of MP3s, but I wasn't about to hunt down physical copies for the prices that they sometimes fetch, so I decided to take the painless plunge.  I mean, worst case, if the sound drove me nuts, I could just delete the files and be done with it, and best case I end up with a world class cycle for less than the price of a cup of mediocre joe. 

Since the MP3 download presents the sonatas in order, I decided to listen as presented.  Taub's take on 2/1 is pretty conventional.  A nicely paced and energetic Allegro gives way to a slow and thoughtful Adagio which transitions to a slightly slow and dramatic Menuetto which in turn leads to a fast and potent Prestissimo.  Op 2/2 is much the same.  The opening Allegro vivace is energetic and a bit gruff, which can work splendidly as Seymour Lipkin has shown, and then moves on to a straight-shooting Largo appassionato that is a bit too fast for Largo and a bit devoid of passion, and a couple minutes in the playing becomes exaggerated and a bit clunky.  The Scherzo is pointed and weighty in the outer sections, and slightly restrained in the trio, but nothing out of the ordinary, while the Rondo is energetic and fun.  Op 2/3 likewise sounds energetic and gruff in the Allegro con brio, with decent separation of hands, though from time to time the playing does not sound ideally secure.  Taub then plays the Adagio very slowly, though to the extent it sounds dramatic, it's sort of faux drama and intimately scaled.  One benefit of this smaller scaled approach is that the tolling left hand notes sound more pronounced, though the benefit wears off quickly.  Taub plays the outer sections of the Scherzo a bit slow, but he plays the trio with drive and energy, and the Allegro assai, rather than being played in light, virtuosic fashion, is somewhat more restrained, though it's hardly lacking in verve and fun.  So, a solid, but not spectacular opening trio.  Op 7 starts off with a somewhat measured, but rhythmically alert Allegro molto e con brio.  There are some nice little touches, but it sounds a bit sleepy much of the time, and the transitions to more boisterous playing can be a bit clunky and blunt, and some of the playing doesn't sound especially tight.  The Largo is played slow, with somewhat blunt dynamics and a stilted sound.  The Allegro sounds a bit rough, but Taub plays the Rondo with a deft mix of energy, growl, and lightness. 

With Op 10, I was revisiting recordings I've not listened to in a while.  10/1 starts with fast ascending arpeggios in the Allegro molto con brio, and a energetic exposition, development, and recapitulation, with no real surprises or idiosyncrasies.  The Adagio molto is slow and has some chunky phrasing, with some pedal noise audible here and there, and works pretty well, while the Prestissimo is super fast and occasionally potent, and approaching Pienaar levels of excess without the additional weight he brings.  Overall, it's a good rendition.  10/2 starts off with an energetic and boisterous Allegro.  Taub varies dynamics nicely, and in louder passages the playing sounds gruff, though that probably just helps things.  The Allegretto sounds a bit somber, but not overdone, and the Presto, with repeat, is bubbly and quick and fun.  10/3 starts with a quick and scampering Presto, again hinting at the overall style of Pienaar, but with less impact.  The Largo manages to sound slow and tense, dramatic and biting, and Taub's lean tone heightens these attributes.  The Menuetto lightens things up quite a bit, and if the overall rhythmic pulse is not ideally steady, Taub plays the trills rather nicely, and he ends the sonata with a vibrant Allegro.
Op 13 starts off with a  s  l  o  w  and quiet Grave, and slightly dreary, with Taub lengthening pauses and going for some extra drama, and succeeding in a way, though the dynamic contrasts, even a bit less dramatic than with CD, are almost exaggerated.  The Allegro is quick and weighty, with a solid rhythmic pulse, though the left hand playing is a bit muddy.  The Adagio is appealing but a bit plain, while the Rondo is weighty and dramatic, but a bit stiff.  The first of the Op 14 sonatas is paced nicely, but the dynamics are a bit stark and the playing a bit hard in the outer movements, though the Allegretto is very nice in completely straight-forward sort of way, and the Rondo is generally peppy and only occasionally too heavy.  Op 14/2 opens with a light-ish but showy Allegro, moves to a quick Andante with nicely dominant left hand in some spots, and ends with a zippy Scherzo with slightly exaggerated left hand chords.  Op 22 starts with a fast, high octane, take no prisoners Allegro con brio that brings that gruffness back.  The Adagio mostly strips away the gruffness, and is lovely and on the swift side, and the repeated bass notes, when they are played, are crudely hypnotic (meant in a good way).  The Menuetto is tensely lilting in the outer sections, and almost Op 57 fiery in the middle.  Taub plays the Rondo with a generally robust and forward moving style in the first two themes, but the third theme is heavy and stiff, bordering on clumsy, though it's in-your-face punchy.  Overall, it's one of the stronger performances of the set to this point.  Op 26 starts off with a somewhat stark Andante theme, with Taub playing with a nice degree of variety, with the second and third variations a bit clunky, in an Op 31 jokey sorta way.  Possibly.  The Scherzo is awful.  It's slow, clunky, ugly, and exaggerated.  No joke.  The funeral march is slow and lumbering, and the exaggerated dynamic contrasts and overly deliberate phrasing make it sound more stiff than serious or heroic.  The concluding Allegro also sounds too stiff, with an ungainly coda.  Op 26 is definitely not a highlight. 

Op 27/1 sounds almost like another pianist plays.  Taub plays the Andante sections with a gentler, more sculpted touch, and the Allegro sections are more pointed and potent, but through judicious pedaling and style he never even really sounds gruff.  The Allegro molto e vivace is a bit slow, but it actually flows nicely until the rather rough end of the movement.  The Adagio again finds Taub playing in more restrained and nuanced fashion, and then the concluding Allegro vivace is all energy and forward motion, but with hints rather than pervasive gruffness.  While not one of the great renditions of the work, it's very nice.  The Moonlight sonata opens with a fairly brisk but mostly unremarkable Adagio sostenuto, moves to a slow but mostly unremarkable Allegretto, and ends with a reasonably fast and robust Presto agitato, characterized by some of Taub's stark dynamic swings in some places.  Op 28 opens with a tense Allegro where Taub plays the left hand with a pokey staccato and keeps the melody forward moving but kind of lumpy.  I know this reads critically, and it is, but only sort of; the overall effect is still somehow pretty good.  The Andante retains a certain nervous tension, and doesn't flow very well, but it, too, works.  The Scherzo displays the same traits, but is just played faster, and finally, the Rondo closes the work out in a rushed, gruff manner, but it works fantastically well.  Not a first choice, or a top ten choice, but I can see doing some A/Bs with it. 

Starting in on the Op 31 trio, and Taub again deploys his rather stark dynamics in the Allegro vivace, and he also uses some subtle rubato and ends up playing it pretty straight, though that doesn't really result in much more than a so-so opening movement. The Adagio grazioso is pleasantly quick and not especially gracious, though the trills are nice enough and the Rondo is energetic though a bit plain - that is, personal touches are kept to a minimum.  Op 31/2 opens with a relatively quick Largo, with Taub seeming to be in a hurry to get to the Allegro, which he pounds out with fiery accents, good articulation, and admirable speed.  Taub keeps things tense in the Adagio, and his accenting and staccato playing make it a bit spiky.  The Allegretto starts off a bit slow, but Taub plays with more bite and drive in the louder sections, and the stark dynamics work well.  Overall, it's one of the best recordings of the cycle.  Taub starts Op 31/3 with an Allegro that overall possesses enough energy and sounds fun enough, though a few passages are a bit rough and some of the playing sounds taxing.  The Scherzo is played very fast, and here the dynamic contrasts end up sounding not stark enough.  (The sound is a bit softer than in some earlier sonatas in the cycle.)  The Menuetto is a bit soft and reflective, for Taub, in the outer section and pointed in the trio, while the Presto con fuoco is very nicely paced, bouncy fun.  A strong but not great end to a good but not great trio overall.  The Op 49 sonatas are both firmly played but not overdone; Taub keeps them light and fun.

Taub starts off the Waldstein with a turbo-charged Allegro con brio, zipping through the whole movement, somewhat compressing dynamic contrasts along the way.  It's high energy and superficially exciting.  Taub slows way down in the Adagio molto, or at least it sounds that way in comparison.  He deploys a lot of pauses to decent aural effect, if not especially notable musical effect, and then moves to a fast concluding Rondo.  Here, Taub does deliver more in the way of dynamic contrasts and some hefty bass.  Like the opening movement, it is very energetic and at least superficially exciting.  It's a good rendition overall, but not one for the ages.  In Op 54, Taub plays the minuet theme in a somewhat gruff fashion, but the triplets have real punch to them.  The Allegretto starts off a bit subdued and stiff, but Taub soon plays with more power and speed, though his playing never really sounds speedy and retains a bit of stiffness throughout.  In Op 57, Taub plays with notable bite, but coming so soon after Dong-Min Lim's version, one can't help but notice that it sounds untidy in the Allegro assai.  The dotted rhythm isn't steady enough, the articulation isn't clean enough.  The dynamic range, though, is ample, and the excitement level generally high.  The Andante con moto is straight-forward and mostly unaffected, while the Allegro ma non troppo goes against expectations in that Taub doesn't play it fast, instead playing with more restrained intensity and wide dynamic swings and thundering fortissimos.  As with some earlier sonatas, there's a appealing gruffness to the playing here, and in this sonata, that can work fabulously well, like in Seymour Lipkin's version, but this isn't to that standard.  It's just OK. 

Taub delivers a spot-on Op 78.  The Adagio cantabile has a just right tempo, nice but not exaggerated dynamics contrasts, and some nice cantabile playing, while the Allegro vivace is straight forward with only the minutest of personal touches.  Op 79 starts with a bracing and quick, though not unusually quick, Presto all tedesca.  Taub's right hand playing sounds bright and if he rushes some arpeggios and phrases, the choices work.  The Andante, unfortunately, sounds a bit stiff, though the Vivace sounds buoyant and energetic.  The Les Adieux sonata starts with a solemn introduction, but as Taub proceeds through the Allegro, some of the playing sounds taxed, with some awkward transitions and shaky articulation.  I remember hearing Anton Kuerti play it in person in 2009 or 2010, and he likewise struggled a bit, but in that case he made up for it with sublime playing in the second subject, which is not the case here.  The Andante espressivo sounds suitably solemn and introspective and comes off with no major hitches, while the Vivacissimamente is fast and energetic and celebratory.  It's not a favorite.  In Op 90, the opening movement basically alternates between slower playing that sounds despondent, and louder, faster playing that sounds tense, and Taub's stark dynamics work splendidly here.  The second movement sounds unexpectedly lyrical, with subdued dynamics and comparatively gentle left hand playing.  Not bad. 

Taub starts Op 101 with a very slow Allegretto ma non troppo.  There's no energy, no transcendence, no fire, no nothing.  It's more like a Largo sans espressione.  The Vivace alla marcia is strikingly conventional, and sounds excellent.  In the Adagio ma non troppo, one hears the logic of Taub's opener, as the slower than normal pace essentially matches the opening material, but now it sounds a bit solemn and desolate.  The Allegro sounds forceful and direct and Taub's digital dexterity is quite good.  It ends up sounding more middle period than late period, but that's fine.  A good take.

For the Hammerklavier, where Taub's is one of the rare recordings using something approaching the correct tempo in the opening movement, I decided to do some comparisons with other speed demons for the first couple minutes of the Allegro.  Here the threshold is an opening movement lasting under ten minutes, repeat included.  (I know it should be under nine minutes, but I wanted a broader selection.)  The pianists are: Artur Schnabel, Walter Gieseking, Paul Badura-Skoda, Friedrich Gulda (thrice), Stewart Goodyear, Michael Levinas, Michael Korstick, Steven Osborne, Beveridge Webster, and Melodie Zhao. 

- Schnabel, at 8'55", is fast, almost reckless, and doesn't hit all the notes, but he gets the spirit right.

- Gieseking, at 9'07", is a little less fast, not reckless so much as nonchalant, and garbles some passages, but it's a bit better than Schnabel.

- Badura-Skoda, at just shy of 10' is not as fast as the preceding two, but he varies tempi a bit more so the fastest playing is almost as fast and the slower playing is more relaxed.  The playing is more composed and focused and less harried.

- Gulda (Decca), even at 9'36", sounds slower, more composed, more relaxed and more controlled than PBS, and decidedly more in control than Schnabel or Gieseking.  It almost sounds easy in comparison.  Too, it keeps a clean, lighter, more classical mien.

- Gulda (Orfeo), at 9'28, is similar overall, though with bigger dynamic swings, slightly less overall precision, and some more variation in tempi.  It sounds slightly less easy.

- Gulda (Amadeo), also at 9'28, in better sound, sounds clean, accurate, with perfectly judged dynamics and tempo.  It's one of the great recordings of the work.

- Goodyear, at 9'16", displays superb control, but it's pressed a little more than Gulda, and though modern, the sound is not up to snuff.  Still, it's rock-solid.

- Korstick, at 9'08", just may be the best played of all, with fast passages super fast but super well executed, and slower passages downright leisurely. The recording is very fine overall, though the almost ridiculously long Adagio does require some expectation adjustment.

- Levinas, at 9'32", is less precise and controlled than the preceding three pianists, with occasional bouts of harried playing, but it sounds solid.  Levinas manages to play an ascending left hand arpeggio with nice speed and clarity while the right hand sort of scampers around. 

- Osborne, at 9'41", delivers museum quality playing.  It may not quite be a match for Gulda, Goodyear, or Korstick, but it's damn close, and the modern, SOTA sound allows one to hear different voices even more easily than with Levinas.

- Webster, fastest of all at just over 8'30" (and available on YouTube), is fast to the point of being rushed, and somewhere between PBS and Gieseking in terms of playing.  It sounds small scaled and light-ish (YT no doubt contributing to that), but it sounds exciting.  Hopefully some intrepid specialist company will reissue this in proper digital form at some point.

- Zhao, at 9'55", is very assured, very clean, very accurate, and comes across as perhaps even more polished than Osborne, though slightly more constrained dynamically.  I'll have to revisit her set soon.

Taub, at 9'14", is a digital era version of Schnabel, just less compelling.  He rushes some passages almost to the point of caricature.  It sounds as though he plays so fast that he has pause to reposition his hands to get back to the music, and at other times (between 6' and 6'30 or so), the playing is just a mass of notes blurred together.  There's certainly a sense of excitement and lots of energy, but it's not one of the great, or good, opening movements.  He follows this up with a fairly conventional Scherzo.  Playing at a more standard tempo results in good, if not exceptional playing.  The Adagio, at just over 15', is certainly swift, but unlike some other fast versions, it doesn't swap desolation and introspection for intensity and anger.  It sounds occasionally intense, but mostly just kind of there, and it doesn't even flow very well; it becomes more episodic rather than less.  The Largo is more or less conventional, and the fugue is high on excitement and less high on flawless execution.  I can't say that this is a top fifty version of the sonata.

Op 109 starts with a Vivace ma non troppo that sounds unexpectedly small scaled and restrained.  Taub's tone remains lean and his playing pointed, but there's little in the way of stark dynamics (one instance, really) or rushed playing, and he does a creditable job of creating a late-LvB soundworld, in particular evoking the "little stars" section of the second movement of Op 111.  The Prestissimo does display more of the stark dynamics, and it has a nice forward momentum.  Excellent.  The Andante theme of the final movement is played in a direct, simple, and surprisingly lovely way.  Taub plays the right hand marcato in the first variation, and the second is almost slightly exaggerated in its pointillistic clarity, with the last bars of the canon sounding almost like minimalist, slowed down "little stars" playing, whereas Taub rips through the third variation with some of his most controlled fast playing of the cycle.  The fourth variation moves into a transcendent soundworld, even with some of the playing sounding a little gruff, while the fifth variation is more potent and perhaps a bit uncontrolled, with a blunt coda and awkward transition to the final variation.  Fortunately, the final variation pushes past the fourth in its proper late-LvB sound, albeit with some gruffness intact.  Taub upped his game here.

Taub starts off Op 110 with subdued and lyrical playing in the Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, and for the most part plays it straight.  About half way through, he plays very softly, the left hand especially, to surprisingly good effect.  The Allegro molto is fast and punchy, with the not as stark as expected dynamic changes very effective.  The finale movement opens with a very slow first arioso section that sounds right hand dominated and a bit forlorn.  The fugue sounds quite clear, though right hand dominates again, and it gives the subjective impression of being slow, though it's not notably so in terms of timing.  The second arioso finds Taub introducing some slight pauses in the left hand playing, which makes some of the music sound blocky.  Not surprisingly, Taub plays the repeated chords very well, building up volume to a satisfying volume, and he uses the sustain pedal and holds note values just the right length of time.  The inverted fugue starts off slow and clear but quickly picks up speed, with Taub accelerating even more as it progresses and then pushing the coda to the point where it sounds a bit rushed and blurred.  Overall, it's good, if not great. 

Op 111 starts with nicely accented and weighty playing in the Maestoso, then transitions to an Allegro con brio ed appassionato punctuated by extra-beefy, almost exaggerated bass notes, and a nice taut tempo.  Sometimes the playing borders on the manic, but the overall effect is fine.  Taub plays the Arietta slowly, but he never really makes it sound either attractive or meaningful, and the first variation sounds more or less like an extension of the material.  The second variation maintains a slower than normal tempo in this slow overall movement (19'33"), and the music does not flow particularly well.  The boogie woogie variation is not especially fast, but Taub's somewhat stark dynamics contribute to generating a sense of excitement.  After this variation, the slow overall tempo becomes even more obvious, and while Taub plays gently, it's in a sort of blunt way.  The "little stars" are slow and crisp but don't evoke anything, and the chains of trills are nicely executed, but the remaining music ends up sounding too slow, with a stretched out musical line that detracts from the late LvB soundworld.  The first movement is better than the second here, in an unfavorite Op 111.

Taub's Beethoven cycle is not one of the greats, but it's not bad most of the time.  At its current price point and delivery method, it may very well end up attracting new listeners, which would be a good thing, so for that reason alone, I consider it a success.  As to my personal ranking, this is fourth tier stuff.

I performed some A/Bs between the MP3s and the one volume of discs I own, and the MP3s are slightly less clean up top and in the bass, and have slightly less apparent dynamic range, but not enough to hamper listening enjoyment, and it is really only apparent through my main system.  It doesn't matter at all through headphones.  Since it turns out I'm going to have to go the MP3 route for another couple otherwise unavailable cycles, or unavailable at a price I am willing to pay for physical media, this sort-of experiment with an MP3 cycle was good enough to convince me to go download.
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