Author Topic: Martin Rasch Plays Beethoven  (Read 806 times)

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Offline Todd

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Martin Rasch Plays Beethoven
« on: February 10, 2018, 07:09:20 AM »

A brand new LvB cycle of the super-budget variety.  Martin Rasch is a forty-something German pianist who did the competition circuit and has taught since the early years of the century at his alma mater in Munich, where he counted Gerhard Oppitz among his teachers.  This cycle was recorded between August 2014 and August 2016 in Munich, and was released on Audite.  The bio info and history of Mr Rasch is limited and appears to be based on his website bio, which is fine, because ultimately, only the playing matters.

The cycle is presented chronologically, so disc one contains the first three sonatas.  He starts the first sonata with an Allegro that's just fine.  Nice tempo, nice articulation, appealing tone, nice rhythm.  Nothing jumps out, nothing sounds out of place or out of sorts.  Likewise with the Adagio, which is on the quick but proper end of the spectrum.  The Menuetto is slightly measured tempo-wise in the outer sections, with Rasch nicely letting the melody dominate, and he lightens up a little in the middle.  Rasch plays the Prestissimo on the slow and deliberate side, but still generates a nice degree of tension and drama in the outer sections, with a lighter but still deliberate middle section.  A nice enough opening sonata.  The Allegro vivace of 2/2 is just a bit leisurely, but falls well within standard performing practice and sounds pleasant.  The Largo is suitably slow, if a bit subdued in terms of expression.  The same applies to both the Scherzo and the Rondo, though in the last movement, the grazioso designation is observed.  It manages to sound both formal and a bit relaxed at the same time, with nice clarity, and a too controlled to be vibrant or boisterous middle section.  The last of the opening trio starts off with an Allegro con brio a bit lacking in brio.  It's not necessarily too slow, nor does it lack dynamic variation, and it cruises along nicely enough, but it seems kind of reserved.  It's the musical equivalent of a guy whose idea of letting loose is loosening his tie a little and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt, all while keeping his neatly pressed jacket on.  The Adagio is taken at a well-judged tempo, and while not tensionless, could use some more.  It could use more bass, too, in the tolling bass notes, but not everyone will agree.  The Scherzo is nicely done but doesn't generate great levels of energy or excitement in the outer sections, though the middle does a good job of that.  Rasch closes out with an Allegro assai that is a bit measured, though with nice clarity.  The first disc is good, but a bit too proper, with limited vigor and expressiveness.

Disc two opens with Op 7, and Rasch plays the Allegro molto e con brio at a nice tempo, with well done dotted rhythm and a steady pulse.  It never veers into excess of any kind, which might be viewed as a nice way of saying that it lacks individuality.  Rasch paces the Largo nicely, and if it may lack a bit in terms of expression, the steady pulse and improved dynamic contrasts work nicely.  The Allegro is restrained and haltingly lyrical in the outer sections and sort of darkly subdued in the middle.  The Rondo is nicely done, but the stormier music is formal and controlled.  It doesn't exactly lack for energy, but it sounds studied.  Op 10/1 starts with a relaxed but not slow Allegro molto e con brio, with fast ascending arpeggios and a weighty second theme.  The Adagio molto finds Rasch playing with a bigger, richer sonority.  The playing is weighty, with some nice right hand playing, and it exudes an admirable seriousness.  The Prestissimo finale is a bit measured in tempo, but weighty and forward moving and caps off a very strong fifth sonata.  Op 10/2 closes the disc, and Rasch plays the opening Allegro with nice energy, even if it remains on the serious side.  The Allegretto displays a nice touch of restrained drama, with some nuanced right hand playing.  The Presto, thankfully with repeat, is nicely done, with bouncy rhythm, and a nice approximation of fun.  The two Op 10 sonatas make this disc more successful than the first.

Disc three starts with 10/3, which starts with an energetic and cleanly articulate Presto.  The Largo has a well-judged tempo, not rushed but possessed of surface tension.  The build up to the climax is cleanly executed and tense, but the climax itself is not really expressive, as such.  Both the Menuetto and Rondo are straight-forward and lighter though still serious.  Op 13 opens slow, solemn and strong-ish in the Grave, retains solemnity throughout, and then moves to an Allegro that is not particularly swift, but it does have insistent left hand playing and forward momentum.  The Adagio cantabile is a smidge on the brisk side, and perhaps not particularly lyrical, but it's nice.  The Rondo is yet another movement that is nicely done, but lacks ultimate drive, and the bass, while clear, is a bit light.  The recording is not bad, but this is a sonata where great recordings reign.  The two Op 14 sonatas end the disc, and both are nice, neither being too heavy, and if they seem sort of like forced, serious attempts at lighter playing, they work, the second marginally better than the first.

Disc four starts with Op 22, and Rasch displays all the traits that make for a successful opening Allegro con brio, except for an effective tempo, meaning that it sounds too stodgy.  In comparison, the Adagio is slightly brisk, and expressive if perhaps a bit stern.  (At this point, the comparative slowness of fast movements and swiftness of slow movements reminds me of Rita Bouboulidi's cycle, though, to be sure, Rasch sounds better than that.)  The Minuetto is more or less conventional in approach, as is the Rondo, though Rasch does plays some passages a bit slower than the norm, though to less deleterious effect than in the opening movement.  Rasch opens Op 26 with a just right Andante theme, and then he proceeds to plays the variations with a nice degree of, well, variation.  For instance, the second sounds vivacious, while the third is somewhat reserved and stern, hinting at a more stern than heroic funeral march to come.  The Scherzo is quick and taut and somewhat tart, with Rasch's dynamic contrasts quite effective.  As noted, the funeral march is more stern than heroic, but it works.  The Allegro finds Rasch playing a bit more deliberately than in the prior movements, but it maintains enough forward momentum to make for a satisfying close to a strong overall performance.  In Op 27/1, Rasch opts to play at a generally brisk pace in the context of his style, except in the notably and acceptably slow Adagio, and he plays with marked clarity, which on the downside removes most fun or fantasy.  It's mostly a good tradeoff here, especially when paired with occasionally dramatic accenting and dynamic contrasts.  Der Mondschein closes out the disc.  It opens with a cool and steady and moody Adagio sostenuto, moves to a slightly slow Allegretto, though it features clear and nicely weighted left hand playing, and closes with a Presto agitato which is fast and potent, playing up the agitato designation.

The fifth disc opens with Op 28, and here Rasch's typical traits serve the music well.  The opening Allegro is taken at a comfortable pace, displays nice clarity, appropriate accenting, and a nice sense of flow, and a middle section that sounds weightier and more intense than the surrounding music without overdoing it.  The Andante manages to sound both a bit too deliberate and also nicely tetchy, with a lighter, more playful middle section.  The Scherzo sounds a bit slow but otherwise works nicely, and the Rondo sounds attractive even if it is a bit too stodgy and doesn't flow especially well.  Op 31/1 follows.  Rasch plays the Allegro vivace at a suitable tempo and keeps it fairly light.  The sense of fun is sort of one of a serious pianist approximating fun, but it still works.  Every once in a while, Rasch belts out a specific note or chord to good effect.  His penchant for measured tempi pays off in the Adagio grazioso which opens slow and faux clumsy to superb effect.  The right hand playing, whether the trills or runs, offer clearly delineated notes throughout, too.  The Rondo is played somewhat slow, in a sometimes mock lumbering fashion, and once again Rasch's clarity is admirable.  Op 31/2 starts with a no-nonsense (ie, no exaggerated accents or pauses) Largo that transitions to a moderately quick Allegro that displays some oomph but ends up being a bit low energy.  The Adagio, somewhat taut, comes off as lyrical and occasionally theatrical, but without darkness.  Rasch plays the Allegretto with a bit more speed and drive.  It's a good enough take on the work.

Disc six starts with the last of the Op 31 trio.  Here Rasch plays the opening Allegro with enough drive and oomph, and ample clarity.  He even manages to shed enough of his typical seriousness to sound like he's having actual fun.  He manages to keep the same feel in the Scherzo, which also has insistent bass throughout, though it is not the last word in clarity.  Keeping with the high energy approach, he pushes the Menuetto a bit more than expected, and the Presto con fuoco is a (nearly) rollicking good time.  Superb.  The Op 49 sonatas are both scaled down nicely and come off as lyrical and light enough.  Op 53 starts off with a somewhat contained Allegro con brio.  The overall tempo is fine, but the playing is neither particularly energetic or dynamically wide ranging, though it is clean.  The Introduzione is somber and reserved, and it transitions to a Rondo that starts off tense and more or less stays that way.  While Rasch's overall tempo is broad-ish, and he never really speeds up much, he does ratchet up the volume effectively.  In some loud passages, the playing becomes a bit clouded and Rasch doesn't seem to dispatch some passages with especial ease.  The opening movement of Op 54 starts with the first theme sounding a bit relaxed and then moves on to a very fast and potent triplets section, though ultimate dynamic range is a bit limited.  The stark contrast in delivery yields a most appealing start.  The Allegretto moves along at a nice pace, with a sort of flight of fancy feel to some of the right hand playing, though the comparative lack of dynamic range hampers it a bit.  Overall, though, this sonata, along with a superb 31/3 make this one of the best discs of the set.

Disc seven starts with Op 57, and Rasch again displays his standard traits in the Allegro assai, and here the potent left hand playing works nicely, and he generates a good amount of power and scale.  The controlled playing lacks enough intensity and passion, though.  The Andante moto sounds reasonably attractive and quite formal.  The Allegro ma non troppo starts off with a bit of speed, but then Rasch reverts to his normal stylings.  It's not bad, it just doesn't crack the Top 40 for me.  Op 78 starts with a comfortable sounding Adagio cantabile that sounds quite attractive, while the Allegro vivace is weighty and measured fun.  Op 79 sound slightly broad, but is still light, is fun, and the separation of hands at about 2'40" is quite striking.  The Andante sounds a bit stern but generally attractive, and the Vivace is much the same.  The Les Adieux starts off with a decently expressive first movement, but like much of Rasch's playing, it sounds contained, and when he slows down in the middle it has the effect of halting momentum.  The second movement sounds modestly emotive, though Rasch plays with a bit more joyous expression in the final movement.  In Op 90, Rasch plays with a tetchy drive and energy and belts out the loudest passages.  The second movement ends up sounding very nicely lyrical and flows well, in one of the better sonatas of the set.

Rasch starts in on the late sonatas proper with disc eight.  Op 101 starts with an Allegretto, ma non troppo that certainly sounds serious and quite grounded, meaning it is not especially transcendent in overall approach.  The march is more pointed and potent and weighty, which is aided by the close microphones and audible pedal stomps.  The playing remains nicely clear throughout.  Rasch's penchant for broad-ish tempi works well in the Adagio, which also sounds quite intimate and inward looking, while the final movement is more exultant and extroverted, a celebration of sorts.  Rasch keeps things clean and clear, and plays with a measured tempo, though one that seems just about right, and he ends with a potent coda.  Rasch's Op 106 is slow at just shy of forty-seven minutes, and it starts with a slow Allegro that nears the twelve minute mark.  The opening chords are played with ample speed and energy, as they are when repeated.  The longer than normal timing comes mostly from playing in the exposition and development.  To his credit, the movement never drags, and he plays with nice clarity, but coming soon-ish after Oliver Chauzu and Sequeira Costa, who likewise take their sweet time, he neither offers a forensic approach nor does he deploy accents and rubato quite so individually.  His is more straight-forward, but it still works nicely and at times he moves forward with great power and momentum.  Too, some of the highest register takes on a sharp, bright not unappealing sound in places.  The Scherzo keeps in line with the style.  While Rasch plays a not especially slow Adagio at just under nineteen minutes, it starts off very slow, indeed.  It's so slow, that it is obvious some later music will be played at a more conventional speed.  Indeed, Rasch slowly and barely perceptibly speeds up not after not too long, ratcheting up the intensity in the process.  Until just before seven minutes, the playing sounds somewhat like a bitter lament before transforming briefly into something colder and bleaker, and then after about 8'30" into a mix of suppressed anger and sorrow.  Rasch then mixes and matches approaches a bit through to the end.  The close recording renders some pedaling quite noticeable, but it's fine.  The final movement starts with a somewhat tense and quick Largo, and then after a powerful conclusion, transitions to a fugue that is more measured in tempo, with the movement lasting over thirteen minutes.  Rasch maintains admirable clarity, but it sounds as though he needs the somewhat slow tempo to achieve that.  While musically satisfying, it does take on something of a didactic mien at times.  Overall, it's a strong performance, though probably not a top thirty choice.

The last disc contains the last three sonatas.  Rasch plays the Vivace at a pleasant speed that lets the melodies flow, and some of his right hand playing sounds delicate at times.  The effect is more light than transcendent.  The Prestissimo is not especially fast, but it is delivered with nice clarity, and a sense of notable forward momentum in the loudest passages.  The Andante theme that opens the final movement is slow and subdued, but neither especially lovely or transcendent.  That written, it works well in its plainness.  The first variation sounds slower and more contemplative, while second variation often sounds slower and more deliberate than I typically prefer.  The third variation, on the other hand, has ample drive and weight.  Rasch keeps the fourth variation a bit quicker than the theme, while he plays the fifth variation at a decent clip, though dynamics are somewhat reined in.  His left hand playing is comparatively prominent, which is nice, but some of the playing ends up sounding less refined, but not in a nicely gruff Beethovenian manner.  Too, some playing isn't really steady.  The final variation, like the fourth, sounds a bit quicker than the theme, and while attractive, is not particularly elevated.  Op 110 starts with a Moderato cantabile molto espressivo that is again nicely paced, but it doesn't flow as well as some versions, and it lacks much in the way of a transcendental sound.  That written, some of the right hand playing is intimate, and in a few places, his left hand playing is sort of italicized, it's repetitiveness more pronounced than normal.  The Allegro molto possesses nice speed, weight, and accenting.  The final movement starts with a solemn and somewhat sorrowful first arioso, moves to a serious and sober fugue where Rasch infuses some playing with nice heft, moves to a slightly swifter less sorrowful second arioso, which ends in repeated chords that build up nicely but not to a particularly loud volume, and then ends with an energetic inverted fugue which itself ends with a potent coda.  Op 111 starts with a nicely accented but not especially dark Maestoso, then moves to an Allegro with more pronounced and weighty playing to start and nice momentum to follow, though it is neither very fast or intense.  It's not bad, but it's not especially memorable.  The very slow second movement starts with a reasonably attractive but not moving Arietta, and the first variation keeps in line with the playing.  The second variation sounds a bit brisker than normal, in relative terms, while the boogie woogie variation is fast and displays nice clarity, but it lacks the rhythmic snap of preferred versions.  The fourth variation sounds a bit clunky to start, and the "little stars" are too deliberate and plain.  For much of the rest of the movement, the most noteworthy aspect of the playing is the steady, clear bass line.  The chains of trills aren't bad, but they don't always sound even, and the coda is not particularly special.  The cycle doesn't end on a high note.

Rasch's cycle certainly has its high points - the Op 10 trio is quite good, Opp 28, 31/1, and 31/3 have their strong points, an both Opp 90 and 106 are good - but no sonata ever really seems to be truly great, and in some cases the pianist's penchant for slow/slow-ish tempi and somewhat formal and stolid playing result in performances that lack life.  This is not really a cycle for someone looking for energy or excitement or strong personality, nor is it a cycle for someone looking for ultimate refinement.  It's safe and serious and occasionally bland.  I've certainly heard worse, but I've heard better, much better.  Fourth tier for me.

Sound quality is fully modern.  It is always clear, with some recordings a bit closer than others.  At times, it sounds as though some reverb may be augmented, but maybe not.
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