Author Topic: Sebastián Forster Plays Beethoven  (Read 351 times)

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Offline Todd

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Sebastián Forster Plays Beethoven
« on: February 19, 2018, 09:47:31 AM »





My now annual tradition of a surprise Beethoven piano sonata cycle popping up at the beginning of the year happened again this year.  This time it was due to my laziness and failure to explore all possible available cycles.  To be chronologically accurate, I learned about the cycle the last week of 2017, though I did not buy it and start listening to it until the beginning of this year.  The cycle was recorded between 2009 and 2012 and was released as two volumes on CD in 2012.  Physical copies linger, for a premium price, at the usual outlets, but the cycle is available as downloads.  I opted for the $60 MP3 option at CD Baby, though a "deluxe" FLAC edition is available from the pianist's website for $170, for those so inclined.  The cycle can also be streamed for no additional outlay at Amazon and presumably from other streaming services.  To the pianist: Sebastián Forster was born in 1975 in Buenos Aires, studied with Aldo Antognazzi, who in turn studied with Michelangeli, and he made his public debut at the age of ten.  He has made several other recordings of core rep and non-core rep, as well. 

I decided to listen as presented, which means chronologically.  Immediately, I found something wrong with the sound.  Impossibly close and dry, and presented with a sort of synthetic, phase-altered pianist's perspective - the lower registers originating from the left, the upper registers from the right - with the frequency extremes rolled off, it sounded off.  I immediately found another recording from Forster to stream, a live one, confirmed he's a real pianist, set my preamp to mono, and moved forward.  (I know that MP3 usually/always sounds less good than lossless/CD, but this was different.)  The opening Allegro is a bit on the leisurely side, lacking fire, but it flows along nicely and has a fluid rhythmic sense to it.  The Adagio is suitably slow and flowing and modestly attractive.  The Scherzo is a bit jauntier.  The Prestissimo, though, is too slow and low on bite and energy and drive, and some middle register notes sound off.  It also does not sound as securely executed as the best versions I've heard, but the playing is nicely clear.  The second sonata starts with an Allegro vivace that doesn't sound particularly like an Allegro, nor is it vivacious.  Some extra-audible pedaling doesn't help matters.  Forster starts off the Largo at a brisk-ish pace, which he maintains more or less throughout, and he adds a bit of passion.  The Scherzo starts off fine, but switches to too slow, deliberate playing, though again the clarity is nice enough.  The pedal stomping becomes way too obtrusive, though.  The Rondo sounds flowing and attractive, but the blobby bass and oppressively close microphones render the low frequencies too dominant.  The middle section finds Forster playing with more fire and drive, showing he can at least turn up the wick when needed.  The third sonata starts off well enough in the first theme, but then it slows down and sounds stiff, and then it alternates between sometimes fine, sometimes stiff playing.  And pedal stomps are evident again.  The Adagio again finds Forster playing comparatively swiftly (the slow fast movement, fast slow movement approach brings Rita Bouboulidi to mind), with pedal stomps again obtrusive, though one byproduct is that Forster does generate some scale,  The Scherzo is fairly conventional, and the Allegro assai is light and fun, but it's a bit on the slow side of normal.  Overall, the opening trio is of the poor quality variety.

For the second group of three sonatas, I started with Op 7.  The recorded sound, while not SOTA, is more conventional with this sonata, with maybe some artificial reverb added.  Forster starts off with a very peppy and occasionally very weighty Allegro molto e con brio.  The playing does not sound as clear as the first trio most of the time, but the right hand playing has bite, and the playing has nice forward momentum.  It's more or less on the energetic end of the conventional interpretation spectrum.  Forster plays the Largo con gran espressione at a pretty rapid clip, coming in at just 7'23", rendering it more intense than normal.  Often, the right hand playing dominates the left, but then Forster will just switch it up.  The Allegro is back to the energetic but conventional approach, though the middle section might be described as a little blobbier in the bass and more accented than normal.  The concluding Rondo is played faster than normal, and here Forster dashes off some phrases with panache, and he ratchets up the intensity in the fast playing.  This is an excellent version of the work and represents a massive qualitative improvement over the opening trio; it's probably the most significant qualitative shift in a cycle I've heard.  In Op 10/1, Forster reverts back to the style of the first three sonatas by playing slowly, with the ascending arpeggios sounding like the musical equivalent of a fullback mowing down a weak secondary.  The playing of the movement as a whole has an inevitable forward drive, with some playing slightly less tense, and the sound remains good.  The Adagio molto offers a needed reprieve.  Forster plays it slow, but it never sounds sluggish, and more than occasionally it sounds lovely.  The playing becomes a bit more forceful in the second section, which is to be expected, but everything remains nicely measured.  The Prestissimo starts off very slow and clear, with Forster never really adopting a fast tempo, though he does generate that sense of inevitable forward drive again.  Op 10/2 starts off with a lengthy 9'12" opener, implying and delivering a not-so-fast sound and feel.  The tradeoff here is that clarity of voices is almost unnerving, with the left hand playing less prominent but very clear and seemingly desynchronized a bit from the right.  (Maybe handed down from teacher to teacher.)  It's less light and fun than a musical dissection.  Not that I'm complaining.  Forster then plays the Menuetto with a bit more tension, adding some effective but not overbearing touches, and maintaining that clarity.  The somewhat measured Presto, with repeat, adds a bit of pep and hints of lightness to the mix, but otherwise stays in the overall style of the rest of the work.  This ended the second batch for listening purposes, and it resulted in something of a sigh of relief.  After the first three sonatas, I feared I was wandering into Rita Bouboulidi or Anne Oland territory, with even worse sound, but things improved a lot.

The third group of sonatas started off with Op 10/3.  Here, Forster starts off with a Presto of just slightly slower than normal overall tempo, but it never sounds too slow.  Some of the playing seems labored, but it is more likely for effect, because Forster seems to handle everything else just fine.  Around 1'20"-ish, he bunches some notes in what initially seems like a slip, but then he repeats it later, meaning it's an interpretive device, or it couldn't be edited out in any instance.  The overall feeling is of unstoppable forward drive.  Forster then does the slow fast movement, fast slow movement thing again in a very tersely played Largo.  It's sort of a teeth-gnashing take that never relaxes, and he ratchets up the tension in the climax even more, though he never plays with great power.  Forster keeps things quick for the outer sections of the Menuetto, with the middle section played notably more slowly, a la Pueyo.  The Rondo manages to blend both the quick-ish and light-ish styles and the slow-ish but unyielding forward drive styles.  A somewhat unconventional take on the last of the Op 10 trio, and a good one.  Op 13 starts with a tetchy Grave with potent forte playing, and it then launches into a moderately speedy Allegro section with spicy accents and blurred bass tremolos.  Some of the playing seems strained as one section transitions to the next, but it has plenty of energy.  The Adagio cantabile is perhaps just a bit broad and stately.  Forster adds some attractive lyrical playing to the mix.  The Rondo is robust and energetic.  It is not of the super-fast variety, but it moves along nicely.  Op 14/1 opens with an Allegro characterized by moderately paced, nicely accented playing through most of the movement, with some more deliberate, clear playing thrown in for good effect.  Forster then nearly rockets through the opening of the Allegretto, before slowing a bit, and then speeding up again.  It makes for an ear-catching contrast to the opener, that's for sure.  The Rondo ends in conventional fashion.  A superb take with some unique aspects.  Forster goes for the turbo-charged approach again in the Allegro of 14/2.  Really, it's more Presto or Prestissimo.  It may be too fast.  Nah.  OK, so maybe the right hand runs could be a little more fluid, but otherwise it’s fun, NoDoz-infused playing.  The second movement starts with a very Presto sounding Andante theme, with slightly exaggerated accents.  Forster never lets up in the variations.  The playing borders on the too aggressive at times, but it never, ever bores.  The Scherzo, in contrast, sounds slower and more deliberate (there's almost no way it couldn't), but it is clean, clear, pointed and inevitable.  Woo boy!  The Op 14 sonatas cook.

The fourth group of sonatas kicks off with Op 22.  Forster plays the Allegro con brio with a nice degree of energy and drive and nice articulation, but it doesn't really stand out.  It's just good.  Forster once again keeps the Adagio a bit on the quick, tense side, to good effect.  He also makes sure to play with a goodly amount of lyricism.  The Menuetto is somewhat quick but flowing in the outer section, and in the middle section he ramps up the intensity, but also deploys a lot of legato, making a quasi-stormy blur of the music.  The Rondo, peppered with some personal rubato, is generally forward moving with hints some more blurred legato and lovely lyricism.  It's a nice version, though a qualitative step down from the Op 14 blockbusters.  Op 26 starts off with a well-paced Andante theme, delivered in generally attractive fashion, and Forster moves from variation to variation doing a good job bringing each to life.  He seems to fair best when playing left hand accents.  Some of the music becomes slightly chunky, but nothing too bad.  The Scherzo finds Forster playing with a somewhat relaxed overall tempo, mixing some sometimes light, sometimes clunky playing, though it's always of the good natured sort.  The funeral march, on the other hand, is predictably somber.  The rhythm is almost macabrely dance-like in the outer sections, with the middle section more emphatic.  The Rondo is off.  Slow, or at least slow-ish, with some clunky halts, it doesn't flow.  It still manages to sort of work, especially in the middle section, but it marks a qualitative step down from Op 22.  Op 27/1 starts with a leisurely paced Andante with some notes shortened for some reason, which makes the piece sort of lurch.  The Allegro isn't especially fast, but it is powerful, but the playing seems a bit disjointed and desynchronized, and the return of the opening material is like the first take, sans the shortened note values.  The Allegro molto e vivace is a bit disjointed again in the outer sections, but more vivacious in the trio.  The last section has a brief section where perspective seems to shift a bit, indicating maybe different sessions were mixed without matching levels exactly.  The Adagio con espressione follows Forster's recurring pattern of playing slow movements somewhat quick, and here he plays an entire section in a terse, clipped manner.  It's certainly interpreted, and it doesn't click with me.  From the Allegro vivace on, the playing has a sort of chunky or clunky feel, with the forward momentum halting either because Forster wants to make a point or has some difficulty making the necessary transitions.  Whatever the reason, it doesn't work well, except for the coda.  The first volume ends with Op 27/2.  Forster plays the Adagio sostenuto at a steady, slow, sustained pace.  It doesn't really elicit much atmosphere, nor is there much cumulative power.  One slow, steady bar follows another.  Forster offers a sharp, pointed, swift Allegretto for contrast, and he closes with one of the more "interpreted" versions of the Presto agitato I've heard in a while, up there with Sachiko Furuhata-Kersting.  Passages are blurred, transitions blown through, the sustain ridden to the point that arpeggios emerge either as standard chords or undifferentiated sonic blobs, and the whole thing seems to hover between mezzo forte and forte most of the time.  It's not necessarily bad, but I hesitate to describe it as particularly good. 

The second volume and fifth group of sonatas starts off with Op 28.  The Allegro has a nice overall tempo, but it doesn't flow very well, with the repetitive bass line unsteady compared to better versions, and also a bit unclear.  The right hand playing sounds a bit terse, too, but it works better.  Forster can and does build up to satisfying climaxes, but the left hand playing doesn't work for me.  Forster goes for a quick and nervous style in the outer sections, with clearer bass, though it's not always the most steady, and this approach ends up reducing contrast with the middle section a bit, which carries over to the Scherzo.  The Rondo is a bit slower in the outer sections, and fierier in the middle, but still keeps in line with the overall vibe established in the first three movements.  It's not bad, but nothing stands out.  Op 31/1 opens with a brisk, playful Allegro vivace, and Forster speeds up even more in the second subject.  The middle section sounds close to rushed, and both here and nearer the end of the movement, some of the dynamics seem a bit flattened in order to play at a consistently fast speed.  The Adagio grazioso has fairly steady, quite clear, and purposely clunky bass, while the opening trills are not the steadiest I've heard.  In the middle section, Forster plays with greater insistence with the left hand, and he tightens up the playing afterward.  The Rondo is well paced and clear, but some of the playing isn't especially fluid, and it sort of sounds rushed forward, with not enough rhythmic variation.  Sometimes, in the back half of the movement, Forster completely drowns out the right hand playing with some bruising left hand playing.  The effect is not unpleasant, but it may be too exaggerated.  Op 31/2 starts off with a somewhat quick Largo with rushed, blurred, flattened, and undramatic arpeggios, and the Allegro section, while suitably quick, sounds dynamically flattened, perhaps to facilitate the tempo, though it's not particularly fast.  The overall feel is more tetchy than dramatic, though some more satisfying dynamic swings appear near the end.  The Adagio stays fairly taut and quick and lacks much drama, staying more classical in nature, and the Allegretto keeps with the smaller scaled, less dramatic overall approach, with some at times prominent though not too heavy bass.  There are some nice things, but it's not a top forty hit.  Forster starts off Op 31/3 starts off with bright, clean playing, sounding like it's in the middle of a long passage, then moves to some faster playing of no little energy and rhythmic swagger.  But then, Forster ends up playing some music with unusual rubato that doesn't fit, and while clarity remains fine, stability does not.  It almost sounds as if the music is rushing forward in a headlong manner even though it's not that fast.  The Scherzo clears all that up in a sly, scampish, fast 'n' fun take.  The Menuetto is played at a moderate tempo as designated, and while not devoid of some individual accenting in the trio, even that sounds mostly lyrical, while the outer sections sound rather attractive.  The work closes with a Presto con fuoco of ample energy and nicely done left hand playing.  It ends up being the highlight of the Op 31 trio, which is uneven overall.  Pity.

The next batch of sonatas starts with Op 49.  Here, Forster goes for the slow-is-profound approach in the first movement of the first sonata, complete with some excess rubato and lovely if drawn out lyricism.  He then zips through the Rondo in a style that may offer too much contrast.  The second sonata isn't slow in the opener, but the extra ornamentation and rubato and some more potent than normal accents make it seem like the pianist is trying too hard.  Forster reserves his slow playing for the second movement, where it works reasonably well.  Op 53 starts with quickly dispatched chords, though they sound mezzo-piano.  The long timing of 12'20" for the movement indicates what is coming in terms of slowing things down, presumably for dramatic effect.  It doesn't really indicate what is coming in terms of bizarrely disjointed playing starting at around 1'30", with too prominent left hand playing and a general sense of strain and confusion.  No bueno.  Things pick back up after that, but the movement more or less alternates between fast and not to quiet playing where it should be quiet, and slower than normal and kind of kludgy playing where it definitely should not be.  Sometimes, Forster will make the bass growl in a subdued fashion, which sounds neat, but then he'll slow down ascending passages, which does not.  The Introduzione is suitably slow and dramatic, and Forster adds some personal touches that work well enough, or at least don't detract from the proceedings, at least until the playing right before the coda, which sounds messy.  The Rondo is likewise fairly slow overall, and while Forster generates some nice volume and scale, the playing sounds too wobbly a lot of the time, even when the playing is slow.  A big whiff.  Op 54 works better.  The first movement alternates a lovely menuetto and more driven, if dynamically constrained, triplets sections nicely, and ends with a fast, emphatic Allegretto.  Op 57 starts off somewhat subdued in terms of volume, but quick, and Forster builds up to much more powerful playing in the loud passages, with cutting right hand playing and usually beefy left hand playing, and he also lets the volume back most naturally.  The Andante con moto starts with an attractive if pensive theme and the variations are nicely done, at times sounding bright and piercing.  The Allegro ma non troppo-Presto more or less keeps up the same bright, piercing sound.  Left hand weight is generally on the light side, and tempo on the fast side, creating a sort of middle-weight sound akin to Seymour Lipkin, but without the more experienced pianist's gruff agility.  Qualitatively, it's good, but not top thirty, or maybe even top forty.

The next batch of four sonatas starts with Op 78.  Forster's approach is fairly conventional overall, with really nice clarity and a few interpretive devices tossed in - eg, accents and exaggerated dynamics in the first movement.  Likewise, Op 79 is pretty much straight-forward throughout, with a alightly more dramatic than normal Andante and slightly slower than normal Vivace the main differentiators.  Op 81a starts with a more or less conventional opening movement, with some nice dynamics and clarity, but some of the playing exhibits the sort of disjointed, desynchronized sound at the beginning of some passages again, making it sort of blocky.  On the flipside, Forster's accenting of some chords pops out and sounds swell, even if it is a fine detail with no real significance.  And he slows way down in the coda very nicely.  The second movement is less sorrowful or introspective than many readings, instead sounding more impatient.  The Vivacissimamente is large-scaled and celebratory, but the left hand fortissimo playing (as in fff playing, or the microphones were too close, or someone fiddled at the mixing desk) completely overwhelms and drowns out the melody a few times, to the point of distraction, and the playing becomes too stiff in some accelerating passages.  Had these interpretive devices been curbed a bit, it would be a very good version.  The recorded perspective for Op 90 is a bit more distant than 81a, causing the listener to have to adjust a bit.  The playing sounds a bit small scaled and tetchy and swift at the outset, then accelerates with the right hand runs, sounding angry and agonized.  Excellent.  The second movement stays quick and alert and lyrical enough, more early Beethoven than lyrical proto-Schubert.  It melds well with the opening movement and Forster delivers one of his best performances of the cycle.   

Forster starts off Op 101 with a first movement that boasts nice clarity, and if not a transcendent sound so much as a slightly more searching middle period one, nonetheless includes some small gestures and accents that catch the ear.  The march starts off with exaggerated speed and rubato.  It actually startles, though once the initial surprise wears off after a couple seconds, what's left just sounds too rushed in the outer sections.  Forster does play with ample weight and drive and some biting accents, though, and there is a degree of excitement to the proceedings, but it's almost like rambunctious early style in a late work.  Forster then plays the Adagio at a somewhat quick pace to open, then slows down a bit, but it's never really slow.  He achieves a sort of quasi-transcendent sound, though.  The final movement is generally fast and clear, with the left hand playing quite good, and the right hand playing at times quite bright.  As a more intense, middle-period style take on the work, it's good.  Op 106 starts with a real slow Allegro, which comes in at a lengthy 13'04".  It's not the slowest version I've heard – ever or even recently – but unlike some other slow versions (Eschenbach, Chauzu, and Costa), the slowness is pretty much all the listener notices first, second, and third.  After one gets past the slowness, one notices nice scale, admirable steadiness of tempo, and clarity.  But mostly one just notices the slowness.  The Scherzo sounds pretty much the same, only slightly sped up, except for some playing in the coda.  The Adagio comes in at a more standard seventeen minutes and change.  As the playing of the movement unfolds, much of the phrasing is stiff and disjointed, and the clarity allows one to hear the somewhat awkward left hand playing under the too lean staccato of the right hand.  The playing improves and becomes more fluid and desolate the longer the movement goes on, and Forster ratchets up the intensity in the last quarter or so.  The movement is about two-thirds excellent.  The final movement starts with a nice, pretty much standard Largo.  The fugue is moderately fast and quite clear, with the clarity sort of enhancing the perception of speed.  It's a bit flat rhythmically, but that doesn't detract.  Overall, it's too mixed to place in the top fifty.

The last three sonatas finds Forster starting off Op 109 with a brisk Vivace ma non troppo.  The playing doesn't really flow, and sometimes the left hand playing dominates, and the overall feel is more of middle period Beethoven.  The Prestissimo is more or less standard in conception and flows better.  In the final movement, the Andante theme sounds quite lovely, but then Forster slows things down for the first variation and plays even more beautifully, creating a transcendent and gentle feel.  He then speeds up notably in the second variation, and he plays cleanly and clearly, but it sounds almost nervous at times.  The third variation is swift but restrained, almost stiff in its swiftness.  Things return to an almost transcendent sound in the fourth variation, but the left and right hand playing sound somewhat disjointed, almost like the parts are taken from two different recordings.  Forster maintains the transcendent, or something like it through the last two variations, and he adds some personal touches, but sometimes the rubato sort of detracts.  It's not a bad rendition of the sonata, but it's not a near-great one.  The Moderato cantabile molto espressivo of Op 110 starts off rather lovely, but the interpretive tinkering harms the flow, though some of the right hand arpeggios are nice.  The outer sections of the Allegro molto manage to sound both quick and almost lumbering, while the middle is uncommonly quick, clear, and linear.  In the final movement, both arioso sections have a sort of searching quality to them that brings to mind the Adagio of 106, broadly speaking.  He ends the second arioso with an effective buildup of repeated chords.  Both the fugue and inverted fugue are played with nice clarity, and the inverted fugue also sports a peppy tempo and a somewhat brusque ending.  Op 111 starts with a dark Maestoso, and Forster keeps the Allegro section dark, too, while playing with ample energy and power.  It's an excellent opener.  The second movement starts off with a slow Arietta.  The tone is a bit rich and dark, and the first half sounds mostly just slow while the second half, sounding a bit slower yet, adds some greater depth to the simple music.  Forster proves adept at knowing when to sustain chords and when not to.  The first two variations are nicely done, but nothing special.  The boogie-woogie variation is nicely high energy and snappy.  The little stars are quick and almost ethereal, but the chains of trills are sometimes stodgy and uneven.  The music rarely sounds transcendent, instead taking on something closer to middle period urgency again, and not even the coda sounds moving, though it sounds at least good.  Overall, it's not a favorite final sonata, and the final trio as a whole is around average.

This cycle is hard to assess overall because it is so uneven.  The opening three sonatas are near bottom tier qualitatively due to horrid sound and way too slow playing.  The cycle improves markedly after that, at least for a while.  The set's highest peaks are very high indeed - the Op 14 sonatas, for instance, or Op 90 - but some other sonatas are off, sometimes a lot - Op 53, for instance.  Sometimes Forster's playing sounds masterful or something close to it, and sometimes it sounds kludgy, disjointed, strained and just unappealing.  As such, there's no way I can consider this a second tier cycle.  I'm not sure with its unevenness that I can consider it third tier, especially when factoring in Op 31 and the late sonatas.  Therefore, I'll add it to my fourth tier for now.  (If new cycles stop being released and I somehow end up with a lot more free time, I may do some A/Bs with lesser cycles, though the thought of that doesn't really appeal a whole lot.)  Others may find the whole thing much better, though.
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Offline Oldnslow

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Re: Sebastián Forster Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: February 22, 2018, 12:45:47 PM »
Todd--what do you know about the upcoming set by Llyr Williams on Signum?

Offline Todd

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Re: Sebastián Forster Plays Beethoven
« Reply #2 on: February 22, 2018, 06:23:21 PM »
Todd--what do you know about the upcoming set by Llyr Williams on Signum?


Only that it is slated for March or April release, depending on market, and that the single sonata I streamed made me want to wait and buy the whole thing on disc.  (Amazon US has several volumes available for streaming.)
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations