Author Topic: Sequeira Costa Plays Beethoven  (Read 574 times)

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Offline Todd

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Sequeira Costa Plays Beethoven
« on: December 31, 2017, 08:22:35 AM »
 

 

 

 

 


Back when I first started in buying cycle after cycle, I stumbled upon the name Sequeira Costa.  He had recorded a complete cycle, and I snooped for a box-set, but one was not available.  Instead, at the time, one could order individual discs directly from the Vianna da Motta Foundation, which was run by Costa, who was a pupil of da Motta.  (In turn, da Motta was a pupil of Liszt, meaning that Costa is only two steps removed from the greatest pianist of all time - which, in practical terms, means nothing.)  I started off with volumes two and three, which between them included Opp 10, 13, 53, 57, and 90, giving a decent survey of Costa's style.  I found the sound too resonant (especially in the second volume) and the performances sometimes too slow and not especially compelling, so I put off buying more, especially since the discs were premium price at the time.  I figured I had plenty of time to buy.  Then the foundation went kaput, and the remaining titles became sporadically available at the various Amazons, sometimes for above premium price.  I was only moderately perturbed.  I figured the cycle would be reissued by some firm, and if it was not, it probably wasn't the end of the world.  It's not like it's Annie Fischer's cycle, or anything.  Well, fast forward more than a decade, and Costa's cycle has indeed been reissued, at premium price.  With a workaround.  My classical recording collection has coincided largely with my audiophilia, and for years I wouldn't countenance the purchase of MP3s.  Even modern 320 kbps MP3s sound inferior to CD-equivalent recordings, but the gap has narrowed, and my insistence on listening to only CD-quality or better digital recordings has waned, especially as it pertains to obscure repertoire and recordings.  The one last thing that was needed was a "successful" experience with MP3 recordings, and Musical Concepts provided two: the Colorado Quartet's Beethoven string quartet cycle, and Robert Taub's Beethoven piano sonata cycle, both of which cost just a buck.  The Taub was especially important in the context of piano sonata collecting.  The fourth tier cycle demonstrated that for my purposes, MP3 is good enough in the cases of less than ideal recordings.  That settled, that meant that I would be able to buy the remaining eight volumes of Costa's cycles as MP3 downloads for about half the price as discs.  I first ordered volume seven, with the critical Op 31 sonatas, listened a bit, compared it to volumes two and three, and concluded immediately that I would proceed.  Lengthy preamble aside, it was time to listen to the whole cycle.

I started with volume one, which contains the first three sonatas.  Costa plays the Allegro of 2/1 in a fairly conventional manner, with a peppy tempo, effective and not overdone accents, a bit of personal rubato, and if not romantic style, then a sort of heightened classicism.  In the Adagio, Costa plays with a touch more heightened classicism, and his playing is quite appealing, with really great clarity of voices, where it is possible to follow any part with ease or jump around.  The Menuetto is restrained in the outer sections, but not slow, and the middle section is quite lovely.  The sonata ends with a repeatless Prestissimo characterized more by drama and nice dynamic contrasts, and a bit of congestion, than high speed, but it succeeds.  2/2 starts with an Allegro vivace marked by a somewhat comfortable tempo and a sense of restrained playfulness, or at the very least, no undue gravity.  Costa plays the Largo at a very sensible but very slightly quick tempo, imparting a bit more drama into the proceedings, with hints of rubato and accents, until he pounds out the forte chords with some real oomph.  The Scherzo is light-ish fun, with subtle rubato and good use of sort of subtly terraced dynamics, and Costa again demonstrates how to play on the slightly broad side without harming the music in the least.  In the Rondo, Costa takes the grazioso designation seriously, and when that combines with the clarity of voices and flowing tempo, the sonata ends on a sunny note.  The opening of 2/3 is slow and a bit labored, but the second theme ends up flowing a bit better.  Overall, the 11'37" timing and some kludgy passages don't work especially well.  The Adagio is quite slow, and here Costa ups his game, playing the second theme with a nuanced and quiet and concentrated sound.  When he belts out the big forte chords, the effect is bracing, and the movement jells.  The Scherzo is standard in conception and execution, to good effect.  Given the slow opening movement, I expected something similar with the Allegro assai, and while not especially speedy, it is not too slow or heavy or cumbersome, though it's not the last word in energy, either.

Volume two starts off with Op 53.  Costa takes his time in the 11'41" Allegro con brio, and the opening passage is both slow and not quite pianissimo, or at least the less than SOTA sound for the time (this is from CD) compresses dynamics, which is reinforced by the lack of sufficiently powerful forte playing.  The opening movement ends up sounding too slow and anemic for my taste, and the playing doesn't sound super secure even at this tempo.  The Introduzione is fairly standard in conception and execution, with Costa doing a good job creating a contemplative, resigned sound.  The Rondo opens with a lovely melody, with slightly improved quiet playing, but the overall tempo is again a bit too broad to generate much excitement or energy, and the fortissimo playing is constrained.  In the central section, Costa plays the left hand octaves with steady insistence as the right hand playing swirls nicely, but it sounds a bit stilted.  The playing just before the coda, with some attractive trills, sounds nice, and the coda has nice heft to it, with the last two chords played sort of diminuendo.  So, some good things and some not so good things.  Op 57 starts with a slow Allegro assai that clocks in at 10'43", and while that means ultimate intensity and drive are lacking, Costa offers a grandly conceived, weighty, inevitable approach instead, culminating in a fast and powerful coda.  Costa plays Andante con moto more swiftly and with more tension than one would assume from the opener, to excellent effect, and then plays the Allegro ma non troppo with a speedier sense of inevitability and drive.  Costa's tempo is a bit broad, and the dynamics limited, somewhat blunting the effect, but the movement and the sonata as a whole are both very good.  The opening movement of Op 90 alternates between sufficiently tense and biting playing characterized by suitably strong accenting and faster passages that sound a bit unclear.  The second movement is reasonably lyrical, though the occasionally stiff left hand playing prevents full realization of that trait.  On the other hand, Costa's left hand accents are ear-catching in a unique manner, so it's sort of a wash.  Very good overall.

Volume three contains the Op 10 trio and Op 13.  10/1 starts with a moderately swift, sort of galloping ascending arpeggio at the beginning of the Allegro molto e con brio.  The second theme is taken at a comfortable pace, almost sounding pastoral, though Costa plays with more intensity in the recapitulation.  The Adagio is taken at a comfortable pace, with Costa lavishing attention on individual notes and phrases, and he plays the big rolled chord in an almost strummed fashion.  In keeping with the prior two movements, the Prestissimo is a bit on the slow side (Presto, or maybe even Allegro when compared to some others), and while it may not be especially high energy, it moves forward with a sort of inevitability.  10/2 starts with an Allegro that is not especially swift, is kind of heavy, though Costa's playing is clear, but it is certainly jolly.  The Menuetto, again quite broad, seems to move into middle LvB territory while never sounding too heavy.  Nice.  The repeatless (boo!) Presto is a bit slow, as well, but has a jolly enough demeanor, too.  Op 10/3 starts off with a Presto that is predictably on the slightly broad side, but it flows well from start to finish, with some deceptively well done small dynamic variations.  The Largo, while properly slow, contains hints of tension and foreboding and maybe even sorrow as it unfolds.  Costa generates enough power in the first cluster of forte chords, but even better, his melody playing before and after is held back and sounds searching.  While the climax isn't the hardest hitting one out there, it ends up sounding nicely dramatic.  The Menuetto is leisurely and lyrical in the outer sections and a bit more energetic in the middle section.  In the Rondo, Costa seems intent on shaking any last vestiges of drama remaining from the Largo, with lovely playing in the outer sections, and boisterous playing in the middle section.  In Op 13, Costa starts the Grave with a dramatically shortened opening chord, a device he uses repeatedly.  It doesn't really add drama so much as it sounds odd.  The Allegro is a bit slow overall, but moves along decently enough.  The Adagio cantabile is heavy on the cantabile playing and relaxed, though the bass playing has an attractive insistence to its sound.  The concluding Rondo keeps with Costa's more relaxed tempo approach, but works pretty well.  A somewhat mixed disc.  Sound is better for volume three than the preceding two volumes. 

Volume four opens with Op 7.  Costa plays the Allegro molto e con brio at a slow 9'48".  The dotted rhythm is not ideally steady, and some of the right hand playing is blurred, with an audible slip about 2'20"-ish or so in, or so it seems until the exact thing happens at about 5'15" in.  Costa does, though, play with a nice degree of dynamic contrast, and belts out some of the forte music nicely.  The Largo, with intermittent bird accompaniment (the MP3 allows for ample detail), is slow and dramatic and meets the espressione designation nicely.  Some of the slightly stilted, exaggerated left hand playing actually adds to the effect, and the potent right hand playing, with one passage applying equal weight to every note, is especially nice.  Costa keeps things leisurely with the Allegro, which nonetheless displays adequate drama, and the middle section, with blurred left hand playing aided by pedal riding, is stormy-ish.  A leisurely Rondo ends a leisurely take on the sonata.  Costa plays with no little amount of loveliness for most of the movement, the nicely stormy middle section properly aside.  Overall, pretty nice, but the opening movement is just too slow.  The disc then moves on to the two Op 14 sonatas.  The Allegro of 14/1, again on the broad side, manages to convey a sense of lightness while sounding weighty, and Costa keeps it moving forward.  Both the Allegretto and Rondo maintain the same sort of lightly heavy sound, and flow very nicely, even if the playing isn't what one could call energetic.  Op 14/2 starts with a lovely, light, and lyrical Allegro, with the middle section characterized by more drive and some really superb clarity of voices.  The Andante is likewise superb.  The theme is almost march-like, but fun, the variations even more so.  (The playing makes me think a Diabelli from Costa could be quite good.)  The Scherzo is just delightful in every way.  Fun, witty, light, with some perfectly exaggerated slow yet jokey playing, it caps off a great rendition of the work, one that stands with the best.

Volume five has four works, the consecutive Opp 26 and 27, and then the Les Adieux.  The disc opens with Op 26.  Here's a case where Costa's slow, deliberate approach works rather well.  The theme is attractive and measured, and Costa's penchant for slowness allows him to create more tempo contrasts than expected when he does play fast, or at least reasonably so.  His dynamic contrast and accents are all well-judged, and his rhythm in the faster sections is quite fine.  And the whole thing flows and jells.  The Scherzo is just as good, with the slightly broad overall tempo allowing for more variation within the movement, along with solid rhythm.  Costa keeps the funeral march comparatively small scale and tense to start.  He never builds up the piece to truly large scale, but as he builds to the middle section, the playing becomes more heroic, and the middle is filled with some grander gestures, and the final section builds up to a nice climax filled with ample power and grandeur.  The Allegro starts off rather slow, but picks up a bit, though it never becomes a true powerhouse or speedy movement.  That written, it fits the overall conception perfectly, and this is one of the strongest sonatas in the cycle.  Op 27/2 starts, and Costa offers a stylistic surprise: gone is slow playing, and in its place is fast playing, with the Andante dispatched in a quick, and light-ish, indeed almost playful, manner, though the slower style returns in the very deliberate Allegro, which sounds slower than the Andante.  The Allegro molto e vivace thickens up the textures and slows down the playing even more.  It's not bad, and it has that slow-motion inevitability of some of Costa's other playing, but it's unusual to hear this portion of the sonata slowed so much.  The Adagio is really quite fine in every regard, while the concluding Rondo is faster and more energetic, but vivace could be pushing it, though the coda is quite nice.  A mixed bag, with Costa starting off one way before reverting to his more standard approach.  It's not ideally successful here.  Der Mondschein seemed like a better fit for Costa's style before listening to it, and sure enough, it is.  Costa plays the Adagio sostenuto at a steady tempo and with a cool mien, with some judicious una corda use that brings out some nice effects.  The Allegretto is slow and steady, with firm but not overdone accents.  The Presto agitato is slow overall, kind of robbing the music of impact, but the left hand playing is sometimes unusually prominent, in a rolling thunder kind of way.  Even with the slow overall tempo, the playing has forward momentum.  A good but not great recording.  The disc closes with Op 81/a.  Predictably, Costa starts off with a broad tempo, and also predictably it works well for about the first couple minutes before the playing sounds kind of stodgy, but such passages are rare, and the overall effect of Costa's style is one of both grand romanticism and restraint, strangely enough.  The slow movement carries on with the restrained romanticism, with a wonderfully gentle transition to the final movement, which is higher speed and higher energy than anticipated, with a nice celebratory feel, and a nice combination of an insistent bass line underpinning melodic flights of fancy.  A solid end to a disc with a great opener.

Volume six starts off with Op 22.  Costa plays the opening Allegro con brio at a slow pace, rendering the melody alternatively stodgy and beautifully lyrical.  The bass line is steadier and more appealing, and the middle section, though slower than normal, offers a nice contrast, but ultimately the playing is just too slow.  The Adagio is slower yet, as it should be, and here Costa's playing works better.  The playing has a somewhat languid, romantic feel about it, sounding almost like a fantasy.  Costa's handling of the bass, especially some emphatic yet contained repeated notes, is most appealing.  The Minuetto, keeping with the slow overall approach, sounds beautiful while Costa plays quietly, but a bit gruffer when he plays louder, and the trio section has a sort of unstoppable slow-motion feel to it.  Costa closes the sonata out with a slow Rondo, with only the middle section having any real pep.  I tend to prefer faster, more energetic, more classical versions of this sonata, but fans of slow versions may find a lot to like here.  The two Op 49 sonatas follow.  Both of them are characterized by slightly broad tempi and melody-centric playing.  They are both quite delightful, and Costa gets quite a bit out of them.  They're really solid.  Op 28 closes the disc.  Costa plays the Allegro at a very Largo-esque 12'02".  He keeps everything slow, with even the second theme sounding more like an Andante.  Somehow, Costa manages to hold the music together as a coherent whole, but it sounds enervated, the more intense, though still not especially speedy, climax excepted.  The Andante sounds faster and more potent than the opening movement, and then Costa reverts to slower than normal playing in the Scherzo.  Finally, in the Rondo, Costa plays with a more standard tempo and more flowing style that for the most part sounds just lovely.  The Op 49 sonatas are the highlight here.

Volume seven contains the critical Op 31 trio.  I prefer this type of presentation of these sonatas.  Costa starts 31/1 with a slightly slow Allegro vivace, but it displays hints of mischievousness in the purposely loud bass notes, which sound even more effective when Costa plays the right hand passages with not a little attractiveness and the left hand can't seem to keep up and seems to inhabit another musical space.  Costa's take on the Adagio grazioso is very slow at 11'19", but he manages to play slow trills while keeping a steady bass line, which works well, and some of the right hand runs are nicely fast.  As the movement progresses, it is hard not to notice that some of the bass playing is accented haphazardly, or rather, that's the musical effect.  There's no way the playing is unintentional.  The middle section, complete with clacking fingernails, manages to sound faster than its slow basic tempo would imply, and Costa also imbues it with nice levels of energy that do not set it apart from the rest of the movement.  The return of the opening material is slight more emphatic and exaggerated than the first pass.  The Rondo, again slow, is uncommonly beautiful and relaxed, and though not playful in the more typical sense, it is light.  As expected at this point, Der Sturm starts with a slow Largo, and an even slower Allegro, in relative terms.  While the playing lacks the power and drive of better versions, Costa displays impressive independence of hands, and the at times stark dynamic contrast between potent bass notes and quieter middle and upper register playing is most intriguing.  It is a slow motion musical dissection a la Celibidache, but moved to eighty-eight keys.  It is not without its appeal.  There's not much in the way of tempestuousness or plain old robustness, but it doesn't truly matter, if one accepts this as an alternative style approach.  The Adagio reinforces this.  It is slow, of course, stretched out, romanticized, perhaps with hints of Russianness (the good, musical type, not the bad, colluding type).  Costa plays with a bit more speed and intensity in the Allegretto, making for a nice ending movement.  Unsurprisingly, Costa keeps things slow in 31/3.  That can never work as well in this sonata.  While it is easy enough to appreciate the clarity of individual notes in some passages, the sense of fun and playfulness, or slightly harsher mischievousness, is pretty much absent in the Allegro.  The Scherzo is also just too slow to extract maximum energy, though the outbursts possess enough oomph.  Just as unsurprising as Costa's use of slow tempi, the Menuetto comes off quite well, sounding subdued and lovely.  The Presto con fuoco has a bit more pep, with Costa sounding like he enjoys playing the music.  It's a strong ending to a nice version that is nonetheless not what I would call a top forty hit.  The critical trio fares respectably well overall, but the playing is not of a quality to assure first or second tier status.

Volume eight starts with Op 54.  Costa plays the first theme slowly and richly, and he also plays the triplets theme slow, and while I prefer speedier renditions of this music, Costa's playing sound uncommonly weighty and broadly scaled, sort of transforming the work into something of a late-LvB sonata, which works surprisingly well.  The Allegretto follows a similar pattern, and while reasonably successful, it ultimately lacks enough drive.  Op 78 follows, and once again Costa plays a bit slowly, but once again it adds a bit of weight to the proceedings, and the Allegro ma non troppo more does not fall outside interpretive norms.  The Allegro vivace sounds way too lumbering, though.  Op 79 starts with a Presto alla tedesca that, while not lumbering, doesn't seem Presto.  Costa manages to play with enough dynamic contrast, including an at times undulating left hand, to make it work decently well.  The Andante opens and closes with tense, weighty playing, but sounds simply beautiful and lyrical playing in the middle section.  The Vivace closer is a tad slow, but fortunately it mostly just sounds relaxed and fun as a result.  The disc closes with Op 101.  The tempo of the first movement can be described as "just right", and if it lacks the last word in late-LvB sound, it sounds more elevated than the preceding works, and it also possesses excellent clarity and dramatic, but not overly dramatic, dynamic contrasts.  The march is a bit slow, but the bass playing is weighty, and Costa lets some chords ring out nicely, and one hears a little bit of discreet vocalizing.  The Adagio finds Costa playing with a proper, transcendent sound and his slow tempo really works well here.  The transition to the fugal music is slow and deliberate, while the concluding movement comes mighty close to a "just right" tempo.  I could have used a bit more speed and drive, but what Costa delivers works well on its own terms.  So a solid close and a proper introduction to the late sonatas.  (The recording has some digital artifacts/noise/data errors a few times, though I'm not sure if that is from the original, or from the MP3 conversion process.)

Volume nine is given over to but one work: one of the longest extant recordings of Op 106.  Tipping the scales at over fifty-one minutes (!), this is one long slog.  Slow Hammerklaviers can work - witness Eschenbach and Chauzu - but typically, I prefer speedier approaches.  The opening Allegro take 14'09".  So, yes, it is slow start to finish.  To his credit, Costa's playing doesn't sound lumbering.  His conception is (quasi-) orchestral, making the music sound grander than it usually does.  It is an echt-romantic style.  As with Chauzu, the extra slow tempo allows for Costa to tease out details, even if the musical line is occasionally stretched way out.  Costa's playing sounds a bit more brittle and pointed, too, though Chauzu loves to ride the sustain in comparison.  The Scherzo, at 3'16", is also slow, but less dramatically so, and it is scaled down a bit, too, but it fits right in with Costa's conception, and has a bit of rhythmic swagger in parts.  The Adagio is more normal in terms of slowness at nineteen minutes even, and it more or less falls in line with most slow takes on the movement, starting off dark and despondent, maybe a little desperate.  Costa keeps a pretty steady overall pulse as the piece progresses.  The tone of the playing becomes colder and more distant, and the slow tempo also translates into utter clarity of voices.  The final movement comes in at a super long fifteen minutes even.  The Largo sounds slow and subdued, though nothing especially out of the ordinary - indeed, it's quite attractive and effective with potent playing before the main attraction - but the fugue is slow, slow, slow.  Ain't nothin' Allegro about it.  Adagio is more like it.  This allows Costa to maintain his focus on clarity, and perhaps to play it at all.  I get the sense of some strain even with what is on offer, but even so, once the ear adjusts to what Costa does, it works rather well.  No, this is not a first choice, but among distended 106s, it works abut as well as Eschenbach and Chauzu.  Color me pleasantly surprised.

The final volume has the last three sonatas.  Costa starts off 109 with a quick Vivace ma non troppo played with a sort of light staccato at the start, but then he blends in some legato playing, and he mixes a sort of transcendent style and a harder-hitting style, with bright and slightly hard right hand playing thereafter.  It's almost a sacred-profane blend, and it works well, as does the very slightly broad tempo.  The Prestissimo is very slow and very labored, with each note, chord, and arpeggio emphasized.  Costa then plays the Andante theme of the final movement at a fairly brisk clip, and if not especially transcendent, it does sound lovely, as does the first variation.  The second starts off more pointed, but softens as it moves along, and the third is a bit slow but effectively powerful.  The fourth variation is suitably transcendent, with some more slow-ish and powerful playing.  Costa really revs things up in the fifth variation, sort of making the listener wonder why he didn't play the Prestissimo at a similar tempo, and then ends with an attractive restatement of the theme in the final variation.  Op 110 starts off sounding lyrical, but then transitions to quick, pointed, bright playing (and/or the recording sounds bright, but not in a bad way).  Costa creates more of a middle period sound, or maybe just a slightly more angst-ridden one.  The beautiful playing sounds like something of a respite from the music surrounding it.  In the Allegro molto Costa plays a middle of the road speed, but his forte playing is powerful and hard, his accents jarring, his drive impressive.  Very nice.  The start of the last movement retains some of the tense feeling of the music that came before, but quickly settles into a more subdued style, only to have the right hand playing ring out tensely again, a feeling which never really dissipates through the rest of the first arioso. Costa plays the first fugue slowly, deliberately, and quite clearly, with a sort of cold detachment, and then he just pummels the piano with fortissimo playing allowing some steel to emerge.  The second arioso again sounds tense, and the repeated chords are angrily played, clipped more than other version I've heard, and though they build up in volume, they never even come close to the fortissimo thunder in the fugue.  The inverted fugue starts off quick and tetchy rather than cold and detached, and has some more potent playing later on, and it ends with crashing playing in a thundered out coda.  This is certainly a non-standard take on the work, and works very well on its own terms.  Given such intense playing in the penultimate sonata, hopes for a fiery and aggressive open to the last one seemed reasonable.  They panned out.  Costa starts plays the Maestoso with darkness and bite, and the Allegro keeps that up, though the playing also marks a return to slower tempi.  Even so, the heft wins out, resulting in a superb opening movement.  Costa starts off with an attractive but slightly pressed Arietta in the second movement, but then slows down and cools off markedly in the second half, creating more of a transcendent sound.  Costa plays the first variation with a sense of tension similar to his playing in 110, and though the second variation starts slower and more elevated, it, too, reverts to that style more than normal.  The boogie-woogie variation is a bit slow, without great rhythmic verve, but it does have nice dynamic swings.  The playing after slows down more, with some pronounced left hand playing.  The "little stars" are slow and deliberate but effective, moving the music into a more transcendent soundworld.  The chains of trills is played more slowly than any I recall, and as the lengthy movement proceeds, it sort of takes on the "slow is profound" approach, sort of diminishing the impact of the first part of the movement.  That written, it still works well, the last couple minutes are elevated, and the coda is serene.

When I first endeavored to listen to Costa's complete set, I had predetermined, based on foggy memories of the second and third volumes, that this would be a fourth tier cycle, but something changed while I listened.  There's no doubt whatsoever that this cycle is not a first or second tier cycle for me, but it ended up being better than expected overall.  Costa's penchant for slow tempi, somewhat reminiscent of Arrau's, serves his interpretive purposes nicely.  While some sonatas don't work especially well with Costa's approach, some are noteworthy.  Op 14/2 is flat out great.  Op 26, too.  The Op 49 works are both superb, making more of the works than normal.  Op 106 is much better than anticipated, especially given its length.  And Op 110, in something of an alternative approach, also works very well.  So the cycle has its strengths, and they can be formidable.  Into the third tier it goes.  Sound is variable, sometimes too resonant, but sometimes just fine.  The MP3 files purportedly have 24 bit depth, though the source material is 16 bit, and they are still MP3s.  Still, for my purposes, sound more than sufficed in the eight MP3 volumes. 
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Offline Yashar

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Re: Sequeira Costa Plays Beethoven
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2018, 02:46:57 PM »
Do the albums says when the sonatas were recorded?

Offline Todd

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Re: Sequeira Costa Plays Beethoven
« Reply #2 on: December 15, 2018, 09:28:08 AM »
Do the albums says when the sonatas were recorded?


Late 90s and early aughts if memory serves, but I could be wrong.
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

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