Definitely running low on readily available complete cycles to hear, I decided to go for two from pianists I probably would not have experimented with had they not recorded the New Testament: André De Groote and Gerhard Oppitz.
Mr De Groote, a Belgian pianist, was first. His cycle, apparently recorded for Naxos Benelux in 1998, was a surprise, but only because I knew nothing about the pianist. I found a few blurbs on line about him, and one Indiana critic – De Groote has taught in Indiana – described him as a “sit down and play” type pianist. I assume the critic meant that De Groote plays without exaggeration or eccentricity, because that’s certainly the case with the cycle. De Groote adopts sensible tempi throughout, never rushing anything (no light speed openings for the Waldstein
, say), and never wallowing anywhere (the slow movement for Op 106 isn’t given the Slow Is Profound treatment). Nor does he seem to exaggerate dynamics, thundering out unnecessary fortissimos when mezzo forte will do. No, generally, he’s sensible. That’s not to say he’s nondescript or without ideas. He reveals personality with a satisfyingly intense Op 10/3, displays ample humor where appropriate in the great Op 31 triptych (dig that second movement to Op 31/1!), and delivers better than average late works. His Op 106 opens with a large-scale, suitably quasi-orchestral sound, and the slow movement is nicely cool. The final trio, while not the best I’ve heard, evoke a detached, transportive sound I like in these works. These are not merely sonatas penned by a composer; these are supreme, moving masterpieces written by one of the greats. While I can’t say that this rates as a great cycle for me, it is very enjoyable, and was well worth the meager asking price.
I’ve been aware of the Gerhard Oppitz cycle for a while, and finally, when it was released in box set form at a cheap price, I went for it. Oppitz comes across as another “sit down and play” pianist, though he sounds a bit more serious and uncompromising. He also tends to play a bit faster. His Op 10/1 opens with intense, high speed arpeggios, for instance, and his Op 106 is a model of firm, quick playing (though he doesn’t attempt Gieseking or Gulda tempi in the opening movement). He’s a bit less playful in the earlier sonatas and the Op 31 works (smiles are in short supply in 31/1), and plays with more drive in some of the middle and later works. The Waldstein
, for instance, possess compelling energy, as does the superficially impressive Op 106. Oppitz doesn’t plumb the depths of the late works as well as De Groote, at least for me, and his overall style come across as just a bit stern.
So clearly I should prefer De Groote. Yet I think I prefer Oppitz, ever so slightly. While De Groote offers more flexibility and personality, I find the uncompromising, muscular Oppitz more to my taste. His approach reminds me a bit of Gulda’s Amadeo in that he seems to adopt a similar style for all of the works and largely makes it work. That written, he’s no Gulda. Overall, I’d say that both of these cycles fall into the average or slightly above average category for me. There are definitely better cycles out there, but there are definitely worse ones, and both offer more than enough for me to return to again.
I will say that both cycles share one common trait: sub-par sound. De Groote’s cycle sounds glassy, with a small, distant piano lacking in dynamic range and clarity. The Oppitz cycle is too reverberant for my taste. One gets a better sense of dynamics, but the price is a lack of clarity.