Tamami Honma Plays Beethoven

Started by Todd, March 24, 2024, 12:54:31 PM

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Finally!  An American woman has recorded the New Testament.  Oh, sure, Tamami Honma was born in Japan, but she moved to the Beehive State while still a young child and has spent many years in the good, old US of A.  She has done the competition thing, the touring thing, the teaching thing, currently in San Franciso and in London before that.  She counts no less than the late Byron Janis among her teachers, and while studying at the Royal Academy of Music she got a master's with an emphasis on Beethoven Aesthetics.  (Her LinkedIn profile is most helpful.)  After a couple dud LvB sonata cycles, these bona fides gave me hope that she would deliver something more enjoyable.  The only way to know for sure was to listen, so . . .

Skipping disc one for now since it contains WoO 35 sonatas and the Andante Favori and going right for the real stuff, Op 2, one gets a return to normalcy with Honma.  Properly judged tempi prevail in the Allegro, wide ranging but controlled dynamics pervade, and clarity of voices is exemplary.  Honma does not sound forensic in the manner of Lidsky, but one needn't strain to hear what's there.  The piano sound is less than ideal, sounding kind of thin and bright and dodgy, but then it could be the instrument.  (The notes don't cite make or model, but it apparently is the pianist's own Steinway B.)  The first complaint comes from a digital distribution boo boo.  Tracks two, three, and four are jumbled.  (I downloaded from Qobuz.)  The Adagio, very nicely played and taut and tense, is the fourth track, so one must listen to tracks 1, 4, 2, 3.  First world problems are very serious.  Anyway, the Menuetto is quick and tight, and the Prestissimo has drive and bite aplenty, though not the repeat.  Overall, a nice start, and one that falls in line with more standard cycles.  2/2 starts off crisp and bright, with some tangy forte playing, and an extra zippy second section.  As they return, the sforzandi really catch the ear, going right up to the point of sounding nearly oppressive.  The Largo appassionato takes this one small step, with Honma mercilessly hammering out the loudest playing.  She does this to play up contrasts, and never just bangs away.  A jocular Scherzo and singing Rondo, at least in the outer sections, wrap things up nicely.  2/3 starst with an Allegro con brio high on brio, and Honma adds some rhythmic punch to the mix.  Given Honma's penchant to hit them keys hard, she keeps the tolling notes somewhat under wraps, though they still have weight.  The entire Adagio maintains a nice tension to go with the nice amount of attractiveness.  Honma plays a Prestissimo opening to the Allegro, making sure the listener can hear everything.  Nice.  And the Allegro assai sounds exactly like one would think it would by this point.  After a couple duds, getting back to a straightforward, albeit hard-hitting, classical approach sure was nice. 

Volume three starts off with the Op 49 duo, and basically Honma takes no prisoners, to the extent that is possible in these sonatinas.  Too, Honma presents them in reverse order.  Swift or at least swift-ish, slightly edgy in louder sections, with more rhythmic snap than one might expect, the second comes off very well.  The opening movement of the first veers close to sounding stodgy, using the purely scientific meaning of that word, before reverting to snappy, brio laden playing in the second movement.  Nice.  The musically meatier Op 7 sounds a smidge swift in the Allegro con brio, with rhythmic snap aplenty.  Honma holds back in the first bars so that she may wallop the listener with bracing forte playing in the loud passages, before reverting to more dynamically but not tempo constrained playing.  The Largo, while slower, doesn't really sound too slow, and here Honma revels in offering maximum dynamic contrasts, with thundering forte playing followed by extremely delicate pianissimo playing, gently plinked out.  The loudest playing takes on a metallic sheen and comes close to matching Kovacevich at his steeliest.  The outer sections of the third movement fall short of sounding like an Allegro, but they sound dramatic and allow for Honma to offer a bit of contrast with the dark, rumbly middle section, where Honma lets the left hand quietly dominate until the end, where she then transitions back to more measured opening material.  Nice.  The closing movement has some slower than normal sections contrasting with faster than normal sections, blending nicely.  The dynamic contrasts end up being the thing here, though.  Honma really likes delivering hard hitting forte and fortissimo passages and backing way, way off in contrasting material.  While predictable, it never gets old.  Nor does the rhythmic oomph.  Honma does do something nice here, and she tapers off the playing to a gentle coda.  In a few passages, the piano sounds a bit roughed up, but that's OK.  Op 10/1 starts off with something unique in my experience, and it has nothing to do with the playing.  The description of the sonata is the 'Little Pathetique'.  I do not recall having seen that before, but maybe I have.  Anyway, Honma opts for a dramatic but conventionally paced opening ascending arpeggio – no scorched keyboard here.  The tradeoff is that dynamic contrasts remain formidable.  Those formidable dynamic contrasts remain in the quite slow, but quite cool Adagio.  The Prestissimo sounds a bit slower than it does in some other recordings, but both the dynamic variation (wide) and the tempo fluctuations (noticeable) work well, and one can sort of hear hints of Op 13 here, I suppose.  Honma opts for a somewhat leisurely overall tempo to start 10/2, but she keeps that potent forte playing, boxing the listener's ears with it when and where (maximally) appropriate.  To this point, Honma's tempi have been more or less standard, but in the Allegretto she plays notably slower than anticipated, though well within the realm of the usable.  (That is, she's no Riccardo Schwartz.)  She shows she can play beautifully, delicately, and with museum grade precision with anyone.  Honma then does something somewhat surprising by going for a rip-roaring, high speed, almost cartoonish Presto, with some bass notes sounding extra beefy.  High energy and oodles of fun, with repeat included, what's not to like? 

Volume four launches with 10/3, and Honma launches the piece with a perky, vibrant Presto.  Dynamics remain wide, energy high, and rhythmic snap pervasive.  The Largo starts nice and slow, but also sounds tense, and Honma uses some nice micro-pauses and sustains to good effect.  She doesn't quite wind up to a maximally satisfying climax, but it packs enough punch.  The Minuet sounds pretty straightforward, but in the Rondo, Honma slows things down and sounds very deliberate.  The wide, crashing dynamics sound nice, but the feel of the piece overall derails.  Steel and thunder announce the arrival of the Pathetique, with a slow and grave Grave, followed by a peppy and driven Allegro.  The temperature gets turned way down in the lovely, singing Adagio cantabile, and the Rondo has pep and drive, and spicy upper registers, aplenty.  Nice, very nice.  14/1 is mostly peppy – the Allegro comodo being very peppy – and sounds just right.  14/2 ups the ante in terms of relative pep and drive and overall niftiness. 

Op 22 starts off volume five, and Honma goes for punchiness and verve in the Allegro con brio.  She does indeed slow down where needed, but this is playing with a purpose, driving to the Adagio, which is contained of tempo, but via contrasting dynamics and constrained expressivity really hits the spot.  The outer sections of the third movement find Honma slowing things down, and delivering some loud forte playing while doing so, while the Trio has ample energy though it doesn't really speed up a great deal.  The Rondo maintains a slightly reserved tempo, but Honma punches out szforzandi and the faster playing has a relentless forward momentum, so it works.  Op 26 starts with an Andante where theme and variations kind of morph into one, which typically is not an ideal outcome, but the stark dynamic contrasts offset sameness to yield a fine opening movement.  The Scherzo zips and growls along until the slow, extra-super-solemn funeral march arrives.  While Honma includes some hard-hitting playing, she keeps things somewhat contained, which makes sense for this interpretation.  The Allegro has pep and rhythmic pop and lightens the mood considerably.  27/1 starts off with a cleanly delineated first movement, with each section clearly standing apart from the preceding one, and the tempo is very nice, swift but not rushed at all.  Things ramp up nicely in the Allegro molto e vivace, with bold, steely forte playing, and then back off nicely in the Adagio, which trails off nicely before the concluding Allegro vivace starts.  There are some nice little touches in the left hand playing that add a sense of, what, micro-boogie, and the forward momentum pretty much doesn't let up, leading to a satisfying coda.  The Moonlight opens with a steady, solemn, restrained Adagio sostenuto, moves to a constrained but bouncy Allegretto, and then ends with a thundering, crashing, biting Presto agitato.  Nice.

In Op 28, Honma's proclivity to play spicy forte and her ability to play at a measured, restrained tempo combine to yield a very fine Allegro.  Strangely, while listening I both wanted her to speed up a bit and did not want her to speed up.  I definitely did not want the one obvious edit, but that's OK.  Honma then proceeds to play the Andante at a decidedly Allegro or Allegretto pace, with pointed left hand playing that imbues the music with a sense of nervous energy right up until the distended coda.  No funky (but effective) tempo choices pop up in the playful Scherzo, while the concluding Rondo between lovely, flowing sections, and more jagged and dynamic sections.  31/1 starts with a no-nonsense Allegro vivace, heavy on the vivace and also clean staccato playing.  Of course, the dynamic contrasts sound excellent.  Clean, crisp trills start off the Allegro grazioso, but shortly thereafter, Honma slows down and plays in a stilted, clumsy fashion that simply delights.  The middle section comes with extra punchy sforzandi, which likewise delight.  Honma plays with what can only be described as cheerful relentlessness in the Rondo, keeping things tight, punchy, and mock serious.  A pretty darned good reading, I say.  Honma doesn't really bother with a slow, overly dramatic Largo to open Der Sturm, instead opting to go for fast, intense playing in the Allegro.  The overall impact renders the movement as something like Pathétique, Part II, and that's splendid.  The Adagio goes slow-ish, with those nice dynamic contrasts adding faux drama.  The concluding Allegretto starts off somewhat subdued, with Honma predictably yet effectively cranking it up where needed for proper effect.  Another pretty darned good reading.

Action packed volume seven starts with 31/3, and here Honma's style works super swell.  Quick but not rushed in the Allegro, the clean staccato and quasiwalloping forte blasts and forward drive set the mood.  This whole sonata is a serious joke.  This gets driven home in a Scherzo that verges on the nutso fast side of the spectrum, with Honma pushing and pushing, and then just hammering out the sforzandi like it ain't nobody's business.  Nice is an understatement.  Things cool way off in the slow, quite attractive Menuetto, which, the crashing forte chords in the middle section aside, never sounds less than grazioso.  The Presto con fuoco is nearly nutso fast in places, and exudes a mix of giddiness and rip roaring fun.  It's a corker of a movement to end a corker of a performance, certainly a top tier choice (listed in On The Hunt.)  In the critical Op 31, Honma delivers the goods.  Op 53 follows, and Honma sticks with quickness in the Allegro con brio, and she starts no louder than mp, so that's good, too.  The playing lacks much in the way of nuance or fluid dynamic shifts, but the energy alone makes it a winner.  The Introduzione sounds not so much searching so much as tense – and that's most certainly OK – and the concluding Rondo alternates between whispers and thunder, all delivered at just right tempi.  Op 54 starts with a first movement where the two themes sound hypercontrasty, with the second one basically all up in the listener's grill, aggressively pointing a musical finger right between the eyes.  Hell yeah!  For years now, Kun Woo Paik set the bar for nutso fast playing of the second movement.  Honma comes real close to matching him in overall impact, because she plays it fast.  And I swear, some of the forte playing has the punch of tone clusters.  Nice, nice.  So, now, given Honma's style, one expects a clean, bright, and punchy Op 57.  Yep, that's what one gets.  St Annie's Hungaroton recording sits atop the interpretive pyramid, and while it maintains that perch, Honma's take is reminiscent of that earlier recording.  So, yeah, it's real, real good.  'Nuff written.  Were this set sold as individual discs, this would be the one to buy, were one inclined to buy just one disc.

Volume eight starts with Op 78, and Honma plays it is a serious, middle period piece.  The hard-hitting dynamic contrasts pepper the music nicely, but overall, it retains a certain lightness and does not strive for more late-period-ish depth that some other pianists favor.  Observation, not criticism; the sonata works splendidly in its directness.  Op 79 benefits from the bright sound of the piano and the peppy tempo.  Light and fun, with an acciaccatura that harkens back to 31/1 in spirit, it works nicely.  The somber, serious Andante and bright, light Vivace sound closer to the quasi una fantasia era works, which is just fine.  Op 81a's opening movement sounds brisk and somewhat uninvolved, more of a just-the-notes style, which becomes more obvious in the second movement.  It's not that Honma plays with no expression, just that it remains contained.  Even the quite peppy and dynamically striking final movement remains expressively contained.  Now, in Op 90, one would think going in that Honma's penchant for bold dynamic contrasts and punchy forte playing would yield big dividends, and while the first movement sounds swell, it lacks the relative impact of some earlier sonatas.  The second movement sounds light and tuneful but a bit blocky.  Op 101 finishes off the disc, and Honma, not unexpectedly, delivers less of a transcendent approach than a more middle period sounding one.  Dynamic contrasts remain prominent, clarity is superb, and forward motion unyielding.  These traits are amplified in the punchy march, which rollicks start to finish.  The Adagio (with another audible edit) slows things down, sounds somber and reasonably attractive, and begins to approximate late LvB sound.  The finale has pep and spunk and clarity and makes fugal writing fun, or something like it.  So, overall, another nice disc.

The penultimate volume starts off with an Op 106 where the opening bars promise a zippy reading in line with tempo markings.  At 11'21", it's not to be, because Honma backs off in all of the other music.  To be sure, she keeps things moving forward at all times, plays with ample energy, keeps those nice dynamic contrasts, and so on.  It's a rock solid opening movement.  The Scherzo retains the solidity.  In the Adagio, Honma opts for a slow 21'+ tempo, and it starts off just slow, but after the opening material, Honma plays with pronounced staccato and halting playing that catches the ear.  Whether one considers it great will vary, but it is different.  After that, in the heart of the movement, Honma slips into playing that evokes desolation, punctuated by some beefy sforzandi.  And then, Honma reintroduces the pronounced staccato in the left hand playing, almost approximating a sorrowful dance feel, and the right hand playing contrasts mightily, sounding sharp and bright.  I swear, it harkens back to the Adagio of 31/1, in something I've not heard the exact like of before.  To add some more individual touches, Honma plinks out the highest notes in a tart manner, aided by the sound of her Steinway B.  Pretty nice, pretty nice.  The final movement is taken at a pace which, when combined with the clarity on offer, presents enough of an illusion of speediness as to satisfy.  Op 109 starts off at a perfectly judged tempo – quick but not rushed – and Honma adds in dashes of transcendent playing.  But mostly she keeps it taut and tuneful and clear.  The Prestissimo comes off fast and punchy, almost angry, retreating from transcendence.  The final movement starts with a lovely Andante and first variation.  The second variation displays some of the same unique traits as the slow movement of 106, just sped up, and the third variation zips by, all spike and speed.  The way she accelerates in the sixth variation, playing with intensity bordering on the angry until the coda arrives, works splendidly well.  Here's how to mix middle and late period styles. 

The final volume contains the last two sonatas.  All I could think in opening Moderato cantabile was "woo, doggy" because while Honma plays with a singing style, she also plays some passages super-fast, and with a decidedly middle period energy.  There's no pretension to late LvB transcendence here, and that's fine.  The Allegro molto sounds predictable: swift, with hard-hitting forte playing.  Nice.  The final movement starts with a comparably taut arioso, but the action is all in the fugue, which sounds strikingly clear and strong.  Honma channels the seriousness of purpose of Charles Rosen here.  The second arioso remains taut, the repeated chords build up nicely, in bracing and imposing fashion, with Honma riding the sustain expertly.  She then starts the inverted fugue softly, gently, and quite beautifully, and keeps most of the playing clear and quick and quiet, and then she amps up the playing substantially, rushing toward the coda in something that could be described as perfectly controlled recklessness.  Hot damn!  This here performance is a contender.  The Maestoso and Allegro of Op 111 more or less proceed as one would predict.  Hard hitting and dark to start, fast, hard-hitting and dark hued to follow, it's a high energy, high impact opener.  The Arietta starts slowly, but Honma keeps the playing comparatively tense at the outset, only gradually letting up, and the second half sounds serene and a bit left hand dominated.  The first variation sounds more transcendent, the second too.  The third variation is mostly just fast, with no jazzy syncopations, but one must assume that's because Honma didn't want to play it that way.  The lead up to the little stars is startlingly fast, and the little stars themselves are poked out in an almost playful manner, obviously working against the transcendent style.  I can't recall having heard anything quite like it.  The entire final variation is fast and pressed, and while the chains of trills are not the most captivating, the speed, the accuracy, and the fine dynamic gradations satisfy, and the coda is close enough to transcendent.

As an encore of sorts, one gets to go back to the first volume and listen to the WoO 47 sonatas and the Andante Favori.  The sonatas are nice, youthful, very Haydnesque works as presented here, and the Andante Favori sounds nicely middle period, as it should.  It's a most excellent bonus. 

When I first learned of this cycle years ago, I was, as per usual, most excited.  Then it seemed to languish in the can for years – though that impression was incorrect, as it was recorded into 2023 – and my interest began to wane slightly.  Very slightly.  I mean, it could never actually wane, even materially.  (For instance, I still eagerly await Valentina Lisitsa's cycle, which has yet to be released in full, and I shall patiently bide my time.)  I knew it existed.  I had to have it.  Now I have it.  It arrived at a good time, following one dud of a cycle and one monster dud of a cycle.  Honma sounds direct, conventional, and intense-ish in approach.  No great eccentricities can be heard, no bad performances are included.  Honma's approach sounds like something of a blend of Peter Takács and St Annie, and stylistically it is very much classical in mien.  Honma lands in the low second tier, blending in with a number of other very fine sets. 
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