Author Topic: Irina Mejoueva Plays Beethoven, Take 2  (Read 1143 times)

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Offline Todd

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Irina Mejoueva Plays Beethoven, Take 2
« on: September 11, 2021, 05:31:41 AM »

&%@ *#@^ %@!!(*& pandemic.  Along with actual sufferings imposed on humanity, it ended up screwing up release schedules and overseas delivery for all manner of releases.  As such, this cycle, the second from Irina Mejoueva, the first woman to record two cycles, did not end in my clutches until this summer.  It was released in Japan on the big guy's probable birthday, and, in a pandemicless world, would have arrived before the end of last year.  While the scourge of the century delayed the arrival, it also ended up providing the setting for Ms Mejoueva to lay down her second take of the New Testament in the summer of last year.  I can't read the Japanese only liner notes (the artist bio aside), so I don't know the inspiration for this, whether it was born from isolation, whether the 2019 LvB recordings she made were originally meant to be the start of a cycle, or any of that.  All I know is that I had to listen.  It is most definitely worth noting that Ms Mejoueva uses a 1922 Steinway D for the cycle, and some instruments from that period seem to have held up really rather well.  It is also worth noting that this cycle is available for streaming, but I had to have the physical set because.

Disc one starts off with the opening trio.  The first thing one notices compared to the earlier set is the slightly slower tempo, with the Allegro taking twenty-four seconds longer.  The better sound, very slightly more resonant recording, and rather delightful sounding piano, combined with Mejoueva's more refined touch and precise dynamics yields a more poised and serious yet still fully satisfying open.  The aged piano offers a wonderful mix of metallic twang and warmth in the Adagio, again delivered with seriousness of purpose and refined touch, punctuated by rich lower registers.  The Menuetto starts off slow and somber, but then Mejoueva goes for maximum contrast dynamics, with gentle yet pronounced tempo shifts tossed in, especially in the Trio.  Then the Prestissimo is controlled fire, with a rumbling bass underpinning bright right-hand outbursts, and very finely nuanced playing in the central section.  A most impressive opening sonata.  No less impressive is the second sonata, which opens with an Allegro vivace possessed of ample dynamic contrasts and amped up energy.  The generally very clean fingerwork, numerous little touches, almost improvisatory sounding rubato, and forward drive satisfy in every way.  Some of the playing tips right over into idiosyncrasy, so it will not be to all tastes.  In the Largo appassionato, Mejoueva keeps things tense throughout, savoring both the gentle playing and the loud forte blasts.  The outer sections of the Scherzo vary between zippy and slightly relaxed, while the trio has a drive, a bite to it.  Mejoueva then plays the Rondo with a lovely and mostly peppy sound, with some biting forte oomph in the third section.  Nice.  Mejoueva launches the third sonata with an Allegro con brio filled with ample energy, some hefty forte and fortissimo playing, but in the midst of the energy, she backs off, slows down, plays gently, and it all melds together swimmingly.  Touches abound, whether one big ol' arpeggiated chord normally played, well, normally, or subtle and less subtle rubato that keeps things interesting.  The Adagio boasts some very clear voicing to go with the steady pulse and tolling lower registers that lends a dark, dramatic, yet controlled air.  The Scherzo, with quick 'n' chipper outer sections and a beefy trio, works splendidly, and transitions to a bright, light, sweet Allegro assai, all pianistic smiles and joy.  A strikingly strong opening trio.

In 10/1, Mejoueva delivers quick and clean ascending arpeggios to open the Allegro molto e con brio, and she keeps a zippy tempo and superb clarity throughout, in a playful, very classical rendition of the movement.  The slightly quick Adagio molto sounds inward looking at times, but mostly ends up about surface beauty, thanks to the piano, and clean execution.  Which is all it needs here.  The Prestissimo is back to quick, light fun, with nicely clear left hand playing and a sense of fun pervading.  Writing of a sense of fun pervading a piece, 10/2 starts with purposely heavy-handed chords offset by lighter, cleaner playing.  Mejoueva doesn't go for a purely direct style, instead varying the pulse slightly, slowing down before belting out some playing and moving back to something more chipper, in a scherzo-y overall type of style.  The sonic contrast between the weighty lower registers and almost shimmering upper registers in some passages delights.  The upper registers and tempo choice impart a minor sense of, alternatively, youthful period urgency and later period mystery to the playing, while the trio sounds alternatively somber-ish and plucky.  Then comes a Presto with mucho verve and rambunctiousness and forward drive.  Ms Mejoueva also wisely includes the repeat.  In the D Major, Mejoueva goes for unabashedly high energy, plucky playing in the Presto, not delving deep at all, keeping it all fun.  The left hand playing, poking out some notes and chords, sounds almost prankish at times.  The contrast with the Largo takes only about three notes to firmly establish itself.  Mejoueva again goes for a slightly pressed tempo choice, adding a sense of urgency, and while she doesn't weigh down the playing or deviate from a classical style, she imparts more drama from the get-go.  She winds up the tension to a satisfying climax, but she also manages to turn the music leading to the coda into a serious near-dirge that at least matches the climax for impact.  That takes some doing.  The Menuetto comes off as almost Germanically strict, though light, while the Rondo is back to the zippy style of the first movement.  Probably zippier.  The upper registers of the instrument again add an element of sonic delight, and the dynamic contrasts, meaty but constrained, also help.  A super-beefy chord announces the arrival of Op 13, and then as the playing moves up the keyboard in the Grave, Mejoueva imparts more urgency to the playing until transitioning to an Allegro of no little urgency, marrying wide enough dynamics to propulsive but not overwhelming drive.  The Adagio cantabile has suitably lovely right hand playing, but the clear and pronounced accompaniment changes the balance up a bit, and Mejoueva once again opts for a slightly pressed tempo.  No foofiness here.  The snappy Rondo closer displays exceptionally nice voice clarity and tunefulness, and, somehow, it manages to sound almost like super-musical fugal playing, which of course it ought not to, but it does, and that seems attributable to the clarity.  Anyway, Mejoueva keeps it light and tight to the end.  A second very fine disc.

Op 7 starts with an Allegro molto e con brio that's all pep, rhythmic brio, and tight execution.  It's a musical cup of joe, with the dotted rhythm and dynamic contrasts jolting the listener in a most pleasant manner.  The Largo, just a smidge on the quick side, is delivered with wide dynamics and some emphatic accenting.  The dynamic control and clarity on display when Mejoueva plays the off kilter left hand figurations more quietly than the melody makes for a fine listening experience, and her ability to create an almost desolate sound reminiscent of Op 106 works nicely.  She amps things up in the Allegro, with outer sections possessed of forward momentum and a trio of almost ominous sound.  In the Rondo, Mejoueva presses ahead again, at times delivering a galop, and otherwise just rips through the music with superb control.  An energetic, exciting, probable Top 10 take.  Mejoueva keeps 14/1 more or less peppy and light.  She doesn't soften dynamic contrasts, but she also doesn't unnecessarily hammer them out, and she knows how to add just a touch of heft to the Allegretto without making it too dramatic.  Mejoueva softens up a bit more in 14/2, letting the upper registers of the piano deliver the goods in the Allegro, and she introduces a bit of weighty left-hand emphasis in the Andante theme and variations, using the device throughout to excellent effect.  The playful Allegro assai closer has Mejoueva gleefully pounding out some notes followed by light, scampering playing in a manner the composer surely would have appreciated.  (Or not, I don't know.)  The disc closes with Op 26.  Mejoueva lays down a robust theme that contains ample beauty, then transitions to the variations with playing that mimics strumming, and her nimble, precise fingerwork shows up over and over in nuanced playing throughout, as does her rubato, which works exceedingly well.  Jiggery-pokery works well in this movement, as she demonstrates with some nifty sostenuto pedal use, and perhaps the longest sustain to end that I've heard.  The Scherzo is quick but not too fast, but it comes off as a musical bulldozer at times.  That's good.  Given the playing to this point, one might expect a big, powerful funeral march, but Mejoueva opts for something quicker, terser, more constrained, almost like restrained testiness, only occasionally rising to thundering playing.  The concluding Allegro is dashed off at 2'37", with Mejoueva zipping along in light, comic fashion.  A heckuva take ends of heckuva disc.

Disc four starts off with Op 22, and Mejoueva jumps right into brisk, energetic playing.  Occasional weighty left-hand playing is about the only thing of note in this direct take.  That's not to say that the playing lacks all personality, it's more that it's secondary here.  The Adagio stays on the somewhat swift side, and Mejoueva eschews outsize gestures, keeping things to the point.  The Menuetto starts light but firm, with Mejoueva ratcheting up tension a bit in faster sections, while the trio is pushed further yet.  The Rondo starts off comparably gently with the first theme, increasing in intensity a bit in the second, and then Mejoueva plays the third theme in jittery, driven fashion.  27/1 follows, and the clarity and tone of the left hand playing brings a slightly different sound to the opening Andante.  The playing stays under wraps until the third theme, when Mejoueva whacks out the notes and plays with very fine articulation.  The really big dynamic contrasts come in the Allegro molto e vivace, with the pianist alternating between cool playing and sonic blasts, with a tight, accelerated trio.  The Adagio slows things down, and cools things off for the most part, with some passages seeming to pre-echo the opening of 27/2, and then finally Mejoueva delivers an Allegro vivace that offers plenty of scale and drive, but also some mischievous scampering around the keyboard at more subdued levels.  Mejoueva starts 27/2 with an Adagio sostenuto that's more tense than mysterious, more direct than oblique, and quite serious.  The Allegretto has a somewhat quasi-galloping rhythm, with nice accenting, and the Presto agitato is all about speed and drive and nearly reckless (though obviously not) playing, with sturm, drang, and pep in equal measure.  The Pastorale benefits from Mejoueva's insistent left hand playing, and while some stretches of the Allegro cruise along smoothly, it is the tense climaxes that pop.  The Andante sort of maintains the feel, with Mejoueva emphasizing the staccato bass and relishing the accenting.  The central section favors the same approach but sounds funner.  Unsurprisingly, Mejoueva pays special attention to the dynamic contrasts in the Scherzo, and in the Rondo the insistent left hand playing, married to accelerandos and dashed off playing, lends the music a rustic, gruff but sophisticated sound. 

Pivotal disc five contains Op 31, always a center of attention.  Mejoueva goes for a crisp, strong route in the Allegro vivace, not wussing out in the accenting and dynamic contrasts.  The tempo and style are on the fast side, but not rushed, and she allows herself the (very) slight decelerando here and there, and though nothing outlandish, she even manages to impart a little something extra into the coda.  Mejoueva then does something a few pianists have done before in the Adagio grazioso when she deliberately makes the music sounds clunky and disjointed.  When she unleashes in the right-hand runs, the effect dazzles, but then she quickly reverts to clunkiness, alternating between dross and beauty effortlessly, with some of the trills so jaunty and fun, and some of the left hand playing so pokey and jokey, one can't help but revel.  Some rounded left-hand notes introduce the middle section which the pianist dispatches with pianistic efficiency of the highest order, before returning to more of the opening material.  Nimble fingerwork and playfulness pervade the Rondo, with energy aplenty and a tight conception.  Little moments pop up, and that piano and that left hand make for some fine moments while the melody still remains in the forefront.  The opening notes, long pause, and then biting playing of the Largo sets the stage for an Allegro of relatively compressed drama and drive.  Here, Mejoueva drives forward at a perfectly judged speed that allows voices to emerge clearly and the sforzandi and ominous left hand playing heightens tension while keeping a more classical style.  Mejoueva does make portions of the Adagio sing, but the even bigger attractions are the lower registers and the impact brought on by the closer recorded perspective, resulting in an almost in your face impact, particularly as she does rush through some passages.  The Allegreto closes things out with drive, sforzandi with real edge, and more dramatic dynamic contrasts in an almost relentless perpetuum mobile style.  Mejoueva fared quite well when surveying all recordings of 31/3 in my collection, and it seems like she may have wanted to up her game (for her, of course, not because I scribbled nonsense about her recording).  She shaves off eighteen seconds in the Allegro, beginning a little slowed with some slurred notes, before blasting off, though she delivers the playing with a sense of ease.  It charms.  And it still has all the thrills and hairpin turns and dynamic contrasts, too.  Leading with the left hand, Mejoueva zips right through the Scherzo, blurting out forte chords and rushing forward with perfectly controlled faux recklessness.  She keeps the Menuetto light but more serious than the other movements, and then ends with a humdinger of a Presto con fuoco, pushing the bounds of good taste in terms of speed except that it doesn't - it's rushed but controlled and fun, exactly as it should be.  Another top-flight version of the eighteenth sonata from Ms Mejoueva.  And a top-flight Op 31 trio.  Always a very good portent.     

The Op 49 sonatas start off disc six, and Mejoueva doesn't put a foot wrong - which is to say, when she pedals, she does so just right.  The music stays light, but, as in the coda of the Andante of 49/1, she weights individual bass notes just so, and she imparts just a bit of oomph and splashy right hand playing in the Rondo.  For 49/2, launched with a punchy chords, tunefulness and playfulness more or less are the name of the game, with the jaunty, bouncy closing movement almost certain to bring a smile to any face.  The Waldstein starts zippy and subdued-punchy in the Allegro con brio.  Maybe the playing is not the model of pianissimo playing, nor of unlimited nuance, but it needn't be.  The clarity of voices, the clean fingerwork, and overall high energy level make it a no-nonsense opening movement.  The Introduzione, led by the bass and filled with some micro-pauses for effect, sounds somber and introspective and clean, and segues nicely to an Allegro moderato that starts gently and in an appealingly cloudy way, while maintaining some zip to the tempo, and then Mejoueva pounds out some chords, amping up the playing nicely.  Op 54 starts off with an appealing Menuetto, but Mejoueva really delivers when thumping out the triplets with heavy duty but tight lower registers.  Rinse, repeat.  Nice.  The Allegretto is delivered in super-zippy fashion, with exaggerated left hand playing.  If not Kun Woo Paik rushed, it's nice to hear someone else deliver a speedy take.  Given Mejoueva's style to this point, a listener might expect a fast, nimble, clear, and weighty rendition, with ample intensity.  Such a listener would be rewarded.  The bright upper registers and hefty lower registers lend nice tonal contrasts, and Mejoueva zips - but not tears - through the Allegro assai.  The tetchy dotted rhythm playing gets right in the listener's face.  Good!  A slightly somber, processional feel pervades the opening of the Andante, but then Mejoueva mixes it up as she progresses through the variations.  Finally, she launches the Allegro ma non troppo with more potent left hand playing, and then pushes things in the Presto, generating intensity and scale and bite.  Maybe it's not the best.  Maybe it's not a top five.  May be a top ten.  Yet another strong disc.

Disc seven crams four small works in, starting with Op 78.  Op 78, in turn, starts off with a slightly quick Adagio cantabile that both maintains a bit of tension and benefits mightily from the tangy upper registers.  Mejoueva knows not to overcook the music, but she also chooses to add dashes of heft.  She then imbues the Allegro vivace with much vivacity, rushing headlong throughout the brief duration, and relishing the left-hand chords.  Nice.  Op 79 starts with a Presto alla tedesca that's all plucky fun and rhythmically boppy, with a notable cuckoo sound and a pronounced acciaccatura.  A serious Andante, with left hand playing that seems to presage some later, dour Chopin Nocturnes follows, while the Vivace is back to plucky fun.  Here's a recording that perfectly marries the light and the heavy-ish.  Op 81a stays decidedly classical in spirit, with Mejoueva eschewing overt romanticizing of the Das Lebewohl.  Again, some details, most notably in the lower registers, delight in their clarity and perfectly judged emphasis.  The Abwesenheit keeps a somewhat tense sound, with Mejoueva preferring nervous staccato and accents and some beefy left hand led chords.  She closes out with a Das Wiedersehen that starts with a blur of colorful right-hand playing before transitioning to zippy, energetic playing alternating with beefier playing.  The repeated accompaniment sounds extra nifty.  The fairly light mien of the piece overall refreshes.  Op 90 starts with a first movement that sort of flits between different styles.  There's some heavy, processional playing, some quick, fiery playing punctuated by almost jarring sforzandi, and numerous little touches, with note values tweaked in very precise, effective manner.  The second movement sounds more fluid and lyrical, but Mejoueva can't just the music flow.  She has to lavish attention to detail, she has to accent some left-hand notes, she has to tinker just a bit with tempi.  Fortunately, it's all to the good.  Yet another strong disc.

The penultimate disc covers 101 and 106.  The former starts off a bit more slowly than one might expect given Mejoueva's playing to this point, and the tradeoff is hints of the late LvB transcendent sound.  It also sounds austere and super-serious.  That ain't a bad thing.  Mejoueva's instrument and style pays dividends in the march, which has striking tonal contrasts between registers, along with wide dynamic swings and rhythmic vitality, with a steady, subdued almost Bachian fugue style in the central section.  The Adagio goes full-on late LvB, and in the coda, Mejoueva introduces the (effective) pregnant pause and then uses an extended trill to segue to the bright, sunny, and punchy Allegro closer.  She plays with less power and scale, keeping things almost Haydnesque.  The at times bouncy rhythm amplifies that impression.  Very nice.  In 106, Mejoueva doesn't bother to try to play the Allegro at breakneck speed, which is not to say she plays it slowly.  Rather, she varies the tempi quite a bit, offering significant contrast between the faster, more boisterous passages and the slower, more (partially) introspective passages, along with micro-pauses for effect.  In some places she pushes things right to the edge, and she keeps things moving along swimmingly, making the eleven-minute duration feel more like ten.  The Scherzo sounds broader than normal, and the middle section, with blurred and weighty left hand playing, offers a fine contrast to the more boisterous and prankish faster sections.  Mejoueva starts the Adagio with a stark, desolate sound, and then lightens things up, though only slightly, before adding more tension and bite and angst to the playing as the movement progresses.  One does not find deep depths; one experiences tension and clean playing right through.  That works.  The finale starts with a slightly swift Largo, moves to some very swift playing in the Allegro section, and then after a suitably lengthy transition moves into a fugue that sounds faster than it is and more or less stays light and quick.  Right before the Bachian passage, which she plays very slowly, Mejoueva pushes things past the edge a bit - but at least she goes for something.  While not a technically flawless rendition, the overall energy level and lack of excess weight or depth results in a quite satisfying disc.

The final trio starts with an Op 109 where the Vivace ma non troppo takes precedence over the Adagio espressivo.  Indeed, the overall tempo only briefly, and in fits, may be described as Adagio.  If that reads like a complaint, it is not.  Mejoueva's style, while not transcendent, has plenty of gravity and expression, it's just narrower scope, and more focused.  The Prestissimo alternates between thunder and speed, a rarified middle-late style hybrid packed with nervous energy.  In the Andante theme, Mejoueva goes for an almost transcendent sound, and a playing style of carefully measured note values and clarity, with most pleasing arpeggios, where she creates a quasi-strumming effect.  The first two variations elevate the style, while Mejoueva reorients the work with the zippy, slightly blurred third variations, which then segues smoothly to a hybrid quick 'n' lofty fourth variation.  She maintains the hybrid, quick, almost aggressive style right out through to the coda.  In 110, by contrast, Mejoueva starts both lighter and more elevated.  She maintains a slightly zippy feel, it's just elevated.  The lower registers of her piano add texture and weight, and the nearly "little stars" quality of some of the upper register playing hit the spot.  And that's just in the opening minute-and-a-half of the opening movement.  Things just get better from there.  The Allegro molto starts off weighty and punchy, finds the pianist very slightly drawing out the transition to the chipper middle section, before going for weight and impact again.  It might be considered too episodic by some, but nah.  The final movement starts with a somber arioso, with Mejoueva taking maximum advantage of the bright upper registers, klinking out urgent high notes before slowing way down on the slow road to the fugue.  She plays it completely straight to open, keeps a pretty steady tempo, and throws in some super-hefty left hand playing.  Mejoueva does a nice but not as big a buildup of repeated chords as one might expect, but then she follows that up with a rarified, transcendent opening to the inverted fugue, which starts slow and builds up to a fast, potent, almost bruising coda.  Op 111 then starts with a dark, biting Maestoso, though others have gone further, and then moves to a quick Allegro where, once again, the lower registers of the instrument add a most satisfying tone and weight.  It invites positively impolite listening levels.  The Arietta starts off slow and processional, with no real shift in the second half.  The first variation, in contrast, sounds both processional but also lighter, as though a musical burden has been lifted.  The second variation adds a bit of tension, while the boogie woogie variation has plenty of verve.  After that, the special character of the lower register, with Mejoueva's steady and perfectly weighted playing just before the "little stars" arrive offers a unique and effective contrast unlike any other version I've heard.  She plays the little stars quite gently, and then as the music progress she ups the tension quite a bit before making a major shift again in the chains of trills, which sound gentle and bright, blurred yet incisive, elevated yet plain.  The coda, not the most elevated I've heard, unceremoniously brings the piece to a close in a strangely effective way.   

Here's a slightly unexpected treat.  Ms Mejoueva's first cycle is a mostly quick and well executed, very classical style cycle.  While she doesn't deviate from a more or less classical style, her playing varies more in terms of tempo and dynamics, in phrasing, in attention to detail.  That, in turn, elevates this cycle.  It's the same pianist, but the style if different enough to land this cycle in at least the second tier.  Actually, it's more like a Top 21 choice, deserving, if time ever allows, some A/Bs to see if perhaps she displaces some other pianist in the top tiers.  Heck, it may deserve a shootout with some of the Top Ten.  As it stands, this true Beethoven year set exceeds expectations and carves a path for other female pianists to go for a second try.  I mean, if Yu Kosuge or Melodie Zhao were to go again, I wouldn't in the least.  You know what I'm sayin'.  And this may just be the contemporary Annie Fischer set.  Turns out that the Beethoven year yielded a cycle I was looking for.
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