Maurizio Zaccaria Plays Beethoven

Started by Todd, October 31, 2023, 07:12:54 AM

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A few years back, I caught glimpse of a burgeoning LvB sonata cycle by Maurizio Zaccaria.  Mr Zaccaria competed in the 2009 Van Cliburn competition, which included a goodly number of awesome young pianists.  So I was intrigued.  But I lost track of the set.  Now it has been completed and rediscovered!  Time for a listen.

The cycle opens with Op 13, because why not?  Too closely recorded, Zaccaria introduces personality/interventionism as he adds little touches by holding notes and chords just a little bit, and he displays nice flexibility in terms of tempo and dynamics.  The Adagio cantabile is very heavy on cantabile playing, and some purposely heavy-handed slow playing.  The sonata closes out with somewhat slow, but dramatic, lyrical, and groovy playing.  A nice start.  Any suspicions that Zaccaria would go somewhat slow are immediately dashed in the opening movement of Op 27/1, which sounds quick, chipper, and light, and more Allegretto than Andante.  The Allegro section has punch, though the recording does not allow for maximum dynamic contrast.  The Adagio is taken fairly quickly, but the lyricism is there is spades.  Nice.  Some playing in the Allegro vivace sounds less than ideally clear, but it keeps moving forward, so it works nicely.  Zaccaria opts to play the Adagio sostenuto of 27/2 quick 'n' cool, pushing right on through to a somewhat subdued Allegretto.  The Presto agitato has plenty of energy, but mostly constrained dynamics, though individual accents sound just swell. Op 81/a starts with Zaccaria bringing mucho lyricism in the opening Adagio before adding some pep.  A feeling of almost fantasia style playing never sounds far off, and Zaccaria almost sounds improvisatory at times somehow.  The Andante espressivo has a sense of urgency, which means that his approach, in some sonatas, is to play fast movements just a bit slow and slow movements just a bit fast – well kind of.  The Vivacissimamente sounds zippy and celebratory and fun.  A nice opening disc equivalent.

The second disc equivalent opens with Op 26, and Zaccaria goes for the slow, slow, slow and beautiful approach in the  opening movement, and extends some left-hand arpeggios nicely, all while not going too far in the theme.  Slowness returns later, but so does some extra zippy quick playing, making for some nice contrasts.  The Scherzo is punctuated by some hard-hitting forte playing, but mostly it sounds breezy and delightfully plinky.  The funeral march sounds very serious and somber, and dynamically constricted, though the sustained drama works nicely enough.  A snappy, ringing Allegro caps things off.  Op 28 follows, and here Zaccaria takes the opening Allegro at a perfect pace, plays with no little lyricism, and punctuates the music with oomph where needed.  The recorded sound, while too close and bass-shy and dynamically constricted to be called anywhere near SOTA, works well.  The Andante is poked out at a swift pace and has some nervous energy, especially when Zaccaria plays repeated notes with unnerving evenness.  The Scherzo gets dispatched with an over-the-top brio and sounds like a straight up galop in the outer sections.  The Trio is ridiculously slow and distended, for no good reason, though the results sound spectacular.  The concluding Rondo evokes a nice pastorale feel and caps off an extremely fine, very individual, and out of nowhere take.  Zaccaria then proceeds to make a musical meal out of the Op 49 sonatas, keeping 'em quick and tight and brimming over with small interpretive choices.  The disc closes with Op 90, and here Zaccaria brings a brighter, almost cutting sound in places, and if not the most emphatic forte playing, he adds weight and alternates with lyricism even in the opening movement.  The second movement slows down, sounds beautiful throughout, and almost assumes a lullaby feel.  Nice. 

Zaccaria goes full on interventionist in the opening to Op 53.  The Allegro con brio starts off nearly whisper quiet (good), blurred (depends), and basically Adagio (good or bad, to taste).  It takes until around 1'50" before the speed picks up, though even then it's not rushed.  Along the way, personal rubato, accenting, and gentle dynamic grading hurl at the listener, beguiling in the process.  Just shy of seven minutes in, the pianist pulls off a musical car wreck, building to a climax of sorts, and then collapsing the music into a hushed blob o' notes where the music sounds barely discernible.  It's unique as all get out, and I have no doubt that score purists would disapprove.  I strongly approve.  The slow, so beautiful it's too beautiful, yet not quite beautiful enough Introduzione nearly lulls the listener into a daze which the gentle and laid-back Rondo does nothing to dissipate.  Indeed, Zaccaria more or less eschews powerful display and speed in all except a few passages, and even those hardly compare with hard-hitting versions.  This here's a great example of how to deliver an unexpected take with panache.  Neat.  Op 54 follows, and Zaccaria keeps up the interventionism, with clipped playing and a chipper mean in the first section, and a prankish and punchy second section.  The Allegretto is pushed forward in manner that sounds faster than it is, and it has a sound of ebullient, controlled chaos.  The lack of hardness at all times works exceedingly well.  Zaccaria brings more intensity and heat to the opening Allegro assai of Op 57, but hardness never appears, and partly due to the recording itself, dynamics underwhelm, with no slap-in-the-face or sock-in-the-gut impact.  That negative gets offset by fine dynamic differentiation down low, and some nifty fingerwork.  The Andante moves forward with an insistent, gentle relentlessness that possesses nervous energy to go along with its peppiness and prettiness.  The Allegro ma non troppo, with some heft, nonetheless finds the pianist at his most compelling with the little things, like the sometimes delicate right hand playing, the dynamic gradations, and so forth.  While already clear, by the end of disc three, it is clear that Zaccaria is an all-out interventionist.  I like that.

The second volume opens with the Op 2 trio, and here Zaccaria goes for a stripped down, nearly nutso fast opening Allegro, though he keeps things light 'n' tight.  He goes nearly to the opposite extreme in the Adagio, not so much is utter slowness, but rather in tenderness and beauty.  He then sort of repeats the process in the third movement, with bits of drive on the outer sections and a lovely trio.  He knocks out a zippy, not ideally weighty enough Prestissimo to close things out.  The second sonata goes for the extra zippy approach in the opening movement, and Zaccaria throws in some outsize rubato and nearly (tasteful) funhouse distorted accelerandos.  Once again, the slow movement gets the extra-slow treatment, and since it's a Largo, that's fine.  There's more hypnotic beauty than passion, again partly due to the restricted dynamic impact of the recording, but the almost hypnotic repeated chords offset that gripe.  The Scherzo sounds jaunty and as expected, and the Rondo really takes the grazioso designation to heart in the outer sections.  In the third sonata, Zaccaria follows the faster than normal fast movement and more beautiful than normal slow movement approach, and again it works.  And those zippy tempi can stand out, though to be sure, while he's a fine pianist, he's no Stewart Goodyear or Yusuke Kikuchi, so the extra-zippiness lacks the feel of absolute command, but it's nonetheless a virtuosic showpiece that succeeds as such.

How much the gentle listener enjoys slow-ish ascending arpeggios in 10/1 may determine how much one likes the opening movement.  Lacking a bit in brio, it mostly works in an offbeat way.  The slow, somewhat somber, lovely Adagio has strong whiffs of middle period drama, and the Prestissimo, more an at times relaxed Presto, has pep and charm aplenty.  Not a top twenty contender, but exceedingly entertaining.  Op 10/2 is so incredibly filled with musical delights, wit, subtlety, non-subtlety, supremely fine rubato and silly accenting, that it ends up a horrific musical crime that Zaccaria omits the repeats.  I was and remain aghast at this unforgivable oversight in what would otherwise be a possible Top Ten contender.  >:(   Op 10/3 starts with a plucky as all get out Presto.  The overall tempo is a bit relaxed, but it sounds just right, and the repeated, poked out left hand notes kind of rudely interrupting the proceedings gives a 31/1 vibe.  So, nice.  In the great Largo, Zaccaria plays it serious, slow though not sluggish, and maintains a high degree of tonal luxuriance throughout.  The only gripe, and it's somewhat material, is that the forte playing lacks maximum punch, as with the rest of the cycle.  The lilting on the outsides, enjoyably lumbering on the inside third movement and the zippy, fun Rondo cap off a superb recording.  The disc equivalent then jumps forward to Op 78, and Zaccaria's tone, lyricism, seriousness but not heaviness, and unobtrusive grooviness makes the first movement sing.  The second movement sounds fun, making for a light yet serious work. Op 79 starts off with one of the most mellifluous, fluid Presto alla tedesacas I've heard, which displays a cheerfully relentless forward momentum.  The Andante has a sense of urgency though it remains lovely, and the Vivace exudes charm sufficient to make even a Darmstadt School devotee smile.  (OK, I can't state that with certainty.)  A peach of a volume, the barbaric cuts to 10/2 notwithstanding.

The second volume ends with a disc equivalent that launches with Op 4.  The slowish and (purposely) shaky Allegro molto con brio finds the pianist heaping on rubato and outsize accenting and basically vandalizing the music, though not in an entirely unpleasant way.  Sure, whenever one encounters this, one hopes for Bartoesque technical delivery and tonal finesse, but that's not what's on offer.  Entirely expectedly, the Largo fares better, with some dark and nearly sinister left hand playing and silly soft pianissimo – rivalling and maybe surpassing Yamane in LvB and Volodos overall – to offer maximum contrast.  The Allegro sounds pleasing in the outer sections and growly in the Trio, while the Rondo has some pep, but also some pushing and pulling, some holding back and some rushing forward, that sounds kind of herky-jerky.  Kind of a whiff.  Against expectations, Zaccaria launches 14/1 by scampering around the keyboard in jittery fashion, immediately evoking Daniel-Ben Pienaar, but with more tonal allure.  He does offset the jitter with some swelling, grandiose playing.  A jittery, rushed feel permeates the Allegretto, while the Allegro comodo mixes jitter and grandiosity.  An intriguing take.  14/2 starts off zippy, but feels less jittery than prankish, aided to an extent by silly sweet lyricism.  The very Allegretto like Andante takes the approach to a greater extreme, to excellent effect, and the Scherzo comes pretty darned close to being an actual musical joke, in the best way.  Anyone who listens straight through faces a jarring shift in recorded sound when Op 22 starts, as it sounds brighter, harder edged, and slightly more distant.  The last time I ran across a cycle with such widely disparate recorded sound was in the Younwha Lee cycle.  The playing displays the same overall approach but sounds more real world as opposed to mixing desk lovely.  Plenty of energy and drive can be heard, and in the Adagio, Zaccaria keeps things taut and lovely and forward moving.  The Menuetto maintains lyrical swiftness, though the middle section sounds aggressive and hard, in relative terms.  The concluding Rondo kind of just flows along for the most part, though Zaccaria does slow down and luxuriate in some of the music here and there.  Overall, a nice closer to a mixed disc equivalent. 

The final volume covers the Op 31 trio and the last five sonatas, so core of the core.  In the first disc equivalent of the volume, one gets treated to Op 31.  Zaccaria has heretofore demonstrated a penchant for interventionism.  31/1, in particular, benefits from interventionism.  The pianist does not disappoint.  Nary a bar goes by without some heavy-duty intervention.  Everywhere and all the time, Zaccaria fiddles with dynamics (a lot), layers in rubato (a ton), rides the una corda here and there (obviously), and plays some of the runs with such an unusual flattening of dynamics and emphasis on the left hand playing, that I nearly thought there was an editing error until it was repeated.  Too, one hears keyboard scampering aplenty.  But nothing like what follows in the Adagio grazioso.  Adagio, my foot.  Zaccaria zips through the movement in under seven minutes and plays it as at least an Allegro in places.  He blurs, rushes, zigs, zags, and then zigs again.  The way he pokes out the left hand notes and dashes off purely comic, cartoonish music is entirely unlike any other take.  And then he speeds up.  The middle section mocks the idea of mocking music, sounding extreme in the extreme.  The return of the opening material almost sounds faster yet.  Of the 130+ recordings of this work I've heard, nothing sounds remotely like it.  Pienaar, Sherman, Kuerti – they may all blush at this.  Even Tzimon Barto may have reservations.  The opening of the Rondo sounds fairly conventional to start, but it takes almost no time for Zaccaria to introduce hints of naughtiness, though nothing so extreme as came before.  OK, this recording absolutely kicks ass, joining the Top Ten fray, and quite possibly the Top Five fray.  Surely, I oughtn't to do a shootout.  Surely.  Der Sturm starts with suitably slow playing in the Largo arpeggio, and alternates with fast playing in the Allegro.  The return of the limited dynamic recording lessens punch a bit, but the jittery right hand playing and forward momentum still impart sufficient drama.  Indeed, some of the forte passages get hammered out with an upper register weight that enhances urgency.  Calmness bordering on serenity pervades the opening of the Adagio, as Zaccaria coaxes a stream of beauty from his instrument.  Zaccaria keeps the Allegretto bright and pretty light throughout, though he adds some heft in places.  The weakest of the Op 31 trio, it works really very well.  Keeping things interventionist in 31/3, Zaccaria goes slow at the open, taking his sweet time, adding in pauses, then he speeds up a lot – before adding more pauses.  Finally, he's off to the races, albeit one with pauses.  But really, he revisits some of that campy 31/1 speed, tosses in some large dynamic contrasts, and pushes things to the verge of sounding comical.  Which can and does work well in this sonata.  The Scherzo bebops along with rhythmic sureness and a playful mien, daffy glissandi, and sounds just right.  The outer sections of the Menuetto glide along with a certain sweet, if offbeat lyricism, while the Trio gets nearly punched out, with gargantuan (relatively) dynamic contrasts.  Predictably, Zaccaria goes fast, fast, fast in the Presto con fuoco, keeping a funtime, jokey vibe.  So, two top tier recordings and one second tier in the ever-critical Op 31 trio.  On yeah.

Time for the late sonatas.  "Somewhat lively, and with innermost sensibility", that almost describes the playing to start Op 101.  I might describe it as somewhat extroverted, though the lyricism works in its favor.  One thing it lacks is a feel of transcendence.  This is earthbound late LvB.  The march sounds boisterous and unrarified, though tonally appealing.  The Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto sounds gorgeous, dreamy, almost fantasia-like, but does not seem to even hint at depth – which is just fine.  The finale ignores the admonishment to not play to swiftly as Zaccaria rushes forward in many places.  Overall, it's a very middle period sounding late sonata.  Op 106 starts off with a slightly slow overall Allegro, coming in at just a smidge over eleven minutes.  Zaccaria plays it busy, making it sound swifter than it is, throws in his standard tricks, though to a lesser degree, and again keeps it sound middle period rather than late.  Again, the recorded sound contributes to this.  (If this sounded more like Op 22 sonically, heft would increase.)  He does see fit to throw in some extra-super-duper hushed pianissimo playing, too, so that's nice.  The Scherzo sounds more or less the same.  Zaccaria goes for the fast, tense Adagio, with lots of delicate pianissimo sprinkled in and with a sort of disjointed feel, with the music not really flowing or waxing and waning as it should, or at least like it typically does.  It just sounds a bit off.  The final starts with a slow and reasonably dramatic Largo, and then goes into a swift, dynamically limited Allegro of decent clarity and some fits and starts.  The slow, neo-Handelian passage bridging the swift fugues has some magic.  Zaccaria opts for a daringly slow tempo, clean playing, and a hazy, dreamy mien detached from the surrounding music, and respite of zen in the midst of the musical maelstrom, if you will.  Still, it's not a top forty hit, nor is the sonata. 

The final disc equivalent includes the final sonatas, the last three, the greatest of the great of all sonatas.  Etc.  Swift, light, lovely, Zaccaria does exactly what one expects at this point in 109.  In the rush forward, with the emphasis on right hand playing (as recorded), transcendence doesn't really appear, with the style more middle period again.  The Prestissimo has the speed but not the impact of preferred versions.  The final movement starts with a lovely if slightly rushed theme, and then moves to variations that start serene and lovely, moves to a dreamy second variation, goes quick but slower than expected in the third, and then drifts into quick and not particularly moving variations until the end.  It's not bad, it's just not top forty stuff.  Oodles 'n' oodles of cantabile playing characterize the playing in the first movement of Op 110, but again, it's very middle period, maybe very Op 78-y in mien.  This is not for those seeking a depth charge.  Zaccaria brings some oomph to the Allegro molto and some deliberate and controlled playing in the middle section.  The final movement starts off with an urgent sounding but not rushed Arioso, possessed of some nifty accented upper register notes and almost hypnotic, proto-minimalist accompaniment.  Nice.  The fugue sounds more musical than austere, which means, partly, that it lacks the ultimate clarity of better versions.  The second Arioso has a real sense of urgency, and the repeated chords build up in heft nicely, thank you.  The inverted fugue again lacks high-end clarity, and in the mad dash to the rushed coda, things verge on sounding untidy, but it still makes for a nice middle-period sounding take.  A dark, rich, fairly weighty Maestoso opens the last sonata, imparting some gravitas, and then things speed and tense up for the Allegro, but it sounds neither especially fierce nor notably intense.  It does sound quite good, though.  The Arietta sounds contemplative and (finally) transcendent in its slow, sustained, and tonally appealing playing, which fits with Zaccaria's style, as does making the second half even more more, just as he should.  A flawless segue to the first variation which maintains the elevated feel of the Arietta, and the second variation, if anything, sounds more transcendent, more rarified, and maybe too slow, but in a who cares kinda way.  The Boogie Woogie variation then sounds rushed and nearly reckless, though it lacks the ideal amount of syncopation.  Eh, whatcha gonna do?  The remaining variations retain an at least somewhat transcendent feel, though ultimately Zaccaria succeeds with the beautiful little details.  The "little stars" surely rate among the most beautiful and delicate, with more of that silly soft playing and superb terraced dynamics between voices.  The chains of trills, which do not count among the most even or precise, sound fantastically lovely and fantasy-like.  As the movement progresses, no little hints of serenity appear and Zaccaria ends up in Elysian Fields, as he should.  If a pianist nails only one late sonata, this is probably the one nail. 

Time for a definitive, objective ranking based on scientifically rigorous listening: this here's a second-tier cycle.  Now, to be sure, this is a very interventionist cycle, and people who dislike such cycles will almost certainly find it less satisfactory.  That's fine.  I love me interventionist playing when done properly, and this is done properly, for the most part.  The cycle is uneven, which is not unique.  None of the sonatas rate very high in terms of intensity or drama, but they do rate high in beauty, energy, and ideas.  Opp 28, 31 (especially 31/1), and 53 all rate very highly for me, and can compete with big names, though as alternative takes.  In the case of 31/1, it's an alternative to an alternative take.  And of course, there's Op 10/2, which simultaneously sounds magnificent and maddening.  (The UN should get involved to prevent good pianists from not observing repeats; no more crimes against humanity!)  There's plenty to savor, plenty to admire, plenty to enjoy.  And so I shall do so again.   
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