Mikhail Lidsky Plays Beethoven

Started by Todd, December 24, 2023, 10:59:38 AM

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New cycles seem to pop up multiple times each year, and that is most delightful.  This cycle by Mikhail Lidsky is a case in point.  I'd never seen the name before, or if I had, I'd forgotten.  He won one competition and appears to have maintained a career more or less confined to Russia, which is perfectly fine.  Sometimes regional artists are among the very greatest – think Esteban Sánchez.  Since he recorded the New Testament, it was my sworn duty to listen, and so I did.

The disc one equivalent opens with two of the three Op 2 sonatas.  That's kind of odd.  Anyway, the opening Largo to Op 2/1 – wait, make that the opening Allegro, sounds way too slow and deliberate as all get out.  Each and every note sounds crystal clear and entirely unspontaneous.  It should be a death knell, but somehow Lidsky makes the music flow, or something close to it.  Kinda.  It's a kind of unique listening experience.  The Adagissimo Adagio goes even further, and sounds quite lovely, even without sumptuous legato.  Unsurprisingly, the outer sections of the third movement come off slower than normal,  and the Trio, though sped up, retains a sort of inevitable, slow, forward moving feel.  The concluding Prestissimo, clocking in at over eight minutes, is perhaps the slowest I've heard, even accounting for repeats.  (I'd have to go through timings to be sure, but I won't.)  The way Lidsky plays it, a blurred wall of sound in places, heavily accented in others, effectively masks the slowness.  The left hand playing, while not world beating clear, allows one to follow it with ease.  A rather deliberate, but also deliberately sped up (thankfully) Allegro vivace starts off 2/2.  The exaggerated dynamics, the exaggerated (in context) flurries of notes add passages of interest.  The Largo appassionato is of course, slow, slow, slow, right up to the point of sounding lumbering.  The appassionato designation is most certainly not followed.  Rather, the playing sounds forensic.  Observation, not critique.  The Scherzo surely rates among the two or three most deliberate sounding yet recorded, with thundering dynamics and too-meticulous playing is the second theme, which is clearly the pianist's joke.  The trio has a tanginess to it.  The playing here made me look forward to 31/1.  The Rondo grazioso sounds slow and scherzo-y, as well.  Lidsky clearly plays in slow, cumbersome style for effect.  That is brought home in the outsize middle section, which sounds quasi-orchestral.   I should note that the same day I started in on this cycle, I relistened to Minsoo Sohn's first disc equivalent, containing all three Op 2 sonatas.  (This was not planned, I hasten to add.)  Sohn's playing is at an altogether higher level, but it also allowed me to appreciate the benefits of Lidsky's slow, stylized approach.  A thought-provoking open.

Op 2/3 starts with something at least Allegro adjacent, but brio is hard to hear.  What is easy to hear is forensic playing that flows reasonably well.  For the most part.  Most of the time, but not always, like in the overemphatic, clunky middle, where Lidsky clearly plays for effect.  The slower than slow approach pays more dividends in the Adagio.  The clarity, fine dynamic control, and evenness of tempi in some places really catches the ear.  The movement kind of limps to the finish line as Lidsky stretches it out to just shy of nine minutes.  The Scherzo creeps along in the outer section but come the Trio and one hears Lidsky stomping pedals a bit, and revving way, way up, infusing actual energy and excitement into the proceedings.  The Allegro assai lacks pep and drive, as expected, but the way Lidsky delivers some harmonies and drones on sound peculiarly proto-minimalist in short bursts.  Op 4 starts with an Andante sans brio Allegro molto e con brio much slower than almost any other version, with all energy more or less sapped out of the playing, though the insistent repeated notes, forte blasts, and occasional bass rumbles sound none too shabby.  Lidsky keeps things slow in the Largo, and mostly it just sounds too slow, though in some passages  he plays with real beauty.  The third movement sort of bumps along, but finally in the concluding Rondo, Lidsky adds a bit of pep to go with his forensic stylings. 

The disc three equivalent opens with 10/1, and I approached the recording with some trepidation.  (Well, as much trepidation as one can have when engaged in as innocuous an activity as listening to a recording.)  The opening ascending arpeggios rate as some of the very slowest out there, and he never really speeds up in the entire Allegro.  The tempo relationships jell, and the forensic style remains, and some obvious yet subdued rubato pops up.  The Adagio molto is a stone-cold hit.  Slower than slow, yes, and forensic, but here Lidsky works some distended yet flowing magic, at least most of the time.  The Prestissimo closer is actually played swiftly, as at least a proper Presto, and has ample boogie and dynamic oomph, even if it sounds too rough and metallic.  So, again, Lidsky shows that he's playing slow to play slow.  Op 10/2 starts off with an Allegro clocking in at 9'36".  I'd have to peruse my collection to see how many are even in the ballpark.  Lidsky keeps things moving comparatively nicely, playing with some speed in places, and keeping tempi in nice proportion.  The somewhat grungy sound masks the forensic playing just a smidge, but it's still there.  The Allegretto is only a little slow and has a nice sense of tension in places.  Unlike Mr Zaccaria – the most recent cycle I completed and one that is also very interventionist – Lidsky plays the repeat in the closing movement and plays at a decent clip and with a light mien.  Overall, a nice enough take.  10/3 starts with a broad but not especially slow Presto, or at least nothing notably slower than some other takes I've heard.  The movement maintains forward momentum at all times, contains some spicy accenting and a few places where he maintains right hand playing of no little clarity and emphasis and forceful steadiness.  The Largo has got it goin' on, with a not too slow sound, ample tension throughout the just shy of ten-minute duration, cutting right hand playing, some tolling bass notes, and a fully satisfying climax with some oomph.  Nice.  The Minuet returns to noticeably slow playing, though again it is not unlike some other slow takes, and the Allegro section has drive and bite.  The concluding Rondo starts off slow but picks up the pace to a more normal tempo, with some nice low-end heft.  Overall, this is the least unusual, though still mannered sonata to this point, and it succeeds overall.  It's not a Top Thirty choice or anything, but it is nice. 

The fourth volume jumps to the Op 49 sonatas to start.  Both come off pretty light, tonally attractive, and just a bit clunky.  Op 13 is the big work here.  The Grave, yep, it's slow, bordering on the ponderous, and then, after the longest recorded pause (or edit) ever, the slow, forensic, somewhat punchy, somewhat biting, mostly energetic Allegro moves forward with an unyielding drive.  The Adagio cantabile actually comes off a bit quicker and edgier and more nervous than expected, and without a great deal of attractive cantabile playing, which is fine.  The Allegro comes off as pretty close to standard, with tempo and dynamic choices more or less in line with standard practice, with few odd choices, and nice dynamic contrasts.  Op 14/1 is even closer to an (almost) run of the mill is approach.  Only the Allegretto may be noteworthy for slightly slow outer sections.  Likewise, 14/2 sounds more conventional.  The opening Allegro does sound a touch forensic, and Lidsky does actually push some of the playing, displaying admirable control and accuracy.  It's a shift from the slower than slow approach so common to this point.  The Andante sounds measured but not especially slow, and in the middle section there's some spunky playing, and some nice accenting.  But everything is more standard.  A few pauses, strong dynamic contrasts, and a slight slowness aside, which ends up as a superb blur of notes in places, the Allegro assai remains closer to standard in conception. 

Volume five starts with Op 22, and by this point the jig is up.  Lidsky's intensely idiosyncratic pianism applied to the early sonatas dissipates.  To be sure, one can hear rubato and brief passages of slow playing, and some extra weighty dynamics in the Allegro con brio.  Some of the forensic style remains, but more standard speeds mean that individual notes don't take on the same significance.  Also, the playing sounds less distinctive, and just sort of blends in with the crowd.  It's all been done.  The same broad sameness applies to the rest of the sonata.  Make no mistake, it sounds enjoyable, especially the extra-peppy and vibrant Rondo.  Op 26 starts with a nicely varied Theme and Variations, with Lidsky not afraid to toss in some dollops of rubato and some hefty sforzandi, but again, it's all quite standard.  The Scherzo has ample oomph, and Lidsky's fine slow playing reappears in the Funeral March, and his slightly elongated sustains and pauses add a smidge extra drama, while things close out with a vibrant, rushed, exciting Allegro.  A short, basically run of the mill volume.

Lidsky returns to his slower than normal style in the opening of the Andante in 27/1, which here sounds vaguely Adagioy, and is peppered with some weighty left hand playing.  The Allegro section picks up the pace, but only slightly, and then in the third section, Lidsky exaggerates everything, with massive, crushing dynamics and out of nowhere diminuendos from the height of the hammering.  It's unique, sure, but not really very effective.  The Allegro molto is back to the too slow to be too slow approach, though he does hammer out loud music while playing slowly, which I usually dig, and I do here.  The Adagio stays slow and steady, but the overall slowness blunts the impact of the slower music.  Now, the nifty trills at the end auger well for some later works, and the Allegro vivace at least has a sense of pep in places, though some lumpy slow playing elsewhere.  Lidsky's slow, steady, subdued opening Adagio in the Moonlight sonata sounds supremely fine, and not overdone in any regard.  Alas, the mood is smooshed with the way too slow and very Adagio-like Allegretto.  While the Presto agitato has the agitation down, and the tempo mostly down, the odd and off left hand playing, off a beat from the right hand playing in parts, sounds too contrived.  Certain passages jell, but the whole thing does not, nor does the sonata.  Given Lidsky's style, either a knockout or disastrous Pastorale could be possible.  Well, that or something mediocre.  And 11'41" Allegro sort of hints at his approach.  While slow, it does not lumber; while chunky at times, it nonetheless flows.  Toss in some nice runs, neatly dispatched repeated chords, and overall pleasing sound, and if not staggeringly great, it at least comes off as thought out and well done.  The nicely paced Andante flows along, displays some tension, and has some really nice dynamic contrasts.  In the Scherzo, I thought Lidsky might be among a handful of pianists who play it very slowly, and sure enough, it comes to pass.  The nice dynamic range, and Lidsky's ability to crank up volume playing slowly helps things along, and he does a creditable job pulling it off.  The Rondo starts off slow, steady, with almost droning left hand playing.  Lidsky keeps the playing steady and slow and inevitable, with a slow, gradual build up to some nice forte playing, and he holds tempi at bay right up until the fairly zippy coda.  Nice.  Not one of the greats, but a solid overall performance. 

Op 31 comes next, all on a one-disc equivalent.  Slow Lidsky returns in the (not quite an) Allegro vivace of 31/1, with each note, each chord, each dynamic swing exaggerated.  Now, I adore me some exaggerated and overdone takes, as Russell Sherman and Anton Kuerti and (recently) Maurizio Zaccaria demonstrate.  Alas, this does not match those.  It just kind of plods, too obvious for its own good.  The Adagio grazioso is the anti-Zaccaria, lasting for over twelve minutes.  The mien is light and cheery, and the slowness doesn't hurt the music, but it does not compel like one hopes coming in.  After a while it just sort of drones on, enervating the listener as it goes, and then the rather lifeless and strangely constricted Rondo does, too.  A few nice touches here and there can't save it.  31/2 starts with a slow but not dramatic Largo, which still works, but the higher energy Allegro lacks bite or drive or wallop or even interest.  The forensic playing just lets the listener know what's missing.  Ugh.  YMMV.  The Adagio ends up just sounding slow, any ultra-clarity just melding into a drab blob of sound.  The Allegretto has the outline of what's needed for success, and the fluidity of the movement and transitions work nicely, but the comparative lack of oomph renders a second dud in a row from this most critical trio.  31/3 starts off kind of slow, and slow in this sonata is almost always death.  But I listened patiently through the first section, which can be taken at a judicious tempo, and then the music still remained kind of slow and sapped of verve.  Oof.  Now, one bright spot are the kick-ass trills, but those alone cannot elevate the movement.  Lidsky plays the Scherzo at a measured tempo, which can work well (eg, Riefling), but he again doesn't imbue the playing with ample energy, though the dynamic outbursts work well enough.  The Minuet has nice clarity, with insistent but not overpowering left hand playing, and the Trio is slow yet rambunctious, which is a nice effect.  The Presto con fuoco makes up for the broad tempo with outsize dynamic contrasts and a decent amount of boogie, but it is not a Top Forty hit.  Lidsky does not deliver a great Op 31 trio.  Based on the Second Law of Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycles, this necessarily precludes this cycle from being great. 

Volume eight starts off with the Andante favori, and overall, Lidsky more or less behaves himself.  The playing sounds a bit heavy and a smidge slow, but the performance sounds neither awful nor great.  The Waldstein follows, and here Lidsky starts off a bit slow but not p or pp.  It is the very definition of nothing special.  The Adagio sags into slow and boring playing almost immediately, and just kind of lumbers along, enervating the listener along the way.  The final movement starts slow, and in places that's OK, but it is impossible to hear anything approaching Prestissimo.  The dynamic range and sforzandi thwacks are decent enough.  After hearing a hundred-whatever versions of this sonata, this one sort of just does not and cannot stand out.  That slower than slow style reappears in the first theme, which drags to the point of severe damage.  The second theme sounds faster, though it, too, is on the slow side and lacks sufficient punch.  The music alternates between the two unappealing approaches until the coda.  The Allegretto, while a bit slow, displays gently relentless forward momentum and striking clarity.  So, half awful, half average.  Op 57 ends the volume, and it starts with an Allegro assai that more or less chugs along with drama and scale and heft that sound just right – until the clunky, slow coda, that is.  The Andante con moto goes at a steady, barely slower than normal pace, and the variations do have some variation to the sound, which is nice.  Then comes the Allegro ma non troppo, and Lidsky once again reveals that when he chooses to do so, he can add speed and drive and intensity to the playing, though this could never be considered one of the more intense readings out there.  Overall, it is more or less average, qualitatively.  The volume though, is below average. 

Lidsky announces the Op 77 Fantasia that opens volume nine with bright, potent playing alternating with slower playing that kinda approximates something with sorta depth.  The louder, clangier passages sound more fun, but Lidsky's no Rudolf Serkin.  Op 78 follows, and the opening Adagio is very slow, which is fine in itself, but the music doesn't flow, robbing the piece of any profundity – faux or real – that it might have, and the too slow Allegro section playing doesn't help much either.  The Allegro vivace closing movement, while kind of slow, actually had pep and verve and sounds pretty good.  Op 79 starts with a slightly too slow Presto alla tedesca, but the cutting piano sound, emphatic cuckoo motif, and a bright acciaccatura all work well enough.  The slow, lumbering Andante almost works, while the too heavy, almost drunken sounding Vivace works reasonably well.  Op 81a starts with a slow, dramatic open to the Adagio section, but the faster sections border on sounding like a musical trainwreck, so overemphasized and exaggerated is the playing.  Others may like it for the sheer deliberateness of it all.  The Andante sounds stiff in places, but otherwise not too bad.  The Vivacissimamente continues the trend of this volume so far by sounding the most pleasing of all.  The volume closes with Op 90.  A slow opening movement can work well.  It can also fall flat.  That's what happens here.  The clarity Lidsky offers is nice, but that's about it.  He ends up going four for four by playing the second movement in a much more pleasing manner.  Overall, not a great volume.

Upon arriving at the late sonatas, one more or less accepts that slow Lidsky will dominate quick and alert Lidsky, to the detriment of the music.  While it is true that late LvB can and ideally should possess a pronounced sense of transcendence, it is not true that slow playing sounds more profound or transcendent.  Exhibit A here is the Allegretto of Op 101 that sounds like nothing other than a lumbering Adagio, with exhausting slowness in place of profundity.  The large-scale, hefty march impresses more with its weight, but a sense of lumbering offsets any positive attributes.  Playing and music marry more amicably in the serious, heavy but not particularly deep Adagio.  The concluding movement, while a bit slow, is the best of the lot, with admirable clarity and perfect forward momentum.  One out of four ain't good.  OK, so a break was needed before attempting to sit through the big guy.  At over twelve minutes, the opening (non-) Allegro sounds massive of scale and forensically clear, but the sluggishness sinks it.  Some listeners may think the opening movement too swift and agitated, and for them the following Largo Scherzo will offer critical musical salve.  The Adagio of course comes off slow, though it's more or less conventional in timing and approach, with perhaps a few too stiff passages to distinguish it from the crowd.  The nearly fourteen-minute closing movement seems to drag on for just shy of forever.  Sequeira Costa shows that long, slow takes on Op 106 can succeed quite nicely, thank you.  This one does not. 

Unsurprisingly, Lidsky opens 109 with a slow Vivace ma non troppo, though at least it flows and has some punchy left hand sforzandi.  A couple jolts of rubato and some nice right hand playing detract from the overall lack of enjoyment, and then comes the slow, lumbering Andanteissimo Prestissimo.  Ugh.  But not as ugh-inducing as the final theme and variation and movement, which starts oppressively slow in the theme, maintains a suffocating feel in the first couple variations, speeds up to a still too-slow third variation, and generally just crushes the listener's spirit.  It's hard to think of something to recommend this recording, though I suppose the more spirited playing in the coda prevents it from being the worst ever recording of this work.  The slow, stilted opening to 110 somehow manages to mix poor tempo choices, stiff left hand playing, and delightful right hand playing with a delicate dance-like feel.  Slow, lumbering, and exaggerated playing permeates the Allegro molto.  The final movement comes off acceptably well given the slow tempi, clear fugue and inverted figure, and nice repeated chords, so this sonata is not completely awful.  Op 111 has a dark, weighty Maestoso and a weighty but too slow and lethargic Allegro in the opening movement.  The Arietta comes off pretty well, with the slow, somber, attractive playing filling the bill, and the second half introduces the first semblance of transcendent playing to be heard anywhere in the late sonatas.  The first couple variations are fine, but the boogie woogie variation lacks any hint of boogie and even an iota of woogie.  The little stars do sound quite fine, but the piece just sort of cruises to a wholly unsatisfying conclusion.  The late sonatas as a whole do not come off well at all.

It should be clear that this is not a good cycle.  Best case, it's fourth tier, and it may even join the bottom of the barrel fifth tier.  (Glenn Gould's Beethoven near-cycle is so bad that he burst through the bottom of the barrel and ended up digging in the dirt.)  Clearly, Mr Lidsky can play well and equally clearly his very slow, very exaggerated style is purposeful.  I'm not a fan, though others may like it more.  It's not that I mind interventionism, it's just that I mind this cycle.  In some ways, the closest analog I can think of is Anton Kuerti's cycle, which is also generally slower than normal and not really to my taste.  There are huge differences, though.  Kuerti delivers some individual sonatas of exceptional distinction, capped off by one of the two or three greatest recordings of 31/1 out there.  His playing throughout the cycle is also more refined and more cohesive, and I know for certain that he can deliver great Beethoven since I heard him do so in person.  I'd be willing to listen to Mr Lidsky play in person, but I will never pull this cycle out for the sheer enjoyment of listening.  Perhaps things are hurt a little by the sub-par, often metallic recorded sound, but it's really the playing that doesn't suit my taste.

The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

People would rather believe than know - E.O. Wilson

Propaganda death ensemble - Tom Araya


Ooof, you really suffered for us on this one. Thanks for the more entertaining writeup.

Quote from: Todd on December 24, 2023, 10:59:38 AMKuerti delivers some individual sonatas of exceptional distinction, capped off by one of the two or three greatest recordings of 31/1 out there. 

This makes me wonder how you'd assemble an "ideal cycle" using all one-off great performances from otherwise mediocre/obscure cycles.


Quote from: Brian on December 24, 2023, 02:15:10 PMThis makes me wonder how you'd assemble an "ideal cycle" using all one-off great performances from otherwise mediocre/obscure cycles.

This would take some thinking and listening, but it could be fun.  I'd probably have to compile two ideal cycles, one straight-forward and one interventionist.  There are a good number of third- and fourth-tier cycles with outstanding individual sonatas.  Yamane's 22, Kuerti's 31/1, Paik's 54, among others, offer some exceptional playing and interpretations.

I think after I finish off one or both of the new-ish cycles I do not yet own - Tetsu and Schwartz - I may end up doing a four-sonata shootout of cycles 11-21 to begin a longer-term project to come up with a refreshed and revitalized and even more objectively accurate ranking of the Top Ten cycles.  The sonatas would be 10/3, 31/3, 78, and 110. 
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

People would rather believe than know - E.O. Wilson

Propaganda death ensemble - Tom Araya


I don't want to hear or even try a new Beethoven cycle in the vulgar interpretations of some cheesy Russian. Plus in a recording quality that will certainly give me a headache and itchy skin, it's Melodiya, no less. Fortunately, a couple of minutes of reading your review put everything in its place, I can safely skip it and go listen to something worthwhile. Thank you, Todd.