Much of my writing in these pages suggests a certain impatience with new recordings of standard repertoire. I often write that there is no room for a subpar recording of canonical works in a collection that holds legendary recordings of these works. The “crowded library” litmus test may seem to preclude any new recording of an old warhorse; who among current-day Beethoven interpreters, after all, can hold a candle to Schnabel or Richter? Even so, I do not believe that the final word in Beethoven interpretation has been offered. In fact, with music as rich as Beethoven’s or any truly great composer’s, I do not believe there can be a final word, and my library can make room for many more recordings of such works—provided that the interpreter grasps the depth of the music and brings a unique, mature artistic personality to bear on it. When an artist does this, as Evgeni Koroliov does in this 20th volume of his recordings for Tacet, comparisons with historical pianists are fatuous. Koroliov’s Beethoven does not sound like Brendel’s or Schnabel’s; it sounds like Koroliov’s—and in this case, that tautological statement actually means something.
There is nothing grossly divergent between Koroliov’s interpretations and those that have entered the canon; the difference is in the subtleties rather than in having discovered something revelatory about Beethoven’s music that has never been recognized, with one fascinating exception. Most pianists interpret the 16th-note passagework that begins the Second of the op. 126 Bagatelles as a Bachian toccata. Koroliov’s touch is heavier and his tempo faster than most here, and he creates a welter of Beethovenian fury, akin to some of the cacophonous passages in the Ninth Symphony. The standard interpretation has always pleased me as a valedictory statement, as if at the end of his career Beethoven was reflecting on how his music had descended from that of the preceding era. Koroliov’s interpretation seems to look forward, charging ahead via extremes of sound that Beethoven had barely begun exploring.
The hallmark of Koroliov’s playing is its subtle, conversational aspect. His phrases breathe with almost undetectable freedom. He rarely lingers operatically on a high note or accelerates through climactic passages, but close listening shows that his tempo is in a state of constant but barely noticeable flux, creating the illusion of absolute evenness while avoiding the woodenness of literally even playing. And Koroliov’s occasional slight hesitations or impetuous surges of speed are elegant, refreshing niceties. Consider, for example, the variety of inflection he gives to the triplet figuration throughout the Second of the op. 119 Bagatelles. Richter’s treatment of this bagatelle is consistently elegant; Brendel’s is breathless and harried. But Koroliov creates a conversation between treble and bass figuration: Some of the passagework is almost timid, some is rambunctious, and each reacts to the other. Or consider Koroliov’s insistent ritardando toward the beginning of the 11th Diabelli Variation as the music prepares to pause on the dominant. Richter plays the passage nearly without inflection; Koroliov highlights the pause, and Beethoven’s sudden resumption of harmonic motion takes on the aspect of a decisive answer to an implied question. In this way, Koroliov operates both expressively, as an interpreter of the content in Beethoven’s music, and analytically, as a guide to the structure of Beethoven’s music. This dual role is clear in his meticulous treatment of the imitative entrances in the Fourth Diabelli Variation: The lines are consistently clear but Koroliov does not pedantically announce each entrance; instead, he caresses it as each new voice adds to the variation’s warmth.
My overall reaction to Koroliov’s playing is highly enthusiastic. And this is despite some occasional flaws in his execution. At louder volumes, his melodic emphases can be harsh in tone. His rubato, which I find to be one of his greatest strengths overall, is not always successful; the Fifth of the op. 126 Bagatelles is lumpy in both tempo and dynamic shading. And his ensemble with four-hand partner Ljupka Hadžigeorgieva is hit-or-miss: A number of the imposing chords toward the beginning of the Große Fuge are simply not together, though the considerably trickier unisons toward the end of the piece are impeccably coordinated. In their interpretation, they capture the reflective profundity of the more spacious segments of the piece, but its more emphatic statements strike me as overly percussive.
The engineering is superb throughout, with the caveat that the recording venue, unidentified in the liner notes, must have been near a busy street and a playground or school. Quite a number of car engines found their way into the recording, one prominently enough to sound like a pedal tone in the final op. 119 Bagatelle. And the sounds of playing children are present in the silences before the ends of tracks in several instances. All in all, though, I strongly recommend this recording. Koroliov has provided a genuinely individual and entirely reputable interpretation of these important works.Myron Silberstein