Evgeni Koroliov has never disappointed me in the past—there may be many works in which I don’t agree with his approach, but he is such an intelligent and technically accomplished musician that he is in the least always thought provoking; at his best he is simply one of the greatest pianists alive today. Being familiar with his Bach, Handel, Chopin, and Prokofiev, this Beethoven in particular seems to be ideally suited to his temperament: The works are both improvisatory in nature (they are almost more quasi una fantasia than the composer’s op 27 sonatas); they are highly contrapuntally oriented, both works ending with mammoth fugues; and not least of all they are highly dramatic. They too are ripe for the many subtle touches which the true artist can bring to them, one such being Koroliov’s approach to the very first movement of op 101. Though the work begins as if in the middle of a dream, by the movement’s end, the pianist has imbued the work with a classical sense of balance—a lightness, an almost bouncy step which enlivens the mood, preparing the way for the Schumannesque movement that follows. The Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll has an appropriate sense of longing, even of self-searching reflection. Koroliov carefully keeps the mood almost static until at last the onrush of the fugue becomes inevitable. In the last movement he not only voices the fugue so that each musical strand remains clear throughout, but also maintains a wonderful momentum. The chords that come crashing in at the work’s end bring the sonata to a triumphant conclusion.
Where my concerns really lie, however, are in the pianist’s overall approach to the “Hammerklavier.” Would it be grand enough? Would there be enough a sense of the monumental? The answer is yes. The opening chords are massive in sound, yet rounded and balanced as well—there is an orchestral quality to his playing here. I especially liked the detached articulation he uses in the passages in the higher registers of the instrument. This little touch adds a nice airiness to an otherwise heavy and serious work. Koroliov can equally provide the necessary grittiness as well: The quick stabs that he makes at the chords near the end of the first movement can attest to that! The Adagio sostenuto clocks in at 19: 52. That is slower than I like it, but Koroliov so carefully shapes the lines, maintaining a constant movement forward that it never feels as slow as the timing may suggest. His sound here is appropriately transparent lending an otherworldliness to this strange, almost hypnotic movement. The fugue that follows bursts forth with life. It is not nearly as aggressive as some pianists—Rudolf Serkin or Richter—but what Koroliov brings to the mix is just as important: a wonderful sense of the overall picture, each section clearly characterized with its own sound, its own temperament. By the work’s end it is clear that he has triumphed. In excellent and balanced sound—never too resonant, but never overly dry either—Koroliov has produced another winner. That said, for these two sonatas, I would still not want to be without my favorites: Glenn Gould in the op 101 (CBC Records) and Peter Serkin in the op 106 (Pro Arte); though both pianists may not seem like first-choice contenders, they both bring a wild abandon, a fierce technique, and most importantly they bring the music to lifeScott Noriega