What is it about Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas that so fascinate us as both players and listeners? Is it the whole aspect of late style in general? The idea that his late statements are special in a way for the knowledge which they can impart both about the composer in specific and to humanity in general? Are they more personal in nature? Perhaps all of these. But perhaps it is more so because these works show Beethoven as a great stylistic compiler. Here Beethoven looked not to the burgeoning movement of Romanticism which surrounded him, but rather took inspiration from the past. These works then are to Beethoven what the Goldberg Variations, the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, or—perhaps more appropriately—The Art of Fugue is to Bach. These last sonatas show both history and its mirror through Beethoven’s lenses: The use of fugue, variation, moments of strict counterpoint balanced by prelude-like improvisation show the past; but there is also the contemporary in the use of genre, form, and the sense of balance, proportion, and Beethovenian growth towards an end goal.
What these works require most of all is a pianist who can bring all of these qualities to the fore, one who can balance the sense of large structure with the difficulties of constantly changing complex textures, tremendous buildup and release, and careful attention to matters of musical details. Evgeni Koroliov, who has already recorded some of the largest and most complex music of this time—the Goldberg Variations, The Art of Fugue, the entire Well-Tempered Clavier, the Diabelli Variations, the “Hammerklavier”—certainly possesses these characteristics in spades: So how does he approach these complex works?
The first words that come to mind regarding Koroliov’s approach include graceful, poised, and serene—words not normally associated with Beethoven. His approach takes much of the manic out of this music. This is a quality that is at times welcome, at times less so. But the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve become convinced—even entranced—by it. Take the opening of the E-Major Sonata, op. 109. Koroliov takes his time, spinning each note of the opening arpeggiation with a careful attention to matters of voicing and pacing: In his hands, the broken chords betray the work’s true identity—a hymn. The second theme sounds almost like the improvisations of a church organist. The highlight of this performance comes in the last movement, though. There is a sense of evolution from the beginning of the movement to the end, each variation gliding seamlessly from one to the next. A particular highlight is the fugal variation: In some hands this can become a mechanical exercise, but in Koroliov’s the slight breaths between phrases heighten rather than lessen the contrapuntal interplay.
Koroliov’s A♭-Major Sonata No. 31, op. 110, is equally mesmerizing. As in No. 30, the work begins calmly. Even the A♭arpeggios which cascade up and down the keyboard in the work’s first movement seem more like Baroque elaborations than Beethovenian swells. The second movement is particularly brisk and relentless in the energy the pianist brings to it. The finale is again the highlight for numerous reasons: the way in which the pianist beautifully contrasts the singing fugue, with the more speech-like arioso and recitative sections; the way in which he links these disparate strands of music together, creating a great aural tapestry which all seems to be woven right before us; and not least of all, for the momentum which he forges from beginning to end. In Koroliov’s hands the whole Sonata feels as one continuous movement of music—a massive dramatic suite of sorts.
Though Koroliov may lack dynamic punch in certain instances, his sound is always beautifully rounded and he always maintains a vivid tonal sheen in even the largest and thickest of chords—an aspect of his playing which helps with the massive sonorities of the final C-Minor Sonata. Though op. 111’s first movement is well played, it is a bit too muted in tone for my taste. Everything just sounds too rounded, too perfect—too nice. But the following variations restore one’s faith in Koroliov’s approach. Here he lets loose his magic: The pace is slow, as is the buildup, the accents hushed; the overall feeling at the work’s conclusion is one of inevitability.
I could hardly live without my other recordings of these works—be it the eccentric Glenn Gould, the driven Rudolf Serkin, the grand Myra Hess, the suave Edwin Fischer, the dynamic Sviatoslav Richter, or the polished and brilliant Maurizio Pollini. There are simply too many ways to approach these works for one way to ever be enough. But if you have room in your collection for yet another—and if you don’t I recommend you make some—this is one of the most individual realizations I’ve come across in some time. The magic of Koroliov’s music-making lies in his ability to take the eccentric out of these works: He makes these final essays seem as the next logical step in the composer’s evolution, not the strange and peculiar ramblings of a deaf madman who could only find inspiration from deep within himself. Rather, Koroliov brings out in these compositions the Beethoven of the Ninth Symphony—the composer who sought to embrace everything he knew and cherished in the world. Koroliov’s Beethoven may be muted in some instances, perhaps a bit more subtle than some like, but I can assure you, at its best, his is also highly captivating.Scott Noriega