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BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas (complete) * Seymour Lipkin (pn) * NEWPORT NRM59001 (CD-ROM: 600:26)
This is a breakthrough for classical recordings: all 32 Beethoven sonatas in high quality MP3 files plus the full scores thereof on PDF files. The disc is playable on all modern PCs and Macs (complete requirements are listed on the package), as well as on most DVD/Home Theater players and "even many of the new home, auto and portable CD players." While it does not play on any of my four CD players, all of which are at least two years old, it works just fine on both PCs and on a DVD player through the television. To hear the MP3 files on the computer, one needs a player such as Windows Media Player or Realplayer; to view the sheet music, you must have Adobe Acrobat 5.0 or higher. You can view them on screen or print out any of 611 full, clear 8.5-x-11 pages, which easily outshine my grandmother-in-law's 100-year-old Edition Peters. All this comes for a bargain price of $30. The sonatas are also available on CDs: three 3-disc sets, at $25 per set.
This would be an inexpensive and convenient way to acquire and use the scores, regardless of the quality of the performances. Fortunately, the playing is on a high level. Seymour Lipkin has a broad and deep musical pedigree, having studied at the Curtis Institute with both Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslav Horszowski; he also learned conducting from Serge Koussevitzky and George Szell. After an early concert career, playing with major American orchestras, for one year he was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Although he led only one concert (in Baalbek, Lebanon!), Lipkin conducted two Philharmonic recordings as well as being soloist in the Bernstein recordings of Stravinsky's Capriccio and Piano Concerto. He became music director of the Long Island Symphony and of the Joffrey Ballet, but has since returned to the piano as both performer and teacher. In recent decades, he has made a specialty of the Beethoven sonatas, giving three complete cycles. These recordings were made at the Curtis in Philadelphia, on a fine American Steinway, about five years ago. Negotiations for their publication and distribution broke down at the time; Newport Classics recently picked them up, making a deal with the Web subscription service AllPianoSheetMusic.com for the scores.
Lipkin's Beethoven is close to that of his major mentor, Rudolf Serkin, except that Lipkin plays almost everything faster, as is current practice, and is more sparing in his use of the sustaining pedal. The flashing virtuosity and sheer animal magnetism of Sviatoslav Richter are not to be found here; Lipkin's very satisfying performances depend more on careful study and thought, on concentration and consistency. He has the chops to play everything Beethoven throws at him, but not to conquer the world. He makes the early sonatas sound clean and fresh, but offers no special insights. The "Pathétique" and "Tempest" are not given the usual Romantic boost and thus do not stand out as one would expect.
At the start of the "Waldstein," however, Lipkin shifts into another gear. Not only is the opening Allegro con brio thrilling, but the Rondo finale, begun very slowly, is the most beautiful I have heard. Lipkin shines in the lesser-known middle-period sonatas: No. 22 in F, op. 54, is wonderful, an even more winning performance than Richter at Carnegie Hall. The brief, seldom-played No. 25 in G, op. 79, is lively, sprightly, just gorgeous-becoming a happy brother to the brooding "Appassionata." Lipkin's hard, almost staccatto attacks on the main theme of "Les Adieux" sound awkward when compared to Serkin, but the pupil turns the tables with a beautifully expressive Andante and a sparkling "Return." The finale of op. 90 is so relaxed it seems to float in space.
Lipkin is less consistent in the late sonatas, but there are many beauties here, too. Op. 101 is too autumnal to be effective. His "Hammerklavier" is impressive at rapid tempos, although the tension sags at one moment in the opening Allegro. He chugs a bit in the great fugue, as do most human (i.e., sub-Richter) pianists, but the lines are generally very clear. Op. 109 is glorious throughout, but the final two works have been played more convincingly elsewhere.
The recorded sound is excellent if a touch dry, which is just fine for these works. I listened to many of the sonatas on a Gateway laptop with Sennheiser HD-600 headphones and then played all 32 non-stop (never done that before!) on the DVD/TV. They sounded decent even there, as the TV adds a welcome bit of reverb. I read the first page of the "Waldstein" on-screen and printed out op. 49/1 (8 pages); fine results both ways. I have not yet gotten the hang of putting scores on screen while the music is playing, but there is supposed to be a way if you have Microsoft XP or the equivalent Mac software. No paper booklet is supplied, but the CD-Rom includes a Lipkin bio, a 10,000-word essay on the music by Ted Libbey, and a list of credits. Unfortunately, the credits include neither recording dates nor track timings; your computer should supply the latter-Windows Media Player did so for me. A note at the end of the essay states that Lipkin does not always follow the supplied scores, "basing his choices on the manuscripts and first editions." That's another link to Serkin.
There is no such thing as a perfect set of the 32 sonatas, any more than of the nine symphonies. Lipkin scores high: among complete cycles I have heard in recent years, I prefer his to Yves Nat or to Richard Goode, and of course it sounds a lot better than Artur Schnabel. One might complain that these performances lack glamour or a strong personal profile; to me that means there is more Beethoven than Lipkin on display, which is as it should be. Many of the best-known sonatas have been recorded with more panache by someone, somewhere-name your favorites. Because you will have those recordings already, I recommend the Lipkin set for his lovely recreations of the rest. James H. North