Magazine article Gramophone

Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: Jed Distler Listens to Two Complete Sonata Cycles-Melodie Zhao's Brand-New Traversal and a Reissue from Michael Levinas

Magazine article Gramophone

Beethoven's Piano Sonatas: Jed Distler Listens to Two Complete Sonata Cycles-Melodie Zhao's Brand-New Traversal and a Reissue from Michael Levinas

Article excerpt

With recordings of all 24 Chopin Etudes and Liszt's 12 Transcendental Etudes under her belt, Melodie Zhao, who turned 20 on September 7, now becomes the youngest pianist to tackle all 32 Beethoven sonatas on disc, a project she began at the ripe old age of 17. There's no questioning her assured technique and stylistic affinity, although some sonatas come off better than others; indeed, ups and downs transpire within individual sonatas. Zhao's facile yet musically glib Opp 106, 110 and 111 contrast with the ebb and flow of her long chains of trills in Op 109 and a stronger than usual left-hand presence in Op 101's second movement. Op 31 No 1 's Andante grazioso conveys impressive legato/detache differentiation but little in the way of a natural cantabile impulse. She revels in the hurling momentum of Op 2 No 3's finale but broaches the first movement mechanically. Zhao underplays the syncopated accents in Op 7's Allegro moderato but brings out the Haydnesque humour of Op 10 No 2's Allegro wonderfully well, and effortlessly sails through Op 28's all-but-impossible final pages. She insensitively clips the second subject of Op 10 No 3's Preno, yet imbues the Rondo with a pearly legato and eloquently turned embellishments.

Her Pathetique Rondo starts out fight and disarming, yet gathers dramatic intensity as it progresses, ending with an unwritten yet effective accelerando on the final descending scale. In Op 14 No 1, Zhao's bubbly, extrovert first movement contrasts with her flat-footed, prosaic Rondo. Her brusque, march-like Op 14 No 2 middle movement glosses over the music's muted undercurrents. Save for insufficient dynamic contrasts, the Moonlight is quite limpid and tasteful, while Op 27 No 1's 'hunting' Allegretto joyfully scampers. The Waldstein's first movement rushes out of the starting gate, putting on the brakes in time for Zhao to sentimentalise the second theme. At least she trusts Beethoven's controversial Rondo pedal markings, where the coda features particularly slick octave glissandos. The insistent regularity of Op 81a's first-movement left-hand semiquavers nearly transforms this soaring movement into a disco anthem, although the driving Appassionata outer movements are both steady and flexible. Zhao taps into the quiet transitions of Op 90's first movement with telling perception, only to unmusically punch out the fortes. Claves' close-up engineering is ample and robust, yet turns monochrome and congested in the loudest moments.

Michael Levinas's newly reissued Accord cycle of 1984-91, with all repeats intact, reconnects collectors with a seasoned yet unpredictable musician. …

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