Magazine article Gramophone

Pienaar's Beethoven Sonatas: Jed Distler Listens to the South African Pianist's Ten-Disc Traversal of the 'New Testament' of the Piano Repertoire

Magazine article Gramophone

Pienaar's Beethoven Sonatas: Jed Distler Listens to the South African Pianist's Ten-Disc Traversal of the 'New Testament' of the Piano Repertoire

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Daniel-Ben Pienaar's booklet-notes for his Beethoven sonata cycle discuss the dichotomy between Beethoven's creative impulse and the kind of dutiful literalism favoured by many of his modern-day interpreters. 'While Beethoven's revelations are born of a critical, investigative, individualistic and indeed defiant mind and personality, the performer's role is assumed to be somehow to "transmit" those revelations through keeping in check the very same characteristics in himself, implying that it is somehow indecent not to convey a sense of respectfulness at all times in his very readings.' In other words, Pienaar is justifying his interpretations, which abound with rhetorical underpinnings, unwritten arpeggiated chords, breaking of hands, and retooled phrasings, dynamics and accents.

Pienaar also cites individual characteristics of noted past Beethoven interpreters, implying that 'if it's good enough for Schnabel or Horowitz, it's good enough for me'. Fair enough; yet to what extent does Pienaar's prodigious expressive portfolio either illuminate or distract from the music? The answer varies from work to work. Such gestures reinforce the charged brio of Op 2 No 1's outer movements, lend alluring textural variety to Op 2 No 2's Largo and intensify the pianist's brisk, angular approach to Op 2 No 3's first, third and fourth movements. His tenutos in Op 7's Scherzo border on fussy (as they do throughout Op 78), yet underline Beethoven's off-beat accents, while, by contrast, the Rondo is simple, direct and genuinely grazioso.

If the fast movements of Op 10 Nos 1 and 2 race ahead to the point of sacrificing punctuation, desynchronised hands pacify the incisive momentum of No 3's opening Presto, while the Minuet's tapered legato lines ooze treacle. Arpeggiating the Pathetique's Grave introduction might have been more convincing with a firmer basic pulse; the latter, however, assertively propels the movement's main section. If you like Wilhelm Backhaus's informal, slighdy cavalier Op 14 readings, you'll find Pienaar's remakes essentially more selfaware. Some of Op 22's fussy point-making is not to my taste but Op 26 stands out for the Scherzo's unusually defined left-hand work, a massive, hauntingly shaded Funeral March, plus a resolutely moderate and clearly structured Allegro assai.

A few misjudged accents throw the dactylic trajectory of Op 27 No 1's second movement off-kilter. The Moonlight's Adagio almost sounds like late Schumann, with Pienaar's hands slightly out of sync. This effect works less well with the Allegretto's string quartet-like part-writing; I have a similar criticism concerning Op 101's first movement. …

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