Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Urgent, passionate, transcendent piano music


"Something about this music just seemed to make sense now, when so little else did."

It's fitting, I think, that I come back to reviewing music on this blog after my annus horribilis, when my wife died of Ovarian cancer and I had a major accident, all during the terrible pandemic that we're slowly emerging from. Pianist Andrew Von Oeyen's year was a challenging but productive one, resulting in a shift in his musical priorities, and it brings us a quite remarkable album of music by Bach and Beethoven.

Von Oeyen came to Bach, or perhaps more accurately, Bach came to Von Oeyen, during enforced leisure, with touring, public performance and normal recording activities on hold:
While I had studied many of his keyboard works, I almost never performed them; I was not a specialist. Yet his music was calling, and with a newfound liberty of time to explore repertoire without professional deadlines, I decided to bury my troubles in his contrapuntal canon.
That this was a kind of Saul in Tarsus moment for the pianist is clear from his taught and concentrated performance of the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831. This is just the opposite of the dry Bach that still holds sway over some pianists; Von Oeyen plays with urgency and passion. He comes through these emotions to a calm centre, though he doesn't quite reach the same Olympian serenity of that most urgent and passionate of all pianists, Glenn Gould. Still, this is a superb version of this great work that seems better each time I listen to it.

Von Oeyen's Beethoven is equally stormy, and just as convincing. He found that "the directness, virility, determination, and sheer willpower of Beethoven... aligned with my own growing resolve to transcend this trial." This is Von Oeyen shaking his fist at COVID as Beethoven famously shook his at Fate. The Appassionata Sonata, op. 57, is the perfect work to demonstrate how one person can fight the good fight against the Universe, though of course it also takes enormous control, and self-control, to keep it from sounding melodramatic and histrionic. The slighter Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia, op. 27 no. 1 is pitched at a lower temperature, and to his credit, Von Oeyen doesn't push too hard and destroy the still somewhat naively pre-Romantic feeling of this wonderful piece. This is beautifully balanced, and beautifully played.

Von Oeyen ends a wonderful programme with two Bach arrangements by that great Beethoven pianist, Wilhelm Kempff. I've always thought of Kempff as my Beethoven pianist, since I first heard Beethoven's sonatas played by him. Kempff brings loads of sentiment to these pieces, and in turn Von Oeyen plays both with simple dignity and a feeling of transcendence. Perhaps there is some light ahead.

To be released June 11, 2021.

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