, March 2011
I am a firm admirer of Nelson Goerner. I have had the privilege of reviewing two of his CDs of Chopin on period instruments: the ballades and an album of the shorter works for piano and orchestra. Both are splendid. Now I have the pleasure of reviewing Goerner on a modern instrument, a beautiful Steinway. The director of this video has done an admirable job of presenting Goerner in action. One observes the utter naturalness of Goerner’s technique; it is hard to tell where the keyboard ends and his hands begin. Goerner’s face occasionally is expressive, though he is far from presenting a show. So much goes on musically in his recital that sometimes I found the picture distracting. At last, the third time I put on the DVD, I just lay down with my headphones on and closed my eyes, a listening experience I found richly rewarding (helped by excellent sound engineering). The two sonatas are among the finest performances I know, so I will attempt to discuss them in some detail.
The adagio that begins “Les Adieux” here portrays a friendship of some emotional delicacy. The subsequent “departure” is an allegro at a tempo that in vaudeville would have been referred to as traveling music. It is interrupted by hesitations of a questioning nature. Goerner’s playing of the “absence” movement is very espressivo, offering a foretaste of the world of the final three sonatas. The “return” finale is full of joy and excitement, with the image of two people rushing to be with one another. Goerner handles the virtuoso element of this movement with great rhythmic verve. I only hope that Goerner will tackle more Beethoven for recordings. I listened, for comparison, to three pianists who have put out complete cycles of the sonatas, Alfred Brendel (on Vox), Richard Goode, and Bernard Roberts. Goerner surpasses them all.
Chopin’s Third Sonata seems to hold a special place in Goerner’s affections. It was the first work on his debut recording for EMI in 1996. His two versions, made 13 years apart, share certain characteristics. Both take the exposition repeat in the first movement, and they both present the last three movements without a pause. Both performances run about half an hour, although the later one is slightly longer. Nevertheless, the two recordings sound very different to me. The 2009 version features a far more prominent left hand, with darker colorations throughout the work. Goerner also uses more rubato in 2009, becoming more expressive as a result. The 1996 performance is a good one; in 2009, Goerner reaches for the heights. Goerner also turned 40 in 2009, so perhaps the later version represents a personal milestone as well.
In the sonata’s opening movement, the second subject is meltingly beautiful. Having the exposition repeat follow it offers architectural balance. The development has hints of Bach. Given the length of this movement and the lack of pauses between the last three movements, this first one almost seems like a self-contained entity within the sonata. In the Scherzo, the A section has pearl-like, understated virtuosity, while the B section is marked by an ominous bass line. The A section of the Largo features exquisitely hushed playing. The B section exudes an otherworldly quality, with unusually rich tone at soft dynamic levels. The finale showcases the pianist’s virtuosity, featuring brilliant runs alternating with ominous statements. This is the style galant taken to another level.
Goerner ends his program with two Chopin etudes. Op. 10/4 has an elfin, Mendelssohnian quality, with the pianist’s fingers just a blur at times. Op. 10/10 features beautiful legato phrasing. The audience, which is commendably quiet during the music, is fulsome in its approval of the performances. If you want these sonatas on DVD, you really need to look no further. Nelson Goerner clearly has attained his maturity as an artist, and I suspect he will be giving us much to think about in the future.