There was a time in the musical world when music was sold on black vinyl discs. One of my favourites was the Toshiba EMI 2 box set reissue of the great Artur Schnabel’s stupendous traversal of the Olympian test for pianists, Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas. Later, the large vinyl discs were dumped by young people for a smaller, silver disc that promised ‘Perfect Sound Forever’. Most audiophiles considered that a heinous, marketing lie. But as a new set of youth embrace iTunes, audiophiles such as myself are re embracing the silver disc as an oldie and a goodie! Lucky for Beethoven piano fans there are numerous cycles and individual performances in audiophile sound on CD from which to choose. The new Cambria set by Peter Takács is a very fine example.
Takács is an American pianist of Romanian heritage. Leon Fleisher - trained, he’s a Professor of Piano at Oberlin College, a ‘four-year, highly selective liberal arts college and conservatory of music’ so says the College’s About Page. Most piano superstar students head for New York or Moscow, so it is a real coup for the Ohio college to have an artist of Takács’ stature on faculty.
Takács must be one of a growing number of artists that have given up on mainstream recording companies. They’re interested in pap like Bocelli and Il Divo — serious artists better look elsewhere unless your first name is YoYo and your last name is Lang. Takács used a small company interested in providing the public with quality work, and if they sell out the run, all the better. Many fine artists are working this way or selling quality downloadable files via their own website. It’s the future. We have to get used to it. But as Cambria and others have shown, excellent releases can be found.
The Cambria production is among the finest I’ve seen. The quality is tactile — the lovely box comes with 11 discs and a book, complete with very detailed, but very interesting analysis of the 32 Sonatas by Takács. It also includes essays by the soloist and a pull out chronological historical poster charting the coincidental history of the Sonatas through Biography, Music, Literature and Science. A wonderful ‘easter egg’.
Takács took almost four years to complete the cycle. The journey to the final recording location, the Concert Hall of Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee (Bosendorfer Imperial Grand 290) was very interesting. The travels were worth it. As such, the sound of the recording and the magnificent piano is exceptional. Takács and Cambria have produced a recording worthy of your time, emotional investment and dollars. Recorded in DSD, the set can be played on SACD players or, more likely, a standard CD player. My audition time was spent with the standard CD reproduction.
Musically, the set is outstanding. Takács has the chops to bring off even the most technically challenging of the Sonatas. Whether the Moonlight’s Presto, the Hammerklavier’s nutty Fugue, or the accelerando challenges of the Appassionata, his technique is up to the demands. His touch on the Bosendorfer is wonderful — he produces some exquisite results. And, good for us, he is not a ‘banger’. When the going gets hot, Takács never loses the focus in his tone. We get rounded sfz and ff, not clangorous as with many modern pianists. Old school can be good.
Interpretations are mainstream — you’ll be safe with Takács. He didn’t consistently curl my toes like Schnabel (who does?), but I liked his choices in tempi and as mentioned, his consistently lovely tone. I was never disappointed. I cannot say that about famous Beethoven performances by masters such as Gilels and Gould.
Some of my favourite Sonatas that I turned to again and again — an outstanding Pastoral, evocative Moonlight, an Appassionata that reminded of Barenboim’s amazing account, and very deep personal performances of Number 28 and the final three masterpieces. For me, many Les Adieux’s pale in comparison to Mikhail Pletnev’s stunning version played on Rachmaninov’s piano, but Takács certainly held his own with this, and in comparison to other great artists, in many other of the Sonatas. The early examples were played with grace and sparkling technique. And throughout the entire set, the voicing of chords travelled from lovely to sublime and the so important pedal was used effectively. No blurring.
There is a very nice bonus CD of the lovely Andante Favori, the Elector Sonatas and the Sonata for four hands. These are all equally well played to the main event.
My modern, audiophile set of choice has been Robert Silverman on Orpheum Masters. Takács on Cambria makes an interesting comparison. Silverman can be riotous, driven — he leaves your hair on fire. Takács is more reserved. There is a lot of passion for sure, and with a better recording, his introspection is better achieved. He’s Eusebius to Silverman’s Florestan. My choice? Maybe Silverman’s new set, coming soon. On his preferred Steinway in a mainstream hall. We’ll see. [Jumps off fence!]
That said, in the here and now, the Takács set will serve you well. It is very consistent with much beautiful playing, is extremely well-recorded and is packaged in a legacy worthy set. Recommended.
Playing time: 11:28:39