Konstantin Scherbakov’s Beethoven Sonata Cycle

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

In early 2020 Steinway & Sons began issuing individual volumes of a Beethoven sonata cycle with pianist Konstantin Scherbakov as digital downloads. Upon the project’s completion, the label promised to bundle all nine volumes in physical CD format. The discs are packaged in space-saving sleeves, with booklet notes featuring a substantial interview between the pianist and Ben Finane.

Scherbakov, of course, is equally articulate at the keyboard. His Beethoven playing conveys exuberance, involvement, and a keen ear for detail. My enthusiastic response to Scherbakov’s Op. 2 sonata triumvirate contained on Volume 1 readily spills over into the other so-called “early” sonatas. Highlights include a memorable Op. 10 No. 3, where the slow movement’s granitic concentration contrasts to Scherbakov’s deceptively offhand timing of the finale’s sudden stops and starts.

His breezy, witty Op. 14 sonatas count among the catalog’s best, while the pianist’s nimble and slightly dry articulation in Op. 22’s outer movements underscores the music’s implicit opera buffa qualities. Notice the Op. 26 second movement’s unpredictable yet effective shifts in voicing, and the joyous, forward thrust of Op. 27 No. 1’s contrapuntal finale.

Scherbakov’s slightly contrived “Moonlight” central movement (the arch tenutos at phrase ends) turned me off, but his vibrant and musically glittering Op. 28 more than compensated; and what child’s play Scherbakov makes of the Finale’s finger-tangling coda. Scherbakov relishes the intended humor behind the desynchronized chords in Op. 31 No. 1’s first movement. He captures the flippant irony of Glenn Gould’s central movement, but at a tempo closer to what Beethoven intended. The pianist’s “Tempest” sonata is more studied than stormy in the outer movements, yet Op. 31 No. 3’s Scherzo evokes cacklingly conversing woodwinds, and the Presto finale zips past the speed limit without losing an iota of control.

The Waldstein, Appassionata, Les Adieux, and shorter Op. 54, Op. 78, and Op. 79 sonatas consistently fuse unabashed surface bravura and genuine musical insight. I like Scherbakov’s wide dynamic contrasts and stark projection in Op. 90’s first movement, but an overly fast tempo trivializes the second movement’s underlying lyricism and aching tenderness. Happily, the latter qualities come out in Op. 101’s introductory movement, which barely prepares you for the shock of the March’s relentless drive. Yet Scherbakov justifies his tempo through precise calibration of his contrapuntal balances and deadly-accurate wide interval leaps and chordal ricochets.

Like Artur Schnabel, Scherbakov emphasizes the stepwise movement of inner lines within Op. 109’s opening arpeggiated figurations. And he is one of the few pianists who truly differentiates Beethoven’s slurred and non-slurred phrases in the Prestissimo, as do Charles Rosen, Annie Fischer, and Freddy Kempf. I only wish that the third movement’s chains of trills took on more tonally varied and otherworldly hues, and that also applies to the final variations of Op. 111’s Arietta. Op. 110 is all of a piece, pianistically speaking, yet the unsubtle bass octave sforzandos in the Fugue grow fatiguing over the music’s course; I prefer more inwardness and textural transparency in the manner of recordings as disparate as those by Angela Hewitt and Dina Ugorskaja, not to mention Awadagin Pratt’s overlooked yet immensely moving EMI version.

I save the “Hammerklavier” for last, because I’m baffled by Scherbakov’s heavy and emphatic first movement, which is akin to Emil Gilels’ similarly square-cut playing but with infinitely more energy. He also bears down on the Scherzo’s downbeats, and the music never takes wing. Scherbakov plays the Adagio sostenuto simply and directly, however his rhythmic distortions obliterate the dramatic build of Beethoven’s accelerando leading from the fourth-movement introduction into the fugue. Furthermore, Scherbakov’s efficient and clear dispatch of the Fugue’s gnarly note sequences falls short of the supple fluidity and conversational interplay that distinguish the classically oriented Murray Perahia, the fire-and-brimstone Claudio Arrau, and the playful, almost jazzy Peter Serkin.

Perhaps I anticipated something more torrential on Scherbakov’s part, given his recorded whirlwind of a Beethoven/Liszt Fourth Symphony finale. Then again, one shouldn’t expect any single pianist to deliver a perfect Beethoven cycle. That Scherbakov approaches and often attains perfection throughout the course of these excellently engineered CDs is no small achievement. In short, the integrity and distinction of Scherbakov’s work contributes most positively to the Beethoven anniversary year’s abundant offerings.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Levit (Sony); Arrau (Decca); Goode (Nonesuch); Kempff (DG); Brautigam (BIS)


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