The French-born, Italian-based pianist Muriel Chemin follows up her 2017 Beethoven Diabelli Variations release with nothing less than a complete cycle of the composer’s 32 piano sonatas. Chemin’s serious-minded interpretations fall somewhere between Wilhelm Kempff’s intimately scaled conceptions and the rhetorical style of Claudio Arrau. Tempos tend toward moderation (which partially explains the cycle’s 10-disc outlay, in contrast to the usual eight or nine), while the parameters of Chemin’s expressive leeway never spill over into self-indulgence. You won’t find the hurling brio or scintillating drive that Stewart Goodyear, Igor Levit, Seymour Lipkin, and Artur Schnabel bring to fast movements. Slow movements, however, never drag or lose shape. Above all, Chemin’s strong sense of inner rhythm, and her astute voice leading and handling of transitions usually allow the music to unfold naturally and fluidly.
A good example of what I mean can be found in the first-movement exposition of the A major Op. 2 No. 2, where Chemin slightly pulls back the tempo before launching into the second subject, and creating quiet drama in the process. Her attention to the left hand in Op. 10 No. 3’s opening Presto creates a momentum of its own that compensates for a less than febrile basic tempo. There are more propulsive and febrile Op. 7 first movements to be had, yet Chemin’s sense of the proverbial big picture rings loud and clear, by way of little commas that give extra weight to climaxes and resonant bass lines that give anchoring support to rapid right hand filigree. Other earlier sonata highlights include Chemin’s pointing up of the Op. 14 No. 2 Finale’s cross-rhythms, an Op. 27 No. 1 Scherzo that manages to be full-bodied and soaring at the same time, and an expansive, well-integrated Op. 26 opening variations movement.
The middle-period sonatas also find Chemin navigating thin lines between tension and relaxation. For instance, in the finale of the D minor Op. 31 No. 2 “Tempest” sonata she gives full force to the dynamic surges, yet demarcates the “Waldstein” first movement’s second subject with subtle caesuras. She also fashions long, dynamically contrasted lines from the Op. 54 Allegretto’s toccata-like patterns. By giving all notes in the “Appassionata” finale’s coda their due and not accelerating in the final bars, the music’s inherent build makes a powerful rather than a vulgar impact. Chemin’s tempo for the little Op. 78 sonata’s finale hardly suggests Beethoven’s Allegro vivace directive, yet she conveys its humorous character through wily articulation and timing.
An air of caution permeates the rollicking “Les Adieux” Finale and the fugal finales of Op. 101 and Op. 106. The latter’s scrupulously voiced Allegro and beautifully sustained Adagio sostentuto, however, rank high among the catalog’s slower “Hammerklavier” Sonata traversals.
Chemin underplays Op. 109’s Prestissimo, but gives her all in the variation movement’s long chains of trills. Her transition from the end of the Arioso’s return to the resumption of the fugue in Op. 110’s third movement is worth the price of admission. In Op. 111 she projects admirable breadth and large-scale vision, albeit without Pollini’s ironclad rhythm or Arrau’s incisive finish. In all, Muriel Chemin’s musical integrity and unselfregarding engagement with the material consistently informs her Beethoven interpretations, and I anticipate returning to many of these performances with pleasure. John Anderson’s production evokes the ambience of a small concert hall venue, while Hugh Collins-Rice contributes extensive and well-written booklet notes.