Sequeira Costa’s Beethoven Cycle: An Uneven Memorial

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 5

Sound Quality: 7

Between 1999 and 2007 the Vianna da Motta International Music Foundation brought out 10 CDs containing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas with Sequeira Costa. The recordings subsequently were licensed to the Claudio label, which now bundles the individual releases together both as a tribute to the Beethoven 250th anniversary and as a memorial to the pianist, who passed away in February 2019 at age 89.

During his peak years, Costa had a knack for making glittery repertoire sound unusually eloquent and noble, channeling his considerable technique toward musical ends. His Rachmaninov concertos were a case in point, along with poetic readings of Schumann’s Carnaval and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. I also have fond memories of Costa’s superb Chopin Etudes issued on a Supraphon LP in the 1970s, although I’m not sure if they ever were digitized. However, the frequently slow and heavy-handed playing that dominates Costa’s Beethoven cycle is rather rough going, together with a seeming reluctance to play as softly as Beethoven indicates (a curious trait that he shares with Wilhelm Backhaus).

In an earlier review I wrote of Costa’s positively glacial way with the Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”, while the pianist frankly labors over movements requiring vitality, crispness, and forward momentum, such as those in Op. 10, 14, 22, 31, 54, 81a, and 111. Costa sculpts the “Moonlight” Adagio and middle movement with care and consideration, yet delivers a clunky and pedestrian finale comparable to an equally choppy Op. 90 second movement.

On the other hand, the flexibility, sustaining power, and rhetorical gestures with which Costa imbues his measured tempos for the first movements of Op. 28, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), and Op. 78, the “Waldstein” Rondo, the Op. 7 finale, and the Op. 26 Funeral March hold interest and grow increasingly compelling over repeated hearings. Costa’s serious artistic aims are never in question; if only he had recorded the Beethoven cycle in his prime. In short, an uneven memorial to a great pianist.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Beethoven 250: Complete Piano Sonatas
Reference Recording: Arrau (Decca); Levit (Sony Classical); Kempff (DG); Goode (Nonesuch)

  • Sequeira Costa (piano)

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