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Is the children’s book Why Beethoven Threw the Stew by Steven Isserlis reminds us, Ludwig could be tetchy. There is a correspondingly bearish quality to this unvarnished, rough-and-ready sonata cycle by the Ukrainian pianist Konstantin Lifschitz (b 1976). Even in the earlier Haydnesque sonatas, elegance and grace are gainsayed, and nervous tension alternates with slack tempos for slower movements.

In a relaxed, almost offhand rendition of the final movement of Sonata No 25 in G major Op 79 (‘Cuckoo’), marked Vivace, Lifschitz’s keyboard skills are at their apogee. Similarly, in the second movement of the Sonata No 28 in A major Op 101, marked ‘Lively, march-like’, good-hearted boisterousness is audible.

Yet most of the performances eschew these qualities, instead communicating an aggrieved, irked sound. Lifschitz takes a distended, clangorous approach to the Pathétique Sonata in C minor Op 13, while his muted, dogged opening of the Moonlight Sonata Op 27/2 is followed by keyboard banging, as if expressing resentment. Likewise, the first movement of the Waldstein Sonata in C major Op 53 sounds both drab and agitated.

According to the CD booklet, this set was recorded ‘live on six consecutive days’. This is rather more hurried than Lifschitz’s usual habit of performing all the sonatas in eight recitals over 10 days. There is a compellingly gritty, theatrical quality captured during what were likely stressful recording conditions, but what is gained in dynamism is lost in balance and control of tone.

Given the pianist’s busy schedule and multiple keyboard projects, perhaps this was the only way he could have been free to record such a substantial set. Yet in future, a less hectic recording schedule for major cycles might yield more harmonious results.

In an editorial quiddity, Lifschitz interpolates Beethoven’s Allegretto WOO 53 into the Sonata No 5 in C minor as an indication that Beethoven editions are really works in progress. Well, why not? Possibly prone to tossing a monkey wrench into the mix, Lifschitz was considerably more provocative in the past when he added as an unexpected encore to a vivid CD recital of Schubert works (Palexa) the 16th movement from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’enfant-Jésus.

Such interpolations may be seen as minor examples of wilfulness, perhaps to be expected from a former child prodigy. At age five, Lifschitz was already enrolled in Moscow’s Gnessin Special School of Music, where he began studies with Tatiana Zelikman, the instructor of Daniil Trifonov, Alexander Kobrin and Alexei Volodin, among others. Zelikman was a pupil of Teodor Gutman (1905-1985), a noted Beethoven specialist.

Lifschitz emerged with an appetite for varied repertory, from sometimes galumphing renditions of Tudor and Baroque pieces to Gottfried von Einem’s modernist Piano Concerto No 1 (Orfeo). Lifschitz has also recorded compositions by Leningrad-born Igor Raykhelson, Switzerland’s Hans Huber, and even the UK’s own Donald Francis Tovey.

This adventurous range of musical enthusiasms argues that Lifschitz may be most comfortable as an explorer, rather than completist. His Beethovenian expeditions have been assiduous, starting with a debut recital at age 13, featuring the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor WOO 80 (Denon) and continuing later with the Bagatelles Opp 33, 119 and 126, Rondos Op 51 and Pastorale Sonata, all on Palexa; the Bagatelle in C major Op 119/2 (Denon); Sonata No 28 in A major Op 101 (Sacrambow) and the last three sonatas on Japanese label Wakabayashi Kobo in 2018. He has also accompanied Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas for a CD set on Warner.

Lifschitz’s readiness for a complete Beethoven cycle is not in doubt. The question is whether this approach best suits his variegated talents and inclinations. Rather than as interpreter of monumental projects, ideal for keyboard artists with a certain Teutonic stolidity, Lifschitz may perhaps be more comfortable in the role of unpredictable gadfly.

Certainly, the blindfold test interview he did in October 2011 for the website concerti.de was a Beethoven-like hurling of stew. In it, Lifschitz slated (‘Please don’t, that’s horrible!’) recordings by unidentified colleagues who turn out to be named Horowitz, Kissin, Aimard, Tharaud and Brendel. When career pianists hold scornful opinions about noted rivals and predecessors, they are usually careful to suppress them when speaking to the media, as Lifschitz has wisely done ever since.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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