Seymour Lipkin Does Justice to Beethoven

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartók: Seymour Lipkin (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 14.1.2015 (BJ)

Mozart: Sonata in D major, K. 576
Beethoven: Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110
Bartók: Suite, Op. 14
Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

  • I don’t know whether I should attribute the cause to fiendishly ingenious program planning on the part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, but after a disappointing how-not-to-do-it recital encompassing Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas earlier this season, two subsequent events have made handsome amends. Just a month ago, Jeremy Denk performed the rescue service for the E-major Sonata, Op. 109, and this recital by Seymour Lipkin completed the restoration process with sterling readings of the other two sonatas of the final triptych.
  •  Lipkin has been making music beautifully, both at the piano and on the conductor’s podium, for more than half a century. My first experience of his quality came with a memorably stylish and light-footed performance of the “Linz” Symphony that he conducted at New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival around 1966. The piano has been his principal performing focus in recent years, and his playing on this occasion showed that, in his 88th year, he has lost none of his artistry.
  •  It was perhaps Lipkin’s distaste for facile forcefulness that resulted in a slightly tentative start to the Mozart sonata that opened the program. For the rest of the evening, he phrased and articulated with total authority and delectable expressive warmth. The Mozart, with wit prevailing in the outer movements and contemplative lyricism in the central Adagio, was followed by an account of the penultimate Beethoven sonata that responded eloquently to the music’s often ingenious uses of the sustaining pedal.
  •  Fittingly, after a lithe performance of Bartók’s Suite, the most compelling playing came in the greatest work on the program, Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata. Lipkin got the rhythms of the first-movement introduction, which had defeated his predecessor in the work last November, reassuringly right, and his hurtling realization of the main “Allegro con brio ed appassionato” characterized both the brightness and the passion denoted by that marking without any compromise in the face of the music’s technical challenge.
  •  Best of all was the fantastic set of variations that concluded Beethoven’s nearly three-decade engagement with the piano sonata genre. Again, the “molto semplice e cantabile” of the opening marking was unerringly realized, Lipkin’s unpretentious rhythmic directness contrasting vividly with his predecessor’s often fussy little hesitancies. The faster variations seemingly held no terrors for his technique, and his ending “deposited us,” as I once heard a British critic describe the work’s final measures,” gently on the edge of eternity.”


Bernard Jacobson

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