Christian Leotta

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1

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French Canada's ATMA Classique label tends to favor Canadian artists and specifically those from Québec, but the only connection between Canada and young Italian pianist Christian Leotta is apparently that he appeared in 2002 and perhaps -- this is not made clear in the booklet -- that he began playing the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas in that city. He's certainly among the youngest performers to have attempted that feat, and perhaps that mark of ambition is what attracted the label to the project. This double-disc set is the first in a projected traversal of all the sonatas, which Leotta, a student of Karl Ulrich Schnabel, is recording not in chronological order but in mixed groups. Beyond that it's hard to divine an organizing principle for the sonatas included here. Leotta's playing is of the sort that some find self-indulgent and others would point to as the thing they go to concerts for. This is old-fashioned, Romantic Beethoven. Tempos are on the slow side, and, more important, variable at any time the pianist decides to go for a poetic effect, or to increase forward momentum. The latter is what gives Leotta's playing its particular flavor: he's the kind of pianist who makes you tap your foot (or, presumably, restrain yourself from doing so if you're hearing him live.). The Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 ("Pathétique") begins with a very slow introduction and from then on seems to be straining forward restlessly. The Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata") has numerous slightly different tempos in its opening movement, but essentially holds together. There's no question that Leotta bears watching, for he's capable of really seizing your attention at unexpected moments. Hear the very crisp Scherzo (CD 1, track 5) of the Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26, followed by an imposing funeral march. Few pianists have been able to bring out the strong foreshadowings of Beethoven's middle period in this sonata as well as Leotta does. Even those who take to his approach may feel at times that Leotta's day has not quite come: the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, with which Beethoven rounded out his engagement with the piano sonata, lacks an overarching structure despite plenty of whispery effects in the big variation finale. There are nevertheless plenty of exciting passages here, and the set as a whole makes you want to hear the future volumes. The engineering, which is Swiss, is just adequate, slicing off the top of Leotta's dynamic range with a tendency to give the piano a clanging quality.

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