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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 4 in E flat major op.7 [28:47], No. 29 in B flat major op.106 – "Hammerklavier" [39:45]
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 2nd August 1995, 4th January 1998, Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge

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About half-way through this performance of the "Hammerklavier" it crossed my mind how pianistic the music was sounding. Let me try to explain. This largest and grandest of all Beethoven’s sonatas is generally considered – nay, is – the ultimate challenge because Beethoven, by all accounts a very great pianist while his hearing remained unimpaired, in later life wrote abstractly, ideally, without apparent regard for how well or badly the music actually fitted onto the instrument. The pianist would just have to come to terms with it. This means that this music is in a different category compared with other "ultimate" challenges, such as the Studies of Chopin and Liszt, which were conceived by pianists with consummate techniques who threw out a challenge to other pianists, but a challenge which was designed to be conquered. If most of us still struggle with them, it is because of failings in our techniques, it is not because the challenge is an unpianistic or even an impossible one. The "Hammerklavier", on the other hand, will remain forever a challenge because it was not specifically designed to be conquered. Or was it? I can only report that, in Joyce Hatto’s hands, this work, without sounding easy – it teems with notes – always sounds perfectly conceived for the piano. Beethoven is not made to sound as if he were trying to make the piano do something it was not intended to do.

What is the secret of this? I wonder if, subliminally, many artists have been influenced by the fact that no less a Beethovenian than Weingartner saw fit to orchestrate the work, thereby implying that the piano alone was not up to realising it in all its power and magnificence. And, maybe, also by the fact that the pianist most associated with Beethoven in many people’s minds, Artur Schnabel, set down a nerve-racking onslaught on the sonata (except for a deeply expressed slow movement) which rather reinforced the impression of an undertaking beyond human endeavour.

Now I don’t suppose Joyce Hatto found this work easy – it would be trite to say that anyone who can play all that Liszt without apparent problems should be able to manage this because the "Hammerklavier" is a difficult in a different sort of way – yet she seems able to encompass its demands in the same sort of spirit as she encompasses those of the relatively accessible op. 7 which completes the disc. And this in spite of some swift tempi – she wisely doesn’t attempt Beethoven’s impossible metronome marking for the first movement but she certainly doesn’t dawdle, and her second and fourth movements are both a few seconds shorter than Schnabel’s. She also doesn’t try to make the piano go beyond being a piano – her tone is satisfyingly full without either hammering or hamming. She is also unfailingly observant of all the dynamics and other performance markings – quite simply, the score (and the composer) seemed to speak to me directly, without the intervention of an interpreter.

Some readers might be reading through the lines. Is the performance academic in its correctness? Does it sell you short in putting over the sheer scale of the music? I can only report that I did not find it so. It sounds spontaneous, and in place of "correctness" I would prefer to say "rightness". In short, ironically in view of what that conductor actually did to the "Hammerklavier", it has the qualities which inform the best of Weingartner’s performances of the symphonies.

And never more, I would say, than in the slow movement, where Hatto prefers a Schubertian mobility to Schnabel’s profoundly religious meditation. Without any sense of haste, this is Beethoven at his most pastoral, with a wonderfully song-like, open air feeling. Schnabel’s depth remains a thing to be wondered at, but I found that this moved me equally, though in a different way.

According to the track lists, the op. 7 sonata comes first on the disc, and it would have seemed a logical solution; for some reason the "Hammerklavier" is actually placed first – don’t try to listen to the earlier sonata immediately after op. 106. Here again, Hatto is an unfailing selfless and musical interpreter, with natural-sounding tempi and a total observance of every marking. And again, the sheer rightness of it may lead you to underestimate the amount of thought that has gone into it. To gauge the first movement so exactly, allowing it to rage at one moment and meditate at another without any change of tempo, is no easy matter.

I have sometimes found Concert Artist’s recordings a little two-dimensional. William Barrington-Coupe has wished to point out to me that their policy is to make a sound that is credibly that which you hear sitting in the concert hall, rather than the close-up sound often favoured. I am still not entirely convinced that they have succeeded in the Bach-Liszt disc which occasioned his comments, but I think they have succeeded here. The recording has body and bloom without in any way imposing itself. It has that same feeling of rightness about it as has the playing.

A great many pianists have set down a great many insights into the "Hammerklavier". A definitive recording is impossible. Here, at all events, is a "Hammerklavier" you can trust, and there aren’t all that many of them.

Christopher Howell

Concert Artist Catalogue

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