The fortepiano is the earliest form of the piano, and
has a very limited relationship with today's Steinway. Its sound is
sharper, with much less resonance in the low notes, and its decay is
much faster. Close to the harpsichord in this respect, it is nevertheless
built with felt hammers, and not plucked like the harpsichord. In addition,
as Malcolm Bilson says in the beautifully-prepared booklet that accompanies
this set, "These earlier instruments can suggest very different
gestures from those proffered by the modern piano, and can lead the
player down quite different paths of expression."
Recent years have seen an upsurge of performances on
this instrument, whether they be of sonatas by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven.
This is logical, because, as period practice becomes more common, both
musicians and listeners are seeking to hear the music in a form much
closer to the original.
Nine instruments are used for this recording, and a
total of seven pianists perform. This set is the first complete recording
of Beethovenís piano sonatas on historical instruments, that is, the
type of instrument Beethoven used when composing theses works. Although,
since Beethovenís earliest scores specified that they were for harpsichord
or fortepiano, perhaps the earliest works deserve to be recorded on
the harpsichord as well!
The long runs in the Allegro Vivace of the second sonata
take on their true effect with this instrument; since the sound is crisper,
the notes are all heard more clearly than on a modern piano. The opening
Allegro of sonata no. 6, with its virtuoso runs, comes of beautifully
here as well; each note rings out brilliantly, and Ursula Dütschlerís
playing of this movement is breathtaking.
The vivacious Presto of the seventh sonata contains
many rapid passages; again, these take on a much different definition
on a fortepiano, and, especially, have much less resonance. This gives
the music a lighter, more airy feeling than many other performances.
However, the Largo e mesto of the same sonata might be jarring to listeners
used to only modern instruments - this movement, on a Steinway, sounds
like a totally different piece, with the resonance and pedal effects
that some pianists use, yet the nuances of dynamics on the fortepiano
One perhaps best hears the unique sound of the fortepiano
in sonata no. 11, in the Adagio con moltíespressione. This slow, very
slow movement with its simple musical structure - walking bass notes
and a subtle, almost minimal treble melody - allow the instrument to
take center stage. The bass notes are resonant without echoing, and
the treble notes sparkle without bubbling too much. Zvi Menikerís performance
of this movement is beautifully expressive, he declaims the melodies
with rich emotion.
One might think from the above comments that the fortepiano
gives a "light" version of these works. This is not the case,
and the Marcia funebre of the twelfth sonata is a good example of how
even the darkest passages work well. This dirge-like movement comes
through with a unique resonance on this instrument, played by Andrew
Willis, and has perhaps even more intensity than many performances on
modern instruments. While the tempo is slightly faster than some performances,
there is perhaps a greater tension in the sound provided by the fortepiano.
The lack of overall resonance makes the chords more striking, more incisive.
Some listeners may find it difficult to appreciate
the Moonlight sonata, no. 14, on this instrument. The slow arpeggios
of the opening Adagio sostenuto are very soft and subtle, as opposed
to the "modern" sound with, again, much more resonance. Malcolm
Bilson, who plays this work, mentions in the notes, says that he plays
"the entire movement with dampers raised and the moderator
engaged. [Ö] one must play very softly in order to make the blurring
gentle and sensuous. Beethovenís sonatas were, however, not conceived
with public concerts in mind, hence this version seem appropriate for
performance in a small room, or for the intimate sound of recording.
Please donít turn the volume up too loudÖ" All I can say is that
he succeeds in bringing to this movement a tone that is at once wondrous
and sensuous, and achieves something unique.
One of the most exciting movements in this entire set
is the Andante of Sonata no. 15. Played at a much faster tempo than
most performers - just over 6 minutes - David Breitman gives this piece
exhilarating rhythm and syncopates it like a jazz number. The result
is foot-tapping - perhaps not what most listeners expect of Beethoven
- and memorable. This movement shows how one can have a totally different
perspective on Beethoven.
An interesting addition to this set is the inclusion
of the three "Bonn Sonatas" written when Beethoven was twelve
years old. While not masterpieces in any way, they do give a glimpse
of where Beethoven would later head.
All of the performers take a different approach to
ornamentation. Some of the players vary the repeats more than others,
occasionally taking liberties that exceed the text. This is not a problem
- after all, Beethoven himself is known to have done this. On the contrary,
this approach makes the music even more interesting on repeated listenings.
If there is one negative aspect to this set, it is
the use of so many different instruments and pianists. On many of the
discs, there are three or four different instruments and performers.
This gives the set a feeling that bits were stuck together; not movements,
of course, but entire sonatas with different sounds and styles appear
on the same disc. The recordings themselves vary just as much, and,
while they are all very up-front and devoid of artificial reverberation,
there is a noticeable difference. The recording quality is not among
the main reasons to buy this set.
Claves deserves kudos for the quality of the notes
accompanying this set. The richly-illustrated 200-page booklet (in English,
German and French) gives a wealth of information about the sonatas and
the individual performances.
This is a magnificent set of Beethovenís piano sonatas,
played on the type of instrument he used when composing them. Many listeners
will be uncomfortable with the pianoforte; it is so very different from
the modern piano. But these recordings give a totally new perspective
on these essential piano works. This set belongs on the shelves of every
lover of Beethovenís piano sonatas.