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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas Vol. 1

Three Sonatas: op.2, in F minor, A major, C major
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded August 6th, December 7th 1995, Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD 8002-2 [67:08]


Having spent much of my listening time over the past month in the company of Joyce Hatto’s Mozart, I might be forgiven for wondering if the warm, gentle songfulness which characterises her approach to the earlier composer might not translate well to Beethoven. But of course a real artist seeks the right style and sound for each composer and even though this is early Beethoven (to which a Mozartian approach might have been plausible) the firm rhythmic drive and clear cut sound-world with which the F minor sonata opens proclaims this Beethoven, and very good Beethoven too.

In Mozart, Hatto is often inclined to choose slower tempi than her colleagues. In Beethoven this is not the case, as can be seen from the following table drawn from comparisons I had to hand:

 
Op.2/1        

Brendel (1994)

04:15 04:40 03:17 05:12
Hatto 03:39 04:37 03:04 04:58
Nikolayeva 03:53 05:47 04:04 05:11
Perahia 04:00 04:42 03:13 07:01*
Schnabel 03:18 06:02 03:24 04:41
Tan (fortepiano) 06:01* 04:11 02:49 07:19*
Op.2/2        
Brendel 07:40 06:33 03:33 07:21

Hatto

07:12 06:55 03:17 07:01
Nikolayeva 07:09 06:50 03:17 06:30
Perahia 07:01 06:07 03:08 06:16
Schnabel 06:30 07:22 03:22 05:42
Tan 10:51* 07:02 03:32 05:59
Op.2/3        

Brendel

10:21 07:15 03:12 05:40
Hatto 10:17 06:53 03:26 05:37
Nikolayeva 10:41 07:35 03:18 05:41
Perahia 09:43 08:00 03:15 05:05
Schnabel 10:03 07:45 02:51 05:21
Tan 09:48 06:04 03:18 05:52

* indicates the presence of a second repeat usually omitted.

Of course, timings can be misleading. For example, in the Adagio of op.2/1, both Hatto and Brendel (just three seconds between them) achieve a mixture and gravity and flow which suggests they have hit upon the ideal tempo; this would seem to be borne out by Tan, whose swifter tempo squeezes the expression out of the music, and by Nikolayeva who, while no doubt feeling every moment of her slower tempo, gets bogged down by her own weight. Then along comes Schnabel, the slowest of all, and the result is absolutely sublime; wonderful if you can do it, but very boring for your listeners if you can’t (as can be heard when Tan attempts something similar in the Largo appassionato of op.2/2).

Likewise, in the concluding Rondo of op.2/3 the timings do not reveal that both Brendel and Nikolayeva enunciate the great downward leap in the theme (which Tovey compared to a violinist’s or a singer’s "portamento") with a mannered rhythmic hiccup and an ungainly emphasis on the first of the lower notes. Nor do the timings reveal that both sound heavier-handed than Hatto even though one is apparently faster and the other apparently slower. However, while I feel on the whole that Nikolayeva smothers these early sonatas with excessive point-making, the robust humour (and staccato left-hand) with which she affronts the episode from b.26 suggests that she possesses certain insights into Beethoven that cannot be ignored. In this finale, though, I am not sure that Hatto’s middle way is ideal either, for both Perahia (beautifully poised) and Schnabel seem closer to suggesting Beethoven’s "Grazioso" marking.

Something similar occurs in the finale of op.2/3. Brendel may be only three seconds longer than Hatto, but his full-toned playing sounds slower and heavier, while Nikolayeva’s reading (one second longer still) is rather confused and actually sounds to be faster. Perahia, with his light finger technique, scampers away deliciously, but since he has applied the same lightness elsewhere, it comes as the finale to nothing very much. So once again we come back to Schnabel as the ideal (and, in spite of his reputation for catching crabs, he can be remarkably nifty in these early works).

The quirkiness of the first movement of op.2/2 seems to thrive on a more personalised approach – here Brendel and Nikolayeva come into their own. Whereas the more orchestral solidity of the first movement of op.2/3 inspires a more straightforward approach from all these artists; the differences between them are at their smallest here. The first movement of op.2/1 proves remarkably difficult to bring off and here Hatto’s sheer lack of fuss pays dividends.

However, at this point I have to register a certain ambivalence in my own reactions. I listened first to the Hatto disc, since this was the one I had to review. I then sampled parts of all twelve movements in the other recordings and I was left with the impression that the justness, the fidelity to the text and the well-chosen tempi of Hatto represented a sort of golden mean from which the others departed at their peril if with intermittently revelatory results.

Then I returned to Hatto and found that the lack of these intermittent revelations suggested a more limited emotional range (a pleasant but slightly recessed recording, more suitable for Mozart, does not help). I was reminded of a timid teenager (teenagers used to be timid once!) admitted to the adults’ table for the first time and eating with her elbows pinned to her sides for fear of jogging those to the right and left of her. A certain Beethovenian boldness is lacking; all the other artists (and many more, of course) give greater offence here and there, but their willingness to come down on one side of the fence rather than another provides moments of greater inspiration too. The ultimate value of Hatto’s Beethoven cycle, which is only at the beginning, will depend on her ability (and maybe that of her engineers) to increase her range as the music itself develops (is she deliberately holding something back in these early sonatas?).

So what are my conclusions? I don’t know! Unquestionably, the sublimity, warmth and humanity of Schnabel’s slow movements will remain as an inspiration for all time; studio nerves (and the ancient recording, though the latest Naxos transfer has done wonders for it) sometimes compromise the rest. From Hatto you will get a warm sound and a satisfying solution to all twelve movements. From the others, you will have to pick and choose. If you are tempted by Brendel’s or Nikolayeva’s first movement of op.2/2, for example, you will need Perahia’s finale to the same sonata to offset the heaviness of the other two. Best still to accept that an ideal solution will never exist, and try to buy as many versions of these sonatas as you can afford. Not forgetting Hatto.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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