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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Sonata in E major Op.109; Piano Sonata in A major Op.101
Alban BERG (1885-1935) Piano Sonata Op. 1
Andreas Klein (piano)
rec. 22/23 December 1996, Stude Concert Hall, Houston, Texas. DDD
EROICA JDT3137 [49'56]

An interesting combination, but of what? Of late classical Viennese and early twentieth century Viennese masters? Or is it very early and very late Romantic works? Leaving aside such simplistic comparisons, they are clearly works that suit this particular pianist who brings his great qualities of clarity and variety of touch to both styles.

We may sometimes need to remind ourselves, faced with the images of Beethoven as a wild, unkempt genius, that he was less a proto-Romantic than a highly sophisticated Classical composer. His achievement was to hugely extend and enrich the Classical form but not invent the Romantic style. The modified sonata form he used for Opp. 101 and 109 owe more to the baroque models of Handel and C.P.E. Bach than any forecast of rhapsodic Romantic structures. It is arguable that the Romantic composers who admired Beethoven the most – Brahms and Berlioz – are also the most Classical of the nineteenth century (almost Baroque in the case of Brahms).

This is a great CD for those who see Beethoven as essentially a Classicist. Andreas Klein, who is German-born but trained at the Juilliard School, plays the two sonatas with a full understanding of Beethoven’s antecedents. His playing is light and crisp but weighty where necessary; he pays scrupulous attention to Beethoven’s markings. Throughout, the part-writing is clear and there is no exaggeration. Klein always lets the music speak for itself.

The first movement of Op. 110 is surprisingly dance-like, the siciliano rhythm beautifully pointed. The March, a sharp precursor of Alkan’s and Schumann’s exercises in dotted rhythm, is played with wit, the simple two-part writing of the Trio smoothly contrasted. Klein lets the ‘Sehnsucht’ of the Adagio emerge naturally without the application of undue sentiment. The Allegro finale, a typically indestructible example of Beethoven’s thorough working out of fragmentary themes, is played with strength and humour.

Op. 109, more ‘late-period’ in its alternation of sonata and fantasia styles fares just as well. Klein captures equally the grace of the Vivace with its Adagio Espressivo interludes and the strength of the Prestissimo. The third movement theme and variations receive a finely-judged performance; the variations are superbly contrasted, culminating in the sixth where the multiple trills are beautifully controlled and conjure up a serene atmosphere. The final, almost unaltered, statement of the theme, comes as a moment of comforting repose.

A late-romantic piano piece written in the most advanced tonal language; must be heavy, thick-textured, exhausting to listen to? Not a bit of it; this performance of Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 is none of these things. For a start, Berg, for all his use of intense chording and dense part-writing, builds light into the narrative to varied effect. The sonata is one of the results of three years study with Schoenberg and is a smaller-scale use of the musical language that produced works like Verklärte Nacht. For all Berg’s disparagement of the Russian master, there is also a clear connection to Scriabin’s later sonatas, though without the rhythmic innovations. Influences from earlier include Liszt, whose B Minor Sonata contains similar alternations of passion and lyrical yearning.

Andreas Klein contributes those same virtues of clarity and lack of exaggeration as he does to Beethoven. The complex texture is never heavy and Klein brings light and shade to the sometimes fevered chromaticism. In his Carnegie Hall recital CD on Sony, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is rather more conventionally late-romantic, particularly in the big climaxes. If you like greater fervency and stronger dynamic contrasts in this work, that may be the version for you. Klein’s performance is more restrained, almost classical while still retaining the twilight, fin-de-siècle feeling of the work.

If the combination of works appeals, this is a heartily recommendable CD, especially if its Classical approach is as much to your taste as it was to mine.

Roger Blackburn

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