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
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
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
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.