The numbers which these
sonatas carry may easily mislead. These five sonatas don’t
constitute a straightforward chronological sequence. The op.
(nos. 19 and 20) probably written in 1796, some five
years before nos. 16-18 (published as op. 31) and before
their companions on this disc, which belong to the years
between 1803 and 1807. It appears to have been Beethoven’s
brother Caspar who sent the op. 49 sonatas to the
publisher – without
the approval of the composer. They are relatively undemanding
technically – Sir Donald Tovey described
them as “two beautiful sonatinas within the range
of small hands and young players”.
Both are in two movements only. The opening andante of no.
19 is in very straightforward sonata form. Its somewhat unexpected
conclusion in G major is particularly attractive and prepares
the listener for the ensuing allegro in this key. No. 20’s
opening allegro is characterised by its lively triplets
and is followed by a minuet. Both movements are charming
graceful, not least the minuet, the melody of which Beethoven
reused in the Septet, op. 20 of 1800.
There is a considerable distance – in
style, scale, ambition and achievement – between these two ‘sonatinas’ and no. 21 – the ‘Waldstein’.
As Ian Milnes’ booklet notes remind
us, in 1803 Beethoven obtained a new Erard piano
with an extended higher register, shortly before the composition
of this sonata dedicated to Count Waldstein.
This is keyboard music which has a new power and energy
and might almost be said to be ‘about’ energy and power, communicating
as it does Beethoven’s triumphant pleasure and fully-justified
confidence in his own creativity. McLachlan’s playing
fully articulates the way in which the sound-world of this
sonata is so very different - for all that it audibly grows
from the same tradition. The remarkable second movement,
marked introduzione, – much
of it based on transformations of the opening three notes – is
perhaps the first place in the Beethoven piano sonatas where
one feels the need for an adjective such as ‘philosophical’ as
part of an attempt - inevitably unsuccessful - to put into
words what is going on. It leads into the closing rondo,
full of rhythmic energy and joy and rounded off by a
dazzling coda. McLachlan’s performance
is more convincing in the rondo than in the introduzione,
where forward momentum sometime seems to slacken just a bit
Sonata No. 22 being relatively
brief and being framed, as it were, by the Waldstein and
the Appassionata, seems
to attract relatively little attention. Yet it is a work
of considerable interest, well described by Tovey as “what
can be comprised in ten minutes of [Beethoven’s] most Socratic
humour ... The first movement seems quite happy with a main
theme that cannot get through 4 bars without a full close,
and prefers to sit down after 2. The finale, on the other
hand, cannot stop at all, though its initial range of sentence
is only 2 bars, with a hiccup at the third”! The toccata-like
second movement is particularly fine, with a remarkable
syncopated coda. McLachlan brings out very
well the formal shape of the piece, playing with customary
clarity and lack of mannerism.
With the Appassionata we
reach one of the high watermarks of the whole keyboard
tradition, an innovative work which must have been profoundly
to its early hearers and which retains its power to challenge
and disturb. Its music resonates in areas of tragedy which
Beethoven’s piano music - or anybody else’s - had not previously
entered. The twin storms of opening and allegro assai and
closing allegro ma non troppo frame
a central adagio in which a fleeting peacefulness is achieved. McLachlan is
up to all the technical demands and there is considerable
power in his representation of the tormented semiquavers
of the finale. Even so, in range and depth of emotional content,
there are even finer performances to be heard on CD.
I haven’t heard volume 1 of McLachlan’s traversal of the sonatas. The present volume
is a thoroughly admirable set of performances, played with
power and clarity of purpose and a refreshing freedom from
the kind of wilfulness which mars some performances by bigger pianistic names.
This would be a fine set through which to get to know this
wonderful music and no admirer of Beethoven is likely to
regret finding room for it on his or her shelves. But,
it has to be said, in a field so competitive, it isn’t
a CD one could put quite at the top of the list.