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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.28 in A major, op.101 (1816) [23:01]
Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat major, op.106 "Hammerklavier" (1818) [43:38]
Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, op.109 (1820) [20:23]
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat major, op.110 (1821) [20:43]
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111 (1822) [27:39]
Malcolm Binns (fortepianos)
rec. The Colt Clavier Collection, Bethersden, Kent, November 1978 (op.110); April 1979 (op.106); June 1979 (opp.101, 109, 111). ADD
EXPLORE EXP0001/2 [66:31 + 69:25]

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These recordings first appeared on a Decca L'Oiseau-Lyre LP in 1980, when Malcolm Binns was one of the pioneers of Beethoven performance on period instruments. Others have recorded Beethoven on fortepiano since, but I am not aware of any other fortepiano set of the final five sonatas currently available. Recorded on five different fortepianos of Beethovenís time, these readings are certainly worth hearing if historical Beethoven performance interests you.

Interpretatively, Binns is no pedant. He does not adhere rigidly to metronome markings and does not play the sonatas with quick and crisp tempi and articulation, as has come to be the norm for period performance. He takes the "authentic" approach to Beethoven of playing the music with a sense of fantasy, in the moment. If you think of the young Barenboim's approach to these sonatas in his EMI recordings, and transfer that approach to period keyboards, you will have something of the flavour of Binns' readings.

Binns performs the 28th sonata on an Erard Brothers fortepiano which dates from two years after the sonata's composition. Although the action of this keyboard is Viennese - like that of all of the fortepianos used here - it is closer in design to the English action on which modern pianos are based. That being the case I expected a fuller tone from this keyboard. I found it light in the bass and a little brittle sounding. Binnsí pace in the first movement is deliberate and he separates the notes of the opening theme . I was not impressed by the central movement. It should swagger and charm, like a sailor on shore leave, but here it is awkward and clunky. The final movement is much better, with lovely phrasing, gentleness when called for, firm fingers and enough mystery in the narrative to keep you listening, a few duff notes notwithstanding.

The Hammerklavier fares better. Binns turns to a bigger, tougher instrument George Haschka of c. 1825 - a wise move, given the immensity of this sonata. Beethovenís score does not allow Binns the luxury of using the fortepianoís fifth pedal - the "Turkish" effect pedal, complete with bells drums and cymbals, so the liner-notes say. Binns does, however, make use of the instrumentís bright tone, firm bass and full-throated resonance. The first movement is confident, full of dynamic and colouristic contrast. Binns takes a rhapsodic approach to the third movement and the concluding fourth movement almost seems to run away from him at times - it sounds like he is wrestling with Beethoven himself! This makes for an exciting but bewildering finale. Overall, this Hammerklavier is a little wilful but cogently argued. Again there are finger slips, but it is worth looking past them.

The second CD opens with a lovely performance of sonata no. 30. The first movement and second movements are tracked together. The first has a free, song-like quality, but I missed the sheer energy of Pollini in the second movement. The third, though, is satisfying under Binnsí fingers. He clearly takes Beethovenís direction "Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung" (Songful, with most intimate feeling) very much to heart. Binns plays this sonata on a 1814 John Broadwood, with a lovely rounded tone, but a slightly stiff sounding action. If Binns wrestled with Beethoven in the Hammerklavier, he wrestles with the keyboard at times here, including for a minute or so from about nine minutes into the finale.

Binns turns to an 1819 Broadwood for sonata no.31. The instrument sounds similar to the 1814, though it seems suppler and - to my ears, at least - suffers from tuning problems in the middle and lower registers. Binnsí performance is similar in conception to his rendition of sonata no. 30, but the third movement sounds more ponderous here than reflective. Again, this seems to stem from a need to fight the keyboard a little.

The final sonata receives a better performance. This is gruff and grumpy old Beethoven, with Binnsí firm left hand and lighter right hand almost arguing with each other. The enigmatic second movement is given a monumental treatment, spiced by Beethovenís wry honky-tonk passages. The 1835 Conrad Graf fortepiano produces a tone of darker hue than the brighter sounding Broadwoods that precede it, and is well suited to Binnsí conception.

Interpretatively, then, this Binns set is a qualified success. The performances of sonatas 29, 30 and 32 are good, though it must be conceded that the Hammerklavier is not for everyday listening; the performances of sonatas 28 and 31 are not quite on the same level. The thing I found most interesting about this set, though, is the way it debunks the period performance myth that "it must have sounded just like this in Beethovenís day". All of these instruments - except, of course, this particular Conrad Graf - were available during Beethovenís lifetime. In fact, Beethoven had a 1803 Erard instrument - which he did not like -and a 1816 Broadwood - which he did like - in his own collection. The instruments themselves not only sound different in tone and timbre, but their actions and responsiveness audibly force the pianist to change his touch, his tempi and inevitably his interpretation. We are used to hearing pianists shaping these sonatas according to their conception of Beethovenís music on pliable modern instruments, and it comes as a surprise to hear the instruments themselves dictating a pianistís approach to some degree. Listening to these performances, I am struck by just how many variables contribute to how these sonatas - which Beethoven only ever heard in his head as pure sound, uninhibited by the quirks of individual instruments - are realised in performance. Others may think differently, but for me this set vidicates the modern Steinways, Yamahas, Kawais and Stuarts as the instruments of choice for Beethoven performance.

If you are looking for a set of the last piano sonatas to live with, there are better options out there. Pollini's polished set of the last five is available on Deutsche Grammophon's Originals imprint and is consistently impressive. Brendel's performances on a Philips Duo are equally distinguished - less imposing but more human - and by programming the sonatas out of chronological order, Philips makes room for the delectable 27th sonata. These two sets are my favourites and have been for many years. As a supplement and an historical corrective, though, Binnsí set is instructive, and one to which I will return.

Tim Perry


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