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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 3 in C, Op. 3 No. 2 (1794/5) [27:45]; No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, 'Pathétique' (1798) [21:36]; No. 15 in D, Op. 28, 'Pastoral' (1801) [24:55]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy, 19-22 December 2006. DDD
HYPERION CDA67605 [74:18]


Angela Hewitt is almost without peer in her beloved Bach. Heard live it is quite an experience. Her Rameau runs the gamut of delights although I found her recent disc of keyboard music too much of a good thing to handle in one go! Beethoven is another matter, though, and here is Hewitt's second disc of Beethoven for Hyperion. The first is reviewed on this site by Brian Burtt. In her own very lucid booklet notes Hewitt explains that on the disc the three sonatas here are presented in reverse chronological order, 'simply because that way they make a more satisfying recital for the listener'.

Given her early music proclivities, it is no surprise that in her notes she invokes the parallel of Rameau for the drone bass that permeates the texture of the Pastoral’s first movement - referring to the former's Musette en rondeau. Indeed,  immersion in earlyish music results in various positives to her Beethoven that are present in few others. Textures are always crystal clear and this is aided by her choice of a Fazioli instrument. Her pedalling is light and tasteful. There are moments of magic: the right-hand embellishment in the second movement, around the four-minute mark. Moments of play are there too as in the descending octaves and their staccato retorts of the third movement. Alas we hear little sense of greatness. Gilels' 1982 recording, rather more severe at times than Hewitt but hewn of the finest oak, is probably my library choice here. I grew up with Ashkenazy's early reading on Decca, and this remains recommendable. The piece suits this pianist well; far better than the Diabelli Variations, if his most recent release is anything to go by!

Hewitt traces the origins of Op. 13's famous nickname fascinatingly, making reference to an issue of the Musical Times of 1928 that compared the themes of the sonata with Cherubini's Medée. Her Grave introduction is bold and mysterious by turns. The Allegro con brio, whilst imbued with plenty of life, holds significantly less fire than most. Hewitt returns to the beginning at the repeat, rather than to the Allegro, a dramatic stroke at odds with the trajectory of her reading. The lyrical passages that are usually contrastive in nature here seem to try to suck the life out of the more rhythmically active ones. The famous Adagio cantabile is, perhaps predictably, a dream. Hewitt's touch is jewel-like, as it is in the finale, where lines as well as triplets chase each other in cat-and-mouse fashion.

The great early C major Sonata concludes the recital. As any pianist will tell you, it is 'fiddly', the ornaments at speed set to trap the unwary. Hewitt, given her background in the supremely ornamented music of Rameau, has no problems. This, though, was one of Richter's favoured Sonatas - there are at a very minimum seven different performances from this giant available in various incarnations - so competition is fierce even from that one angle. Hewitt sees everything in proportion and acts, arguably, as a complement to Richter. Yet she is not that exciting in the first movement. The glittery display of semiquavers and broken double octaves seems a little mute. Her Adagio is a different matter, though. Here at least she seems close to the music's core. The piano almost becomes an organ at times - those huge left-hand octaves! - so that the cheeky and perilous Scherzo comes as welcome relief. The imitative fragments chuckle at one another, as do the ascending sixths of the finale's theme. At the end, one does not quite get the impression of the young Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles; rather, one feels slightly underwhelmed.

A mixed disc, then. Hewitt's many felicitous touches do not, in the final analysis, outweigh the feeling that she does not project the greatness of these seminal works. 

Colin Clarke




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