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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata no. 7 in D major, op. 10 no. 3 (1798) [25:22]
Piano Sonata no. 4 in E flat major, op. 7 (1797) [28:36]
Piano Sonata no. 23 in F minor, op. 57 “Appassionata” (1804) [23:25]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiato, Italy, 7-10 September 2005.
HYPERION CDA67518 [77:23] 

Angela Hewitt suddenly seems intent on conquering the world of the piano. She made her name with Bach, methodically recording most if not all of his keyboard works. Then she moved to things French, from ancient (Couperin and a recent disc of Rameau) to 20th century (Messiaen), with Chopin and Chabrier in between. I’ve enjoyed these recordings and wrote a favorable review of the Chabrier disc. A consideration of her strengths made me curious, but also somewhat wary, when I saw that she had recording a disc of Beethoven sonatas, apparently the first of a complete set. 

The Beethoven field is an exceedingly competitive one. András Schiff and Garrick Ohlsson are only two of the eminent pianists currently working their way through the sonatas. Unfortunately, Hewitt’s performances here do not offer enough to warrant high consideration. 

Her playing demonstrates a rather restricted dynamic range. Surprisingly, given the French repertoire she has done well in, it also displays a dull tonal palette. One might say that she is in general far too reserved to convey Beethoven’s vision. In comparison to my favorite recordings of Beethoven’s piano works, those by Claudio Arrau: Philips 462 358-2 is the whole shebang: 14 CDs of the piano sonatas, concertos, and the triple concerto — but it’s worth it, and you should get it. Arrau greater depth of interpretation and technique make these remastered recordings sound much better than the brand-new Hyperion issue. 

I’ll give brief examples from each of the three sonatas. In the largo e mesto of the Sonata no. 7 — Hewitt’s own notes refer to the “despair of this movement — her touch and tone is so light as often to sound almost sunny. Arrau, on the other hand, gives the sense of feeling the depth of each note. In no. 4, listen to the largo, con gran expressione, about three minutes in. Hewitt’s tone is dry, staccato, almost brittle. Arrau achieves much better effect with a fuller sound that conveys drama, rather than just nervous energy. However, Hewiit does keep things moving forward at times that Arrau’s pace can seem to lag. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the Appassionata is the most successful and interesting of the three. Hewitt really digs in when it’s called for, which makes for nice contrast to the other moments when she deploys her lighter touch. The weirdness comes, in the first two movements, in the rhythm. Listen to the arpeggios in the first movement, for instance — things sound out of kilter, like you’re hopping on one foot. In the notes she quotes Tovey, who says that “no piano work of Beethoven has suffered more from that vile thing known as pianistic ‘traditon’” and “urges us to trust Beethoven and play what he writes.” Did he write the rhythms this way? They don’t sound correct, but they do sound interesting. 

Fans of Hewitt’s work, of which I have been one, are likely to be sufficiently curious to snap this up and see for themselves, despite my reservations. Though I have the CD version, it has also been issued in SACD. Surely, though, given that the flood of new Beethoven sonata releases is unlikely soon to dry up, it’s worth waiting. If you are looking for new insights into these timeless, multi-faceted works, I cannot offer an unqualified recommendation for Hewitt’s version, though there is the interestingly quirky Appassionata. 

Brian Burtt 


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