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20th Century Piano Sonatas
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata Op.1 (1908) [10:46]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1936) [12:17]
(Maessig schnell [3:01]; Lebhaft [2:04]; Sehr langsam – Rondo: Bewegt [7:11])
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Three Piano Pieces (1894) [10:21]
(Andantino [3:27]; Andantino grazioso [3:50]; Presto [2:58])
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963)
Piano Sonata ’27 April 1945’ [31:16 including alternative finales]
(Bewegt [4:45]; Scherzo: Presto assai [3:50]; Marcia Funebra: Lento [10:26]; Allegro risoluto (1st version) [6:28]; Allegro furioso (2nd version) [5:41])
Allison Brewster Franzetti (Blüthner concert grand piano)
rec. California, USA 15-16 November 2004; Engineer Leslie Ann Jones
NAXOS 8.570401 [64:55]


Playing of this perfection at under € 10 is an absolute gift. The sheer warmth with which Allison Brewster Franzetti suffuses this unusual combination of works makes this my Recording of the Month.

These tough German/Austrian works require maturity above mere technical virtuosity and Ms Franzetti has the lot. She even supplies notes of a profoundly informative nature describing Austria-Germany from the time of the Schoenberg pre-atonal period, through the Weimar Republic through to the Nazi slaughter reflected in the Hartmann. Naxos did well to get hold of a brilliant pianist with the mind of a musicologist matched with a knowledge of history; some soloists are a bit dim. What we have here is sheer authority with consequent pleasure.

Readers of my MWI reviews know that I usually have a little whinge and the only one here is that the Berg sonata Op.1 seems to have been recorded more distantly than the other works. To purist ears there’s a moderately annoying reverb and a slight waste of the Blüthner sound in passages of attack.

Berg is sometimes seen as the least strict of the so-called ‘2nd Viennese School’. Critics of many years seemed to expect growling and dissonance as some sort of badge of twelve tone distinction. Berg certainly produced that in the ‘Three Pieces for Orchestra’ Op.6 (1914-15) and in some passages from ‘Wozzeck’ (1921) but Berg’s agenda was always and only musical.

The Op. 1 sonata in this version looks back to an extent and the sleeve-notes by M and V Ledin mention this. Ms Franzetti offers suggestions of what Berg would perfect in the ‘Lyric Suite’ of 1926. It really is amazing.

The Schoenberg Three Piano Pieces (1894) do not count as a sonata in actual form. Such an early work hints very heavily at how the composer’s private music was urgently moving away from the late-Romantic style. There is a difference between what places food on the table and what a genius really intends; we get it here in a forensic way and played with considerable grace.

I disagree with the notes by the Ledins who mention Wagner, Dvořák and Brahms when it is clear to me that Schoenberg’s anchor was Beethoven. I invite comments from MWI readers. There is a sense here in which Schoenberg was ‘clearing the decks’ to get ready for his major achievements.

Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (1936) is the gem of this remarkable issue. Its muscular but very subtle content is deployed with great economy across in three movements with an almost Mozartian touch but mixed with a certain toughness.

British perception of Paul Hindemith is possibly coloured by Sir William Walton’s pieces which suited the ‘tough guy’ of English music from the 1930s onwards but Hindemith’s block chords are far from the whole story. Most MWI readers will know that Hindemith was a viola player who started his career as and ensemble musician with composing as his private work.

What is perhaps less well known is that Hindemith wrote music of immense tenderness for voices and this is a pity because his ‘Die Serenaden’ is blissful and the cantata ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ based on Whitman is a major work by any standard.

Hartmann’s Piano sonata ’27 April 1945’ has a Whitman link too according to the notes which alas omit the date of the first performance. My latter ‘complaint’ might be irrelevant because Hartmann wrote two alternative finales and both are presented in this stunning recording. It therefore makes sense to listen to the whole work with separate last movements to be fair to Hartmann’s sonata form and intentions in having alternatives.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann has often been seen as being less interesting than Blacher, Dessau  and Henze  as a post-war foolish exercise in classifying but Hartmann was of an earlier time and a traditionalist. I should explain; during World War 2 Hartmann composed in secret and his extensive oeuvre only came to world attention after the war, thus he was compared with younger composers who were experimenting. Hartmann’s traditionalism is, I suggest, a mark of integrity of his time but also under the jackboot.

The title of the sonata derives from a quotation left by Dachau prisoners in late April 1945 when the Nazis were in retreat but still exterminated victims in some habitual, tired and insane lack of humanity. It was just killing in a haze and Hartmann’s sonata reflects this.

Thus the intensity of the sonata might be too much for some but listening to a few Hartmann symphonies either side of Nazi atrocities will show his musical language – too little appreciated.

Franzetti is ideal in her considered and restrained presentation of a great work to stand alongside the more famous company. A brilliant musician with academic knowledge as well as sensitivity is rare.

Stephen Hall


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