Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas

CD 1
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5) [20:52]
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5) [24:27]
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5) [25:41]
Piano Sonata in D major op.6 for piano, four hands (1797) [5:54]*
CD 2
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7) [17:52]
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7) [14:49]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8) [23:30]
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8) [18:28]
CD 3
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798) [13:27]
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799) [15:27]
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800) [26:59]
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01) [20:11]
CD 4
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01) [17:20]
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801) [17:09]
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801) [25:40]
CD 5
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802) [22:56]
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" (1802) [25:22]
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802) [22:28]
CD 6
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7) [29:58]
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 (1797) [7:32]
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 (1796) [8:54]
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04) [24:26]
CD 7
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804) [11:21]
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05) [26:13]
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809) [10:13]
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809) [9:47]
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10) [18:12]
CD 8
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814) [13:20]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816) [20:24]
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" (1817-18) [43:22]
CD 9
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820) [18:39]
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22) [20:00]
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22) [28:38]
Louis Lortie (piano), with Hélène Mercier (piano)*
rec. Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk: 10-11 September 1991 (Nos.5-7), September 1991 (Nos. 8, 21, 26), 20-21 October, 3 November 1992 (Nos. 1-3), 3-4 November 1992 (Nos. 4, 9, 10, Op.6), 10-11 December 1994 (Nos. 28, 29); Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk: 30 November-3 December 1998 (Nos. 11-20), 14-15 June 2010 (Nos.30-32); Britten Studio, Hoffmann Building, Snape Maltings, Suffolk: 7 December 2009 (Nos. 22-25, 27).
CHANDOS CHAN 10616(9) [9 CDs: 640:14]

I started out listening to this set with frustrations and misgivings. First impressions are important, but not always reliable, and in this case my immediate response to Louis Lortie’s playing was to hear it as a kind of glossy “Beethoven-lite’. This turned out to be unfair in the longer run, but this does remain the kind of playing which can air the ‘Hammerklavier’ without too many scented ladies of a delicate disposition fleeing the room in distress. What Beethoven loses in gruff power he does gain in clarity with these later extremes of piano composition with this box, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

While undercutting it by a small price margin, for me this set comes into direct competition with the Decca Beethoven’s sonatas played by Alfred Brendel. In terms of programming Lortie brings the Piano Sonata in D major op.6 for piano, four hands where with Brendel you have the Andante favori in F major WoO 57 as an extra, but neither of these pieces is decisive in making a choice. I don’t plan on going through every sonata with comparisons, but there are some interesting aspects to both recordings which make them as much complementary partners as competitors. Disc 1 for instance, will often share the first three sonatas and serves as a decent enough point of orientation. Lortie’s lightness of touch works well in these earlier sonatas, and where Brendel is more direct and wider in his extremes there is an argument for playing these more Haydnesque sonatas with greater restraint. Both pianists obtain plenty of drama and poetry from the Op.2 set, and Lortie gets more out of the opening Allegro in the Sonata No.1, playing the full da capo recapitulation. His final Prestissimo is far more so – faster that is than Brendel, exciting stuff indeed. Honours about equal so far, and CD 1 ends with that Op.6 piano duet sonata. This is fairly light in character, though rich in its four-handed sonorities and interesting in introducing that famous Fifth Symphony motif in an early form, and certainly filled with that sense of development which would become Beethoven’s stock in trade.

In general, all of Louis Lortie’s performances are beautifully turned, with sensitive phrasing and a fine sense of dynamic contrast. Each sonata comes across with a fine sense of poise, and the Chandos recordings are all excellent. My main problem with this set is that, in the end, everything begins to sound the same. Taking Brendel as a comparison, the sense of character and turbulence is so much more heightened, the feel of connection with other composers and the resonance with one’s own emotions is that much more direct. Taking a few examples almost at random, the Sonata No.13 Op.27 No.1 has a second movement, Allegro molto e vivace, with which Brendel grabs you from the throat right from the start, the opening contrary motion arpeggios undercut by those stabbing answering motifs, the gallop further on a gripping Schubertian narrative of secretive drama. Lortie is leisurely and legato, the motion of the opening movements undercut more by a desire to flex the rhythm and damage the sense of forward momentum. This is only a short section, but with the feel of life-and-death intensity pretty much absent, the beauty and nobility of the subsequent Adagio con espressione is less of a revelation. Here again, Brendel doesn’t let go, carrying us along with a firmness which removes any thoughts of woolly sentimentality. Lortie’s is more a boudoir chorale, with the absence of any kind of feeling of threat or tension. This piece comes on CD 4, and is followed by that famous ‘Moonlight’ sonata, op.27 No.2, as it is in Brendel’s set. Lortie tends to be slower than Brendel in general, and where Brendel is clearly intent on bringing out the song-like character of the melody, Lortie conjures the more pianistic sostenuto in which the notes of the accompaniment take on an equal melodic status to the actual tune. There are those who may prefer this and the effect is very nice, but Brendel is for me more alive and probably closer to what Beethoven had in mind, even taking the strange pedal instructions into consideration. Once again, with the contrast in character between question-and-answer of Beethoven’s theme in the second movement Allegretto Brendel has far more to say. Lortie’s touch is wonderful, but the content is ironed flatter and as a result is just that much less interesting. Lortie’s main strength is illustrated in the final Presto agitato of this sonata, where the urgency and speed of the notes is given a striking evenness and clarity, something in which Brendel can be a touch more impressionistic at times. Lortie can get ahead of himself as well however, and the sense of the music speeding up and having to be reined in is on occasion a bit too strong for comfort.

This then, in a nutshell, is where I stand with this set. I very much appreciate the beauty and skill of Louis Lortie’s playing, and I am willing to go a long way with him in the direction which he takes his Beethoven sonatas. There are moments on which I am sold entirely, and if it wasn’t for the fact that Alfred Brendel’s set is competing on almost exactly the same turf then I would give it more of a recommendation. As it is, if I were in the record shop and offering the choice to a client in a hurry, then it would be Brendel as a first choice every time.

Qualitatively in terms of playing, Louis Lortie is second to none, and I am filled with admiration for his sense of cool imperturbability with the complexities of the late sonatas. His playing just doesn’t bring a tear to my eye in the way Brendel’s can. There’s that moment where that simple melody takes effect at the opening of the second movement of the Sonata No.27 Op.90. Here’s where, despite a less well-tuned piano, Brendel can combine utmost tenderness with a feeling of élan, casting a wide sweep of musical texture like a virtuoso carpet of sound while carrying us along with an elusive but pervasive feeling of unnamed urgency. Lortie is very fine taken in isolation and is beautiful here too, but more matter-of-fact, the notes more generalised, less involving – it’s poetry, but you can turn the page without feeling you’ve missed that much. Similar feelings go for other moments, such as that exploratory Adagio in the third movement of the Sonata No.28 Op.101. Brendel puts me into a daydream here every time, leading me by some kind of hypnosis into another world. Lortie doesn’t have quite the same effect, though he does plumb the depths with a kind of almost innocent purity, a limpid ride in a boat under the branches of weeping willows.

What Lortie does do is make ‘difficult’ Beethoven easier to take. Coming back to the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata No.29 Op.106 Brendel brings us the revolutionary, but also the shouty deaf Beethoven with his live performance. Lortie shows us where there are moments of sheer beauty in the piece which we might have missed in other performances, and in this way he removes a great deal of the sheer troublesome nature of the work, showing us its remarkable jewelled facets, at the same time without divesting it of all its drama and excitement. Agreed, Lortie might not have the white-hot intensity of some, but I find his controlled view on this vast piece refreshing and satisfying. Just listen to that wild counterpoint in the final Allegro risoluto and ask yourself if you’ve ever understood it quite as well as before. Yes, it remains challenging and intensely enigmatic at times, but with Lortie a significantly aversive layer is removed, along with that sense that we’re being punished by the composer for being ignorant peasants.

I do have one minor gripe about the presentation of this set, and that is that there are no work or track listings on the sleeves of the discs. These are all given in that reassuringly chunky booklet, but the joys of having to refer to that every time you want to seek out a particular sonata are soon exhausted. I complained about the lack of substantial notes in the Chandos Beethoven String Quartets box with the Borodin Quartet, but at least this has everything listed on the sleeves. All that said however, the Brendel set on Decca also has only unmarked flimsy paper envelopes for its 10 discs, so here at least there is equality between the two options.

I don’t want to be too hard on Louis Lortie’s set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Chandos has done us a fine service by bringing these recordings together into one box, and the final bonus is the collection of new recordings which you will find here and not elsewhere. The equivalent of an entire new double-album is hidden in this collection, with the sonatas Opp. 54, 78, 79, 90, 109, 110 and 111 all previously unreleased. The final disc with the last opus numbers is particularly fine, with impressive, dramatic and moving accounts in particularly good sound. These are in many ways the equal, and at some points even the better of Brendel’s recordings, and I don’t want to give them short shrift. With these I’m left with the feeling that Lortie has somehow risen higher to meet the challenge of these late sonatas, and the feeling of heightened connectedness with Beethoven’s profound musical statements is palpable. Just for an example, the slow third movement of the Sonata No.30 Op.109 is taken just a shade slower than Brendel, finding further layers of inner poetry where Brendel’s playing is more of a song-like narrative, emphasising the variation form more where Lortie’s feels more like the exploration through a chasm of the imagination, filled with fascinating and magically beautiful facets. As ever, I’m left with such a complicated bag of swings and roundabouts that it is perhaps better to leave with what amounts to a very positive conclusion to a fine set. Were this disc of the last three sonatas available separately I would be heaping on the plaudits rather than regarding the complete set as more of a second choice.

And a second choice it is when put against Alfred Brendel’s not entirely perfect but nonetheless magnetically compelling box of the Beethoven Sonatas. I would however recommend Louis Lortie’s recordings to anyone who finds Beethoven’s piano sonatas hard to digest. His ride is easier by a degree or so, if only on the basis that he has a tendency to point out the more elegant side of Beethoven’s piano writing. This does not mean he eschews the dramatic elements in the music, and his dynamic swings can be as extreme as any I’ve heard. What it does mean is that he seems keen to avoid the stereotype of Beethoven as a gruff individualist who is more interested in fertilising his genius with boundary-stretching material. We hear his piano sonatas very much as works which can please as much as they can challenge. Louis Lortie does this with stunning clarity and a refinement of touch which few pianists can equal.

Dominy Clements

Who’s your Beethoven? Elegant and refined perhaps...?