Bethoven’s last three piano sonatas are a gift from Heaven. Each one of them is a diamond; but together they form a crown that has no parallel in all music. The music goes from gentlest breezes to wildest storms, from joy to despair, from philosophy to dance. This is the wisdom of the heart. And sometimes, when I listen to these sonatas, I have a feeling that I understand better how this entire world is turning around.
It is curious that the new recording by Elisabeth Leonskaja is one of the most masculine performances of these sonatas that I have heard. The playing is serious, no-nonsense, and the music has weight. Don’t get me wrong: there is no rough banging, or unnatural over-dramatizing. The fast middle movements of Opp.109 and 110, and the tempestuous first part of Op.111 are marvelous, executed with great concentration and white-hot intensity. But in all the parts of all the three sonatas my feelings about the performance are best expressed by one word: heavy. Yes, I can also call it full-voiced, well articulated, deep, and it all will be very true. Still - heavy. The music may have come from Heaven, but it cannot raise us there.
There is a lot to marvel at in Leonskaja’s interpretation. From first note to last, she sculpts the sound, forming and shaping it, never losing the control. Listen, for example, to how she prepares the first climax of Op.109: everything is measured, but at the same time as natural as the sunrise.
Leonskaja’s Op.109 starts as a song without words. A lot of thought is felt behind every sound. The lengths of notes and pauses seem to be handpicked with special care. The black tornadoes of the Prestissimo are pictured with contrast and passion. The image is very clear: you won’t find any of the “dirt” that mars this movement in some other performances, where the pianist gets overwhelmed by the notes! The Variations flow freely and leisurely. Leonskaja takes time to show us their many faces, as if allowing us to marvel at the play of light in the facets of a crystal. All voices are distinctly clear, and the last variation obtains an almost organ-like density and sonority.
Out of the three sisters, Op.110 is the one that loves to sing. Leonskaja opens its first movement with a real cantabile, and the upper voice rings its little bells beautifully. However, midway through the movement the pianist reduces the fire on the stove: the momentum is lost, the picture flattens. Interest is rekindled in the Allegro molto, where Leonskaja emphasizes all the eccentricities and the sharp corners. The music becomes quite unhinged, and its wild angularity acquires a sinister glow. The last movement is a sequence of heterogeneous episodes, reticent Adagios and powerful Fugues. The tension rises and leads to a jubilant bell-ringing climax. The slow episodes are somber, almost ascetic. Beethoven at this point did not need heavy machinery to make the music expressive, and this is an example of a-lot-in-a-little. Leonskaja keeps things simple, does not press hard, and her rubato is very flexible and alive. She is also splendid in the fugal episodes, projecting a sense of direction, structure, and goal.
The first movement of Op.111 is for me the high point of this disc. Leonskaja plays as if possessed by Richter’s spirit. Torrents of dark energy clash and swirl. This movement is the quintessence of all the Appassionatas Beethoven created before, and Leonskaja, with her fingers of steel, strikes sparks out of the keyboard! I was surprised by her interpretation of the second part, the great set of variations. The colors are bright, the fires high, there is pressure and drive, and the piano sings full-voice where usually we hear a hushed awe. I miss that luminous dream, that light-in-the-afterlife feeling. Where Solomon, with all his finger slips, gave me Mahlerian catharsis, there Leonskaja just told me about it.
So, on the whole, my feelings are mixed. The sound engineering by Werner Dabringhaus is great, as usual, even though I used a regular player and not an SACD machine. The 1901 Steinway has a full, solid voice, and is very responsive to graduations of touch. There is not a single trace of the old-piano “hollowness”, although there are a couple of shrill, unpleasantly ringing notes in the middle episode of Op.110. II.
If you love these sonatas and cannot get enough of them, then this disc will show a very valuable view, well worth having, in addition to more traditional interpretations. But if you are looking for your first and only set of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, I would advise you to seek elsewhere: some decisions that were made here are questionable.