Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas, Op.31 (1802)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G, Op. 31/1 [22:59]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in d minor, Op. 31/2 Tempest [23:34]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, Op. 31/3 La Chasse [22:28]
Thomas Sauer (piano)
rec. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 22-24 June 2009. DDD.
MSR CLASSICS MS1284 [69:05]
This is the first solo recording by Thomas Sauer that I have come across: he has previously played second fiddle (not quite literally) to violinists and cellists, though I see that he has also recorded for MSR five Haydn Piano Sonatas (MS1084).
The three Op.31 Sonatas have been pretty extensively performed and recorded, so Sauer is up against formidable competition here, from Schnabel to the present day and in all price ranges. There are 58 recordings of No.17, The Tempest in the Naxos Music Library alone. If I were to point to just one set which has received nigh-universal praise, it would be that of Paul Lewis, whose versions of these three sonatas constitute Volume 1 of his cycle for Harmonia Mundi (HMC90 1902: Recording of the Month - see review).
Because of its nickname, No.17 is the best known of these sonatas, but all three are well deserving of attention, even No.18 which, with its partial use of the Alberti bass and its nickname ‘The Hunt’, at first hearing might appear to be a return to the style of Mozart, but offers much more than that. A rank amateur like myself might play it like Mozart, but none of the versions which I’m considering here, including Thomas Sauer’s, falls into that trap.
The music dates from the period of Beethoven’s greatest mental instability, as recorded in the Heiligenstadt Testament and performers have to negotiate between Scylla and Charybdis, to reflect the turmoil without allowing it to dominate their accounts, since Beethoven tempers his deepest emotions with music of great tenderness.
Thomas Sauer certainly achieves that and he offers a well-played set of performances which would surely have earned justified applause in concert. If I want that sort of Beethoven, however, I can always turn to Jenö Jandó on Naxos - always reliable, sometimes just a little special, and on offer at super-budget price. (Nos. 12, 16 and 18 on 8.550166; 17, 21 and 26 on 8.550054)
Turn to Alfred Brendel’s 1992 recording of the same coupling (Philips 438 1342 - no longer available separately on CD: download in mp3 from passionato.com) and you find a pianist who is prepared to be a little controversial, chopping up the legato lines of the opening movement of No.16, for example, but never quirky. I don’t wish to suggest that Sauer’s performances are bland or that Brendel will reach out and bite you - the differences are much more subtle than that - but Brendel’s Beethoven has attitude. He gives the first two movements of No.16 a little more space than Sauer - quite noticeably so in the Adagio grazioso second movement - and takes the final Rondo a shade faster, though he’s not afraid to experiment with rubato in this movement and elsewhere in these sonatas.
In No.17, ‘The Tempest’, Brendel is just a shade slower in every movement: again, I think, to the benefit of the music, especially in the Adagio - just 20 seconds longer, but that little makes all the difference. In the Allegretto finale Brendel and Sauer adopt similar tempi, with Brendel just a shade slower. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d say that Sauer offers a very acceptable performance, beautifully played and phrased, but Brendel offers an interpretation, though not an intrusive one. Sauer in this movement seems to be in für Elise mode for much of the time, whereas Brendel’s slightly slower and slightly more flexible tempo gives him room to dig a little deeper.
Another pianist whose Beethoven I admire - cut my musical teeth on, in fact, from his early 1930s Beethoven Society 78rpm albums - Artur Schnabel, plays the finale of No.17 in 5:40 - a whole minute slower than Sauer or Brendel. (Naxos Historical 8.110760, Sonatas 17, 18 and 21). There’s a downside - some of the phrasing is less than ideal, galumphing even - but the effect is exhilarating and the Naxos transfer makes the recording sound years younger than those old 78 albums.
In No.18 Brendel and Sauer adopt much the same tempo for the first three movements but Brendel takes the Presto con fuoco finale a little more slowly without losing the energy of the music. For the real fuoco, however, Schnabel is your man - his time of 4:00 for this movement may have been dictated by the restrictions of 78 rpm sides and it’s a bit of a scramble at times, but he brings it off. Sauer takes just a little longer at 4:34: there’s liveliness and exuberance in his performance and his phrasing is much cleaner than Schnabel’s, but I miss the fire. Everything is in place, yet the last degree of interpretation seems to be missing. Though Brendel takes 5:17, he sounds almost as fiery as Schnabel without scrambling the phrasing.
There’s one other contender to consider for two of these sonatas: John O’Conor in Nos. 15 (‘Pastoral’), 16 and 18 (Telarc CD-80185), a mid-price reissue which I liked - see review - more than Christopher Headington had in reviewing the complete set - see review. To obtain O’Conor’s complete Op.31, you need to add CD-80160, containing the Waldstein, Tempest and Les Adieux. I prefer Brendel, but O’Conor certainly gives Beethoven just a little more personality than Sauer. Only in the finale of No.18 do I now think, having listened again to Schnabel, that there’s not quite enough fuoco in O’Conor’s playing.
The MSR recording is good - a shade softer and less percussive than the passionato.com mp3 version of the Brendel, though the latter is much more than acceptable and comes at just £7.99. It’s on promotion as I write as part of a 3 Universal CDs for £18 offer.
This new recording will certainly have its appeal. I’m aware that I’m being unfair in judging Sauer by the very highest standards, without which I’m sure that I would have enjoyed his recording much more on its own terms, but Brendel offers more rounded playing of the same repertoire. If you don’t like the idea of downloading his recording of Op.31, you could do much worse than invest in his complete set, a MusicWeb International Bargain of the Month (478 1821, 10 CDs for around £30 - see review). Those who like to live dangerously should go for Schnabel, wonderfully refurbished on Naxos Historical, while those seeking a super-budget recording will be well served by Jenö Jandó, also on Naxos. Louis Lortie’s coupling of these sonatas was well liked in some quarters, but was judged superfluous by Colin Clarke (Chandos CHAN9842 - see review).
Uncertain if I’d been too kind or too hard on this recording, I asked a former colleague who is a piano teacher for a second opinion.
And another view from Geoffrey Molyneux ...
Thomas Sauer’s performance of the three Op. 31 piano sonatas begins promisingly enough with a spirited account of the G major Sonata. He displays formidable finger-work and great clarity of texture with occasional subtle rubato, always appropriate to music of this period. Sauer observes Beethoven’s dynamic and expressive markings with meticulous detail. But as Sauer points out in his programme notes, the first movement is characterised by humorous syncopation and these are not always clearly delineated in his performance. The second movement is rather dry without use of the pedal, and this gives great clarity to the left hand staccato quavers at the start. But I feel that these are just too loud and intrusive, more so further on in the movement when these quavers become semiquavers when the grazioso requested by Beethoven is all but destroyed. However Sauer produces some wonderful leggiero demisemiquavers, much to be admired. The Rondo third movement is a touch slow and lumbering, with too much weight on each of the two main beats in the bar. More overall sweep to the phrasing is needed here. Listen to Bernard Roberts (Complete Piano Sonatas, Nimbus NI1774 - order direct from MusicWeb-international for £28.00 post free) for more drama, drive, tonal variety and characterful playing.
In Op. 31 No.2 ‘Tempest’, Sauer sets convincing tempi in the first movement but in the allegro the intensity is sometimes lost. For real drama in this movement listen to Daniel Barenboim (Complete Piano Sonatas, EMI Classics 5729122), John Lill (Complete Piano Sonatas, Resonance CDRSB101) or Bernard Roberts. The second movement is beautifully played by Sauer with well-judged crescendi and diminuendi, but somehow the expression seems to be imposed from without, as if the music must be played this way because Beethoven marked it so. Cristina Ortiz (Sonatas 8, 14 and 17, Membran SACD 222804) is more flowing here than Sauer, more befitting an Adagio of this period. The finale is marked Allegretto, which is not very helpful to a performer! Indeed players in this movement adopt a wide variety of speeds. Sauer gives a slightly faster than average tempo here, but not as quick as Cristina Ortiz who gives a very convincing performance, more of an allegro really. But on the whole I prefer the more measured tread generally adopted by most pianists. Barenboim is wonderful in this movement and his considerable rubato is always convincing.
Op. 31 No.3 is the only one of the set with four movements. In the first, Sauer gives a refined, sensitive though lightweight performance. Although this music is essentially lyrical, do not Beethoven’s sudden accents and forte passages require more bite and drama? I feel that more excitement is needed in the second movement also. The Menuetto third movement feels a little hurried rather than the leisurely gracefulness requested by Beethoven. A little more spaciousness would make a better foil to the movements surrounding it. Movement 4 is certainly played Presto, but what happened to the con fuoco marked by Beethoven? Listen to Brendel, Roberts or Barenboim and you will hear the difference.
The recording is very good but a little too resonant for my liking. For example, in the first movement of Op. 31 No.3 Beethoven’s rests are extremely important, and I would rather hear them than the unwanted added reverberation which on occasion clouds the rests.
Thomas Sauer gives excellent, first class performances of these sonatas with great attention to detail as in the score, together with much beautiful playing. However the performances seem
altogether too tame. We need more excitement and drama, forward thrust and real accents where marked to fulfil the potential of Beethoven’s masterly works. The performers already mentioned give more characterful accounts of these works so I would not purchase this recording when there are already really great performances available. My own choice would be Daniel Barenboim’s recordings (EMI Classics 3689939) on DVD from 1995 recorded during live performances of the complete sonata cycle.
Everything is in place but other players bring something extra to these sonatas.