Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 (1798) [19:29]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2 (1798) [11:54]
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3 (1798) [24:24]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 (1802) [24:12]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 (1802) [20:47]
Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1 (1795/98) [9:09]
Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2 (1798/98) [8:54]
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 (1804) [13:05]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. Performing Arts Centre, State University of New York, Purchase, N.Y., (dates not given)
BRIDGE 9274A/B [2 CDs 69:16 + 68:21]

This is a particularly well produced issue, with a long, informative and very readable note, in English only, by Malcolm MacDonald. The recording is rich, lifelike and very satisfying. We are not told when it took place, but the two instruments used are specified, and even listeners less attuned to this kind of thing will be able to hear the difference between them. It is the ninth and final volume in American pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s complete Beethoven Piano Sonata series, and hearing it makes me keen to encounter the others.

The first movement of the Sonata No. 5 is essentially the juxtaposition of a harsh rhythmic figure with a tender, cantabile one, and Ohlsson brings out the contrast between the two elements most successfully, never letting us forget how many times the composer marks fortissimo and sforzando into the score. The calm meditation that is the slow movement is beautifully rendered, with particularly clear textures in the rich passages near the end, and sensitively adding a lower octave in places where Beethoven’s piano would not have had one. The finale is perhaps not really a Prestissimo, but at a slightly steadier tempo than some of his rivals Ohlsson brings out the humour more successfully in this movement, where, though the notes are clearly by Beethoven, the spirit is close to that of Haydn.

Humour there is in plenty in the following sonata, and Ohlsson brings it out in masterful style. Textures are exceptionally clear – listen to the comical right hand trills in the bass in the first movement – and Ohlsson is perfectly in tune with a music toying with Romanticism. One notes how punctilious he is in respect of the composer’s markings, as if he has examined and weighed up the effect of every one. In both the first and last movements he respects the repeat marks in respect of the exposition, but not the second part. One can only conjecture as to the reason for this. It really is a little sonata, and perhaps he felt that the repeats risk making it a bigger piece than it really is. Schnabel does the same, but that was another time. I tend to be of a like mind with Tovey, who wrote “…Beethoven never wrote a repeat mark without thought of its effect at the moment when the repetition begins…” though he goes on “…though he may forget the effect of the total length, or may disagree with our opinion on that point.”

Refreshingly clear finger work characterises the opening of the third sonata of the Op. 10 group, and all the virtues of Ohlsson’s playing as indicated above are to be found in this performance too. The sonata is a strange one, with a long, brooding slow movement, a gentle minuet and playful trio followed by a kind of stuttering finale than never seems to get going and yet teeters on the brink of something profound and serious in the final bars.

The Classical sensibility is still very much present in the Sonata No. 17, and Garrick Ohlssohn’s performance of it is a triumph. Once again his careful attention to the composer’s markings is evident, skilfully managing a crescendo followed by piano in the last bar of the slow movement, for example, and bringing out with impeccable poise the unpredictable accents in the troubled, constantly moving finale. The opening of the sonata, a slowly spread arpeggio, is wonderfully pensive here, contrasting beautifully with the nervous music that follows. And when, later in the movement, this arpeggio reappears and is extended by way of a recitative into something at once important and mysterious, this listener was held spellbound. Wisely, the spurious nickname “Tempest” occurs only as a reference in the booklet notes.

The third sonata of the Op. 31 set, in E flat major, is a strange one indeed. Amongst the most consistently cheerful of Beethoven’s sonatas, its layout is nonetheless most unusual. There is no slow movement, but in its place, coming second in the overall scheme, a movement headed “Scherzo”, but which does not follow the usual Scherzo pattern. The third movement is headed “Minuet”, but with a calm, singing quality that makes it feel more like the slow movement the sonata lacks. Listen how Ohlsson’s left hand drives the rhythm in the “hunting” finale, and most of all, the exquisite timing of the very opening of the sonata, before the main tempo is established in the seventeenth bar.

The two Op. 49 sonatas are appropriately placed at the end of the second disc, which is also the final disc in the whole series. Composed earlier than their opus number would suggest, and published apparently thanks to Beethoven’s brother and without the composer’s consent, they appeared as “Easy Sonatas” and may have been intended as teaching works. They contain some delightful passages, but on the whole are small scale, both in musical ambition and technical demands. Ohlssen lavishes on them as much care as he does on the more important works, bringing perhaps rather more weight to the G minor sonata than we are used to.

The latest sonata in this collection is No. 22 from 1804. It is one of the lesser known sonatas, falling as it does between the Waldstein and the Appassionata. Tovey refers to this “subtle and deeply humorous work”, and Guy Sacre, writing in French in his book La Musique de Piano (Laffont, 1998) refers to its “strange originality” and qualifies it as “a caprice of the imagination.” Strange is certainly is. The first of the two movements is marked to be played “In tempo d’un Menuetto”, but it has nothing of the minuet about it, at least once you get past the curiously short-winded first theme. The finale is extraordinary, a constant stream of semiquavers from beginning to end, undisturbed except for the occasional hiccup – or “hiccough”: Tovey again – listen out for it, there really doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate word. At the end of the final page, at a faster tempo, the music just stops. The work reinforces the idea, too frequently forgotten, of Beethoven as one of the funniest of composers, and encourages us to rejoice, bearing in mind the preceding and following sonatas, at the incalculable diversity of the mind of a genius. Garrick Ohlsson’s performance is fully worthy of this remarkable work, and the two discs form a most desirable and satisfying package.

William Hedley

Outstanding performances of eight Beethoven sonatas, beautifully recorded

hoven sonatas, beautifully recorded