Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
François-Frédéric Guy (piano)
rec. live, 14-15 December 2009, 17 May and 7/8 December 2010, 19/20 April 2011, the Arsenal, Metz, France
ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES ZZT111101 [3 CDs: 70:13 + 77:34 + 68:20]
The death of the CD has been confidently predicted for some time, so the plethora of integral sets of Beethoven piano sonatas currently appearing is all the more surprising. Here is one of them, released, as is becoming the norm, several discs at a time, from French pianist François-Frédéric Guy. It was recorded live in the superb concert hall created out of a nineteenth-century munitions store at Metz. The sound is beautifully rich and immediate, close enough to hear the occasional involuntary sound from the pianist, and in front of a near-silent audience. Curiously, applause is retained only for the final sonata on each of the three discs. The piano used is a Steinway, its bass register particularly rich, sonorous and clearly defined. The presentation is very chic, and some might resist the imposed juxtaposition of the initials LVB and FFG. The booklet, in three languages, features an interesting and wide-ranging essay by Beate Angelika Kraus.
This collection begins with Sonata No. 4, completed in 1797, and ends with the “Moonlight”, No. 14, composed in 1801. The set thus takes in all of the sonatas to be found in the first volume of the Henle Urtext edition, with the exception of the first three sonatas, Op. 2, which were dedicated to Haydn, and the lovely Sonata 15 in D major, often known as the “Pastoral”. Taking them in chronological order of composition, the major challenge of Op. 7 is the sublime slow movement. The music is so slow and filled with silence, so empty of incident, that immense concentration is needed on the part of the performer, particularly live. Guy succeeds splendidly, just as he does in the busy first movement, in the scherzo, and in the graceful, rather anti-climactic finale. This is a very fine performance indeed of a large-scale early sonata relatively rarely heard outside of integral cycles. The slow movement of Op. 10/1 is another fine meditation, and Guy’s concentration is again palpable. The contrast in the first movement between the dramatic first subject and the more relaxed, lyrical second subject is delightfully handled. The set is full of small insights such as this. Listen to the second movement of Sonata No. 6. What is it, first of all? It’s not a slow movement, nor is it a minuet and trio. It’s a sort of cross between the two, a typical example of the kind of formal and structural surprise Beethoven reserves for us even as early as this in the series of thirty-two. Guy’s performance of this movement is a small miracle of subtlety and insight.
Guy’s magisterial poise is ruffled in only a very few places. The first movement of the Seventh Sonata never really settles down, for example. The tempo indication is Presto, but there is a nervousness to the playing - and a not always tidy response to some of the broken right hand quavers - that is rather at odds with the music. The rest of the sonata goes swimmingly, however, from the deeply felt slow movement - where Guy casts his habitual spell - through the silly, entertaining scherzo and the curiously stop-start finale. He is very grave and measured in the first movement of the Pathétique, prolonging the silences to daring lengths. Unlike Ingrid Fliter in her excellent EMI performance, he reverts only to the Allegro at the repeat of the exposition; in other words, without repeating the slow introduction, he does what is marked in the score. The first two movements are very fine, with a particularly inward slow movement which, once again, makes much use of silence. Is this what makes the audience slightly restive? For most of these sonatas you wouldn’t know they were there, but here you can catch the odd rustle and even a distant cough or two. This is not enough to detract from the performance, which ends with a finale in which Guy invents a few discreet expressive devices, thus injecting some interest into this often denigrated movement. Deft, understanding performances follow of the two short, undemanding Op. 14 sonatas, composed at more or less the same time as the Pathétique.
These are live performances and one is struck by the hold the pianist has over his audience. This is achieved, at least in part, by his mastery of the trajectory of each work, and of its narrative qualities. The listener really feels as if each sonata is a shared journey. I felt this in particular in respect of the Op. 22 sonata, again, not one of the most demanding for the listener, and not one of the most inspired, even rather a discursive work, but one in which the pianist is so in control of the direction the music takes that his concentration, and that of the audience, does not flag.
With the Op . 26 sonata, Beethoven entered into a different world, and so will those who listen to these discs. Not one of the four movements of this sonata is in sonata form, and the whole work is clearly of a transitional nature, as Beethoven moved into what we have come to call his “middle period”. Perhaps it is to mark the beginning of this change that Guy gives this work such robust treatment. From the second movement onwards piano markings are frequently ignored, and crescendo is likely to be read as forte or even fortissimo. Pretty much gone is the smooth legato playing that so beautifully characterised much of the earlier, classically inclined works, in favour of a more percussive style. This will have worked well, no doubt, in concert, but for this listener at least, it is quite wearying for repeated listening, particularly in the famous third movement funeral march (“on the death of a hero”) that was played at Beethoven’s own funeral. This style of playing spills over into the Op. 27/1 sonata, though it was only really at a few points in the finale that I really wished Guy would tone down his response to Beethoven’s forte and sforzando markings. Otherwise, this is a deeply perceptive reading of this strange sonata, whose four movements are played without a break and whose headlong finale is interrupted, just before the end, by a reprise of a few bars of the pensive slow movement. In the most famous of all these sonatas, the Moonlight, the finale is again very forced, with piano markings once again frequently ignored. This is a pity, as the earlier movements are very successful, and the famous first movement in particular, to which Guy manages to bring his own personal stamp without, it must be said, making us think we are hearing it for the first time.
There are probably finer performances available of each of these sonatas, but that takes nothing away from the achievement as a whole, which is remarkable. As a cycle, I don’t think these performances have quite the consistency and overall insight of those I have heard by Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi, but they are live, and this produces many individual moments of greater excitement and inspiration. The only real question is, can this particular set of these particular sonatas be recommended on its own terms? The answer, even allowing for the slight proviso that some of the playing in the later sonatas is a bit hard driven for my own taste, is a resounding “yes”.
Very fine performances of eleven Beethoven sonatas recorded in concert at Metz.
Masterwork Index: Sonatas 1-8 ~~ 9-15
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27/2, Moonlight (1801) [15:00]
Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, Op. 14/1 (1799) [13:28]
Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14/2 (1799) [16:25]
Piano Sonata No. 1I in B flat major, Op. 22 (1800) [24:14]
Piano Sonata No. 8 in minor, Op. 13, Pathétique (1799) [20:32]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10/1 (1798) [17:19]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10/2 (1798) [16:02]
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10/3 (1798) [22:23]
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27/1 (1801) [14:49]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 (1800) [19:38]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 (1797) [31:52]