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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 3
Sonata in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1 (1795) [20:45]
Sonata in A major, Op. 2 No. 2 (1795) [24:10]
Sonata in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 (1795) [28:44]
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 81a ‘Les Adieux’ (1809) [16:18]
Sonata in E minor, Op. 90 (1814) [12:03]
Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’ (1819) [43:27]
Sonata in major, Op. 109 (1820) [18:22]
Sonata in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821) [17:59]
Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1822) [27:51]
François-Frédéric Guy (piano)
rec. Arsenal Concert Hall, Metz, 6, 14-15 November 2011, 24-25 April 2012
ZIG-ZAG TERRITOIRES ZZT318 [3 CDs: 73:39 + 71:59 + 64:37]

The Beethoven piano sonatas present one of the great achievements in the literature of piano music. In so many ways they reflect the master at the height of his powers.

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in the early 1790s, he soon made a strong impression with the musical public, but as pianist rather than composer. Contemporary evidence suggested that his improvisations at the keyboard abounded in brilliant ideas and featured sudden changes of mood. However, in spite of his individuality, Beethoven did not seek to break with the tradition of the Viennese classical style, the tradition which had drawn him to the city. Rather his intention was to modify the formal procedures of the time, in order to suit his own expressive requirements. This development can clearly be traced in the celebrated series of sonatas which span the years from before turn of the century to the 1820s. This music remains at the very heart of western musical consciousness to this day.
The French pianist François-Frédéric Guy has recorded the sonatas in three volumes, so this collection represents the conclusion of the project (see review of Volume 2). It is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, as it needs to be, and with excellent modern sound it is unlikely to disappoint the listener other than in terms of detail. The way in which the sets have been issued may have had something to do with the series of recitals at Metz during the course of which the recordings were made. There can be no other reason for the order of their presentation. This third volume, for example, couples the three earliest sonatas with the three latest, and a group of three others composed over a ten-year period are gathered together on disc two.
To begin at the beginning: the performances of the three sonatas of Op. 2 are nicely shaped but they lack the crispness and rhythmic precision of, for example, Louis Lortie (Chandos CHAN9212). The dynamic shadings allow for greater contrast than these interpretations bring, though there is a beautifully atmospheric treatment of the slow movements. Nor is there any lack of virtuosity when it is called for, as in virtuoso passage-work of Op. 2 No. 3.
The second of the three discs presents sonatas composed a decade apart. The performances of the two ‘middle period’ works, Les Adieux and Op. 90, are very successful in projecting the natures of these strongly characterised shorter pieces. The contrasting movements of Op. 90 - there are only two movements - are beautifully balanced; seldom can the flowing lyricism of the opening theme have been articulated with such taste and refinement.
However, it is the epic Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, that forms the highlight of this collection. The benchmark performance of this piece has always to my mind been the classic 1975 Festival Hall recital by Sviatoslav Richter (ICA Classics Legacy ICAC5084) and François-Frédéric Guy is in that league, with the advantage moreover of the best modern sound. It is actually his third recording - the others being on Harmonia Mundi from 1997 and Naïve from 2005 - which confirms his special affinity with this piece. The combined strengths of attention to detail and a longer-term vision are found here in an ideal fusion, in one of the finest performances one could wish to hear. If this disc - disc two of the set - were to be issued separately, it would be a top recommendation.
Composed during the early 1820s, Beethoven’s last three sonatas make an extraordinary and visionary trilogy, each with its own particular personality. By this time the composer could no longer perform in public, so the conventions of the classical style have been left behind to a greater extent than in previous compositions. Take the formal structure of Op. 109, for instance, with two short movement followed by an extended sequence of variations. These culminate in the return of the theme, with a sublime simplicity that reminds us of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. In his performance Guy communicates this lyricism, though here and in the more powerful Op. 110 Sonata, there is a wider range of drama than he projects.
Likewise the final sonata, Op. 111, could be more powerful than this. Great pianists such as Alfred Brendel (Philips E4467012) and Gerhard Oppitz (Hänssler CD 98.209) combine drama and poetry with the utmost imagination, and though Guy delivers a finely considered performance he opts for a less intense vision.

The new Zig-Zag release comes in a nicely shaped box which is marred by an absurd cover design. The booklet notes by Beate Angelika Kraus are excellent. 

Terry Barfoot 

Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano sonatas