The Beethoven piano sonatas present one of the great achievements in the
of piano music. In so many ways they reflect the master at the height of his
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
sonatas in three volumes, so this collection represents the conclusion of
project (see review of Volume
). It is undoubtedly an impressive achievement, as it needs to be, and
excellent modern sound it is unlikely to disappoint the listener other than
terms of detail. The way in which the sets have been issued may have had
to do with the series of recitals at Metz during the course of which the
were made. There can be no other reason for the order of their presentation.
third volume, for example, couples the three earliest sonatas with the three
and a group of three others composed over a ten-year period are gathered
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
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
. 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
cover design. The booklet notes by Beate Angelika Kraus are excellent.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven piano