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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The 32 Piano Sonatas
Daniel–Ben Pienaar (piano)
rec. 2012-14, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
AVIE AV2320 [10 CDs: 636:19]

Last year I reviewed Daniel–Ben Pienaar’s recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: Books 1 and 2, also issued on Avie. I nominated that impressive release as Recording of the Month, and remarked in eager anticipation: ‘a traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas is in the pipeline; the omens look good’. Well, here it is, but my expectations have been sadly thwarted, due to the unevenness of the cycle.

The Op. 2 Sonatas offer the listener some very fine things. All three slow movements are radiant and distinguished by poetic engagement. The Prestissimo of Op. 2 No. 1 in F minor is energetic and dispatched with verve and élan. I was particularly taken by the lightness and delicacy of the Scherzo of No. 2 in A major. Op. 7 in E flat major opens with a rhythmically animated movement, and the Largo which follows is expressive and thoughtful. I wasn’t over-enamoured with the finale which lacks elegance and charm. In Op. 10 No. 1 in C minor, I was won over by the sensitively sculpted slow movement, but in Op. 10 no. 3, the Menuetto doesn’t quite flow as well as some.

The first and second movements of the ‘Pathétique’, Op. 13 disappoint. The opening Grave is beset with de-synchronized chords, and the Allegro di molto e con brio sounds rushed. When it makes its second appearance at bar 137 in the development section it becomes slightly mannered and marred by some inappropriate rubato. The slow movement is the biggest problem for me. The Adagio cantabile is staid and pedestrian. It is played as if the pianist is on automatic pilot, resulting in a loveless performance. Problems of speed beset the middle movement of the ‘Tempest’, Op. 31 No. 2, where the exceptionally slow tempo disturbs the flow. The finale, however, is a spirited perpetuum mobile, where one feels carried along with the forward momentum. There’s a real feeling of freshness and spontaneity in Pienaar’s ‘Appassionata’, Op. 57, with no suggestion of routine. It’s one of the finest performances I’ve heard with great drama and passion in the outer movements. The andante variations provide a peaceful haven, and are exquisitely characterized. In ‘Les Adieux’ - or ‘Das Lebewohl’ to give it Beethoven’s title - Pienaar captures the mood of farewell and departure in the first movement, and the sense of loss or absence in the second. However, the third movement, portraying the joyful return, begins with a mad scramble of notes, badly articulated, in which the textural clarity of the piano writing suffers.

The theme, preceding the variations which open Op. 26 in A flat major suffers from de-synchonisation of hands and arpeggiated chords. The sombre mood of the funeral march is effectively captured, and the finale is sprightly and well-articulated. The ‘Pastoral’, Op. 28 in D major has a lyrical first movement and a jaunty second. Overall, the pianist captures the mood and spirit of the work.

Coming to the late sonatas, the ‘Hammerklavier’, Op. 106 is a technically accomplished reading of heroic stature. All of this is underpinned by formidable intelligence and musicianship. The slow movement is eloquent and expressive. In the finale Pienaar has an intellectual grasp of the architecture of this complex music and maintains a cumulative sweep throughout. The final three sonatas Op. 109-111 show the pianist in his comfort zone, responding well to the innovative structures of these final masterpieces. Pienaar’s probing approach perfectly suits this profoundly philosophical music. Paul Lewis has said of these works that they “put us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe.”

Pienaar has channelled his enquiring mind and insights into producing his own well-written and illuminating booklet notes. He recalls some of the Beethoven heavyweights that I’m sure have influenced him and helped shape his own interpretations, such as Gilels, Kempff, Schnabel and Annie Fischer. Even Vladimir Horowitz gets a mention, a name not normally associated, to the same extent, with this composer. The liner notes are in English only.

Avie have presented the sonatas in chronological order which is a real advantage. This reflects a sensible and pragmatic approach. Whilst the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London provides a spacious acoustic, I was not happy with the piano sound which is, at times, hard-edged, strident and lacking in warmth. Strangely, I found no such problem in the Bach Well-Tempered recording, taped at the same venue. Perhaps a different piano was used.

I was generally disappointed with the inconsistencies of this release, and for those wanting a Beethoven piano sonata cycle I would have to direct elsewhere. They should try Richard Goode (Nonesuch), Brendel (the later digital Philips cycle), Friedrich Gulda (1950s Orfeo) and Emil Gilels (DG, though incomplete).

Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Sonatas 1-8 ~~ Sonatas 9-15 ~~ Sonatas 16-24 ~~ Sonatas 25-32

Full details of contents
CD 1 [60:37]
No. 1 in F minor op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5)
No. 2 in A major op. 2 no. 2 (1794-5)
No. 3 in C major op. 2 no. 3 (1794-5)

CD 2 [62:19]
No. 4 in E flat major op. 7 (1796-7)
No. 5 in C minor op. 10 no. 1 (1795-7)
No. 6 in F major op. 10 no. 2 (1796-7)

CD 3 [73:57]
No. 7 in D major op. 10 no. 3 (1797-8)
No. 8 in C minor op. 13 "Pathétique" (1797-8)
No. 9 in E major op. 14 no. 1 (1798)
No. 10 in G major op. 14 no. 2 (1799)

CD 4 [65:24]
No. 11 in B flat major op. 22 (1800)
No. 12 in A flat major op. 26 "Funeral March" (1800-01)
No. 13 in E flat major op. 27 no. 1 (1800-01)

CD 5 [64:52]
No. 14 in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2 "Moonlight" (1801)
No. 15 in D major op. 28 "Pastorale" (1801)
No. 16 in G major op. 31 no. 1 (1802)

CD 6 [65:20]
No. 17 in D minor op. 31 no. 2 "Tempest" (1802)
No. 18 in E flat major op. 31 no. 3 (1802)
No. 19 in G minor op. 49 no. 1 (1797)
No. 20 in G major op. 49 no. 2 (1796)

CD 7 [61:25]
No. 21 in C major op. 53 "Waldstein" (1803-04)
No. 22 in F major op. 54 (1804)
No. 23 in F minor op. 57 "Appassionata" (1804-05)

CD 8 [51:38]
No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 (1809)
No. 25 in G major op. 79 (1809)
No. 26 in E flat major op. 81A "Les Adieux" (1809-10)
No. 27 in E minor op. 90 (1814)

CD 9 [63:47]
No. 28 in A major op. 101 (1816)
No. 29 in B flat major op. 106 "Hammerklavier" (1817-18)

CD 10 [67:00]
No. 30 in E major op. 109 (1820)
No. 31 in A flat major op. 110 (1821-22)
No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22)