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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, 'Hammerklavier' (1817-1818) [40:48]
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27/2, ‘Moonlight’ (1801) [14:52]
Murray Perahia (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Funkhaus Nalepasstraße, Saal 1, Berlin
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 8353 [55:42]

I have been revisiting a number of recordings of the Hammerklavier of late and particularly enjoyed Uchida’s powerful but considered version from 2007 on the Philips label (review), but this latest recording from Murray Perahia is a different beast, being over six minutes faster overall than hers – but also, like hers, the product of many years’ reflection before he made this first recording at the age of seventy. Its partner, the Moonlight sonata, might be over-recorded but it forms the perfect contrast to the Hammerklavier; I quote here from the DG website:

“Perahia’s understanding of the “Moonlight” deepened as he prepared a new edition of the work for the German publishers Henle. He gathered additional imaginative fuel from recent research suggesting that Beethoven may have intended his sonata to emulate the Aeolian harp, hugely popular during the composer’s lifetime, and is convinced that the harp-like arpeggios of the “Moonlight” represent Beethoven’s vision of the Aeolian instrument.”

Whatever the merits of Schnabel’s famous 1935 recording, with its wrong notes and splashy playing but a musician-composer’s grasp of spirit, most modern listeners will want to hear this extraordinary music in best sound and played by a pianist who combines a refined aesthetic sensibility with flawless technical proficiency. I love Wilhelm Backhaus’ 1952 old-school recording but it is in mono; my favourites in more modern sound are the aforementioned digital account by Uchida, Serkin’s “Masterworks” recording for CBS from 1970, and Emil Gilels on DG, the latter two both being in analogue stereo. The sound provided here for Perahia is to my ears ideal: rich, resonant, with plenty of bloom and warmth, and bell-like clarity in the piano’s upper register.

While both Uchida and Gilels chose to take an expansive approach to the Adagio, Perahia’s timings are fairly conventional in comparison with most other recordings except that he is considerably swifter in the opening Allegro movement, rather closer to Beethoven’s metronome markings than many but still not that fast. In many ways, his manner is closest to Serkin: energised and propulsive; in neither recording of the Hammerklavier would you suspect that you were hearing a pianist in his late sixties.

I don’t think I have ever heard a recording of the first movement which sweeps the listener along with such a sense of cohesive inevitability; ten minutes seem to pass in a flash and every moment is riveting, Perahia’s fleeting application of rubato enlivening certain phrases despite the speed of his delivery. The Scherzo is similarly rapid, devilish and mercurial. The third movement is perfectly paced as a true Adagio, whereas Gilels and Uchida edge towards Largo, and thus the music unfolds with grace and profundity without courting stasis. The languid, limpid, lilting beauty of his playing here implicates Beethoven as a Romantic forerunner of Chopin rather than the firebrand of the Eroica. Perahia perfectly captures the hesitant, ambivalent mood of the slow introduction to the finale, then segues seamlessly into the fugue, unloosing a torrent of astonishingly well-articulated runs which are always urgent but never rushed.

Everything about his playing of the Moonlight Sonata is equally well judged; sentimentality and indulgence are eschewed in the first movement whose Adagio tempo, as in the Hammerklavier, is just right. The Allegretto is light, winsome and “keck”; Perahia sees no need to apply a pianistic sledgehammer to this sweet nut – but the left hand keeps us sternly grounded. The Presto conclusion is thrilling, sharing the same prestidigitatory virtuosity as the finale to Op. 106, and there is never any suggestion of Perahia losing control.

Perahia’s Hammerklavier has integrity in every sense of the word and the Moonlight here is a dream; this disc represents the summation of a lifetime’s experience.

Ralph Moore