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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109 (1820) [16:40]
Piano Sonata No.31 in A-flat, Op.110 (1821) [16:34]
Piano Sonata No.32 in c minor, Op.111 (1823) [22:46]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
rec. live Herkulessaal, Munich, 27 September 2019. DDD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4838250 [56:07]

I mentioned this recording as I was completing my Spring 2020/#1B Second Thoughts and Short Reviews. There I compared three other piano recordings of these late sonatas, by Steven Osborne (Opp.109-111, Hyperion CDA68219), Yevgeny Sudbin (Opp.110-111, Six Bagatelles, Op.126, BIS-2208 SACD) and Filippo Gorini (Opp.106 and 111, Alpha 591) and the reissue of Paul Badura-Skoda’s complete set of the Beethoven sonatas on the fortepiano (Arcana A203).

Badura-Skoda does much more justice to these late great works than you might think possible on the older instrument and the set is well worth considering, but most will probably prefer the sound of the modern concert grand and there, if forced to choose, it would have to be the Osborne, available also in 24-bit sound. Sudbin, too, comes in 24-bit guise and as an SACD, but he offers only two of these sonatas.

The new Pollini has no SACD equivalent, but it can be obtained in 24-bit format; I listened to the CD, but a 24/96 download can be had for around £17. In one important respect it supersedes his first foray into these last sonatas, where the engineers placed the piano rather too forward, presumably the reason for the bracketing of the third star in the Penguin Guide. Those earlier recordings, which won a Gramophone award, remain available (Sonatas Nos. 28-32, DG Originals 4497402, 2 mid-price CDs, or complete sonatas 4794120, 8 CDs target price £22). (Some dealers also have a 12-CD German set of the sonatas and piano concertos for around £26.)

When he made the earlier recordings, Pollini had already moved beyond the image of the Wunderkind who had arrived on the scene in 1960 with a stunning recording of the Chopin Études (Testament SBT1473). Those who liked his Beethoven, such as Joan Chissell reviewing Nos. 31 and 32 (DG 2530 645) in Gramophone, described it as pure or refined; those who took the opposite view thought it cold.

In terms of tempo, Pollini’s view of these sonatas has remained generally consistent and his technique shows no sign of the four-decade passage of time. His performance of the first movement of No.30 is now a little more vivace, while the two recordings of the second movement are identical almost to the second. The finale is not separately banded on the older recording, but, as with the first movement, in the new version, divided across seven tracks, one for each variation, the andante has become more molto, while retaining the innigster Empfindung, or innermost emotion, also specified.

Throughout No.31 and No.32, also, Pollini’s view of the right tempo seems now to favour taking things a little faster, as in the arietta and five sections of the second and final movement of No.32. Perhaps that’s the result of playing before a live audience, whose presence is effectively unheard, though listening on headphones brings a share of Pollini’s trademark noises off. Perhaps, too, it’s the more naturally balanced sound this time round that makes the tempo differences between 1976-77 and 2019 seem less marked than they appear on paper. Or is it that we septuagenarians are less cautious than we used to be?

It’s clear that Pollini views these three sonatas, though published separately over a period of three years, as a trilogy. That may not be quite so obvious from the earlier recordings, but the 2019 accounts make that clear without the need for it to be stated in the booklet. It’s also apparent that Pollini now makes more of what he calls ‘completely free episodes which appear to be direct translations of the composer’s subjective feelings’. In other words, he brings out more clearly the connection between these sonatas and the late quartets which were soon to follow.

As early as the three Op.59 string quartets Beethoven had baffled the Viennese audiences by expanding the form well beyond the Haydn model. It was with the Op.95 quartet, however, and even more from Op.120 onwards, that his works in this form became even more idiosyncratic, veering wildly within and between works from lyricism to inner turmoil. As with the quartets, so in these sonatas, we see such a degree of variation. In No.31, for example, the interplay between lyrical reflectiveness and a notable subjectivity are clear from these performances. (I’m indebted to Paolo Petazzi’s notes and Susannah Howe’s translation of them for putting my thoughts into words.)

If I wanted a recording to exemplify all the features which I find in these sonatas, either of Pollini’s recordings would be ideal. The earlier now shows its age somewhat more than I had expected for a mid-1970s DG product, but it’s excellent value, either on the DG Originals twofer, where it comes with fine accounts of Nos. 28 and 29 for around £8.50 or in the complete set.

It used to be possible to obtain Claudio Arrau’s recordings of Nos. 28 to 32, also dating from the 1970s, on a Philips Duo twofer for the same price, and that’s still available as a Presto 2-CD special, albeit at the higher price of £19.75, or as a download for around £10 in lossless sound (4689122). Arrau’s admirers would maintain that he finds more poetry in the music while Pollini is more objective, and I can’t argue with that, though it’s a matter of each finding something different in these many-sided works. I recently wrote that Bach and Vivaldi are capable of a wide variety of approaches; that’s even more the case with Beethoven. It’s not surprising that Arrau takes longer, 16:25 against Pollini’s 12:42, for the finale of No.30. Equally, it’s hard not to find Arrau’s account of No.29, the Hammerklavier sonata, very special.

I thought of using T S Eliot’s image of a patient etherised upon a table to describe Pollini’s Beethoven, but that would imply that the result is immobile. He does, however, lay it all out before you, allowing you to inspect all the elements, and there’s a great deal to be said for that, as there is for notes on a work of literature that gloss the words and set it in context without trying to steer the reader’s judgment. In many years examining A-level English, how refreshing it was to come across a teacher who had obviously taught the students to think for themselves – though the nature of examinations often means that the student who remembers all that he or she was told about Chaucer or Shakespeare and sets it down in good order gets the A+ grade. Our response to Pollini’s Beethoven may not merit an A+, but he does give you the chance to earn it, while he encourages you to think for yourself about the nature of the music.

Now here is the $64,000 question. Pollini or Osborne? Steven Osborne’s Hyperion recording of the same three sonatas from a year ago has won golden opinions all round, including from our own Colin Clarke – review – and Richard Hanlon – review. Both gave the recording a ‘Recommended’ tag and it ended as a Recording of the Month. Osborne tends to take a slightly longer view of the music, which is particularly evident in the finale of No.31. I can’t better Richard Hanlon’s praise of his ‘peerless projection’ of that large-scale movement, where he takes 10:55 against Pollini’s 3:11 + 6:05 (DG divide the movement over two tracks).

Beethoven specifies Adagio ma non troppoarioso dolente for the opening of the movement, glossing it in German (Klaglied), in case we didn’t get the point that the music is meant to be sombre in nature. Osborne, whose recording is not separately tracked, takes almost a minute longer than Pollini; in practice, however, there’s very little to choose. Both deliver strong accounts of the following fugue, a very odd fugue in that it takes us around in reflection rather the whirligig that we would expect from Bach. Perhaps that’s why those who should know better sometimes maintain that Beethoven never wrote a fugue; they just tend to be rather unconventional affairs.

On the face of it, it would seem unfair to compare DG’s CD-quality recording with the 24-bit download of the Hyperion, but both are very good. The latter costs a little more (£13.50) than 16-bit (£8.99) from Hyperion. Nothing is harder to record than the solo piano, as I discovered many decades ago when upgrading from a competent Grundig tape recorder to the Rolls Royce of the species, a Ferrograph. Even the latter, however, at its top recording speed would not have matched either of these very good recordings.

The Hyperion cover features Rodin’s Hand of God, which might have been more appropriate for the DG. That comes with a variant of the cover design that DG have been using for their recent Beethoven releases, including their bumper box which Mark Zimmer reviewed recently and the smaller segments excerpted from it as downloads, many of which I covered in Spring 2020/1A and 1B. Incidentally, the 1970s Pollini recordings of these last three sonatas are included in the sub-set of the Piano Sonatas on 4837656, 10+ hours for around £35 in lossless sound. As a very rough generalisation, if Pollini’s Beethoven sounds more like the work as it left the creator’s hands, Osborne adds a little more humanity. Both interpretations are very valid, so, although the Hyperion would be my Desert Island choice, I wouldn’t wish to be without Pollini’s very valuable recordings. Pollini, in all fairness therefore, merits the Recommended status alongside Osborne.

Brian Wilson

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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