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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Complete Piano Sonatas
Paul Badura-Skoda (fortepiano)
rec: 1978-1989, Baumgartner Casino, Vienna, Austria
Released under licence from Naïve, originally appeared on the Astrée label
ARCANA A203 [9 CDs: 606:09]

Along with the likes of Alfred Brendel, Paul Badura-Skoda had a lifelong devotion to the music of Beethoven; he even wrote a book on the interpretation of the piano sonatas. His recording career lasted for over 60 years and his dedication to Beethoven began with a recording of the five ‘named’ piano sonatas in the early 1950’s; then he made various others before recording the complete sonatas in 1969 and 1970 on a Bösendorfer concert grand. That was not released until 2012, when Gramola included it in a set (Gramola 98743) containing no fewer than three recordings of the Hammerklavier. Now we have the reissue of the Astrée Auvidis recordings which spanned an eleven-year period and the birth of the CD; this time he performed on a series of fortepianos. I remember having one on LP and another on a single CD; he was, after all, a champion of the use of period instruments and is, I think, the only pianist to have recorded all the sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert on both period and modern pianos. He apparently made his last Beethoven recording, of the last three sonatas, in 2013 for the Genuin label (GEN 14331), while continuing to program Beethoven in concerts until his death in 2019.

I appreciate, that for many people the question of the piano sound will be important, the fortepiano not being every one’s cup of tea. Here, Badura-Skoda employs no fewer than seven instruments, which were all part of his own collection. I am happy to report, however, that the instruments were well-chosen and, despite all being contemporary to the compositions, the earliest being made in 1790 and the latest in 1824, there is none which sounds, as a friend of mine describes them, like a ‘plinky plonky pub piano’.

Badura-Skoda has a great affinity with the early piano sonatas, especially the Op. 2, which sparkle under his hands; this is a greatly nuanced performance which gets the best from the page. For these sonatas he chose a Viennese instrument by Johann Schantz which was built around 1790. He also uses this instrument for the Op. 10 and Op. 14 No. 2 sonatas, which, again, receive glowing performances. In between these discs comes the Op, 7 which is played on a c. 1796 Broadwood, which is coupled with the Op. 22 and the Op. 14 No. 1 and is again given a splendid interpretation here.

CD 4 opens with the first of the named sonatas, the Sonata No. 8 in c minor Op. 13 Pathétique, the first of the so called ‘middle period sonatas’, which is performed here on a circa 1790 Anton Walter instrument, which, I must say, sounds ideal in this, one of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas. The instrument has the heft to bring out the more aggressive music of the first movement, while conveying equally as compellingly the more lilting music of the second movement Adagio cantabile. Badura-Skoda exploit’s the instrument’s range well. Next comes the A flat Major Sonata No. 12, and here is the only time where for me, Badura-Skoda doesn’t quite hit the mark, as in the first movement his passage work is slightly faltering and disjointed. In the remaining three movements however, Badura-Skoda is back on form and revels in the music. The following two sonatas, Op. 27 Nos. 1 and 2 contain possibly one of the best-known of all piano pieces. Both these sonatas have the descriptive name, quasi una Fantasia, or “sonata in the form of a fantasy”. Despite the popularity of No. 2, I have always preferred No. 1, as it is a much more rounded work and has the greater feel of a completed work. Despite this, it is the C sharp minor Sonata No. 14, with its ever popular Adagio sostenuto, which people most remember. This movement gave the work the epithet “Moonlight Sonata”, although Beethoven never described the work as such, and neither does Badura-Skoda. The name derives from a remark that the critic Ludwig Rellstab made some five years after Beethoven’s death when he described it as being like “Moonlight shining upon Lake Lucerne”, and the name stuck. Badura-Skoda shows a great range of dynamics in the first movement as he gradually builds up very quietly, while in the second and third movement he puts on a bravura display.

The fifth disc brings us the Pastorale sonata, No. 15 in D Op. 28, which, unlike the Symphony No. 6, did not earn its nickname from Beethoven, but from an outside source, this time his publisher Cranz, who named it as such due to the work’s sunny disposition, especially in the outer movements. According to Carl Czerny, this sonata was a favourite of Beethoven, who would often play the second movement Andante when asked to play something. The first two of the sonatas Op. 31 features next; No. 3 is placed on the next disc. The first of these sonatas in G is described by Harry Halbreich in his booklet notes as having a “perfect mastery of style and the very rich invention of its developments, shows a mischievous side of Beethoven.” Whatever the assertion about No. 1, I tend to agree more with Denis Matthews in that it is the second of the Op. 31 sonatas which is the real masterpiece here. Strong and powerful, it lends itself to being an archetypal Romantic sonata. The story is that Beethoven’s replied to his secretary Schindler’s rather flippant question of what the sonata meant by saying that he had just read Shakespeare’s The Tempest and he advised Schindler to do the same. Denis Mathews suggests that “Prospero, for instance, could be read into the mysterious bars of largo that cast recurring spells over the opening movement”, this description perhaps being the origin of the nickname the “Tempest”. The instrument chosen for this disc is the remarkable-looking Hammerflügel, a rare instrument by the Bohemian maker Caspar Schmidt, which has a Viennese action and six pedals. However it looks, its sound is good, especially under Badura-Skoda’s hands.

For the next disc, we move to Vienna for the Georg Hasska instrument, meaning that the Sonata in E flat Op. 31 No. 3, is played on a piano different from that used for the two previous sonatas in the opus. The most striking movement of this sonata is the opening Allegro, in that its main thematic material has a faltering development. However, the main interest in this sonata lies in the fact that it is a rare instance of a four-movement work within Beethoven’s more mature sonatas and that there is no real slow movement; instead we get a leisurely Scherzo and a Menuetto with a moderate pace, as is the accompanying Trio. We then skip a few sonatas, re-joining again with the Sonata in F sharp Op. 78, a short two movement work, which Denis Matthews identifies as one of Beethoven’s own favourites, although the work’s short stature and its sentimentality drew derision from some critics, D’Indy describing it as “the most insignificant product of the middle period”. Perhaps because of its personal nature and its dedication to “dear beloved Therese”, Therese von Brunswick, Alfred Cortot described it as a “musical flirt”. However it has been regarded, Beethoven certainly thought a lot of it and Badura-Skoda puts in a sterling performance which elevates it beyond the inconsequential, his playing of the first movement being especially fine. This is followed by the Op. 79 in G, which, because of its brevity, being even shorter than the Op. 78, has in the past led to is being called a sonatina and thus relegated in the eyes of many, yet this is clearly a product of the composer’s middle period, as can be seen by the way that Beethoven develops the thematic material of the first movement. It is a three-movement work with a lilting slow central movement, and the dance like character of the final movement is here brought out well. The E flat Major Sonata Op. 81a, follows and is completely different; Beethoven named it Das Lebewohl but it has come to be known as Les Adieux, in which we again see Beethoven composing deeply personal music. His patron, Archduke Rudolf, along with the rest of the imperial family, had been forced into exile by the advancing Napoleonic army. The opening movement begins with a sixteen bar Adagio which leads us into the Allegro section; once again Badura-Skoda manages the transition effortlessly and effectively. The central movement Andante espressivo is just that, with Badura-Skoda using the full dynamics of the instrument to achieve a very expressive performance. Here, the second and third movements are unusually banded together and played without a break. The transition between the movements is deftly handled, the third movement sparkling in celebration of the return of the imperial family. The final work on this disc came five years later in 1814, the two movement Sonata in E minor Op. 90 being regarded as the first of his late period sonatas. Despite the brevity of the sonata, it is deceptively complex, especially in the way that Beethoven contrasts the movements with minor-major keys, something he would exploit further in his final sonata. While I really enjoyed Badura-Skoda’s playing on this disc, I did think that he was occasionally let down by the instrument, which sounded a bit dull in the left hand as well as lacking the richness of sound we hear in the rest of the instruments used in this set.

The next disc is bookended with the two great pinnacles of the middle period as it sees us jump back to cover the five missing sonatas. We jump right in, beginning with the Waldstein, one of the finest sonatas of Beethoven’s middle period. Here we enjoy the sound of a circa 1815 Broadwood piano, and I am happy to say that my misgivings about the Hasska instrument are thankfully remedied as it has a much more rounded sound. Some might crave a heavier instrument, but it has a really nice tone and depth of colour. The famous opening Allegro con brio comes across really well. The pulsating and rhythmically-charged opening sparkles and Badura-Skoda succeeds in portraying the full drama of this movement. The remaining two movements are again banded together here, which is again unusual and the only time this occurs in all the versions I own. The slow middle section mainly acts as a bridge between the two extended outer movements; Badura-Skoda begins it very quietly, which comes across wonderfully well on the Broadwood. He then transitions seamlessly into the final movement, which is regarded by many as one of the finest sonata movements composed by Beethoven. Here, the transition makes perfect sense, as out of the final note of the Introduzione the Rondo grows almost organically out of the central movement.

The two little sonatas Op. 49 were published in 1805, although they were composed a few years earlier, probably around 1796 (No. 2) and 1799 (No. 1), with both having just two movements, which leads Halbreich to describe them as “sonatinas rather than sonatas, in their simplicity of performance, their brevity and their structure in only two movements,” They are however, still blessed with Beethoven’s authenticity and interest, with No. 1 one being the only sonata that he would compose in G minor, whilst the Septet of 1800 borrowed from the Tempo di Menuetto of the G Major sonata No. 2. Both these little gems, along with the Op. 54 sonata sparkle under Badura-Skoda’s hands, as he shows a deft touch in these sonatas as well as the better-known ones. The Op. 54 Sonata in F is one of the neglected sonatas of all; it has never received the adulation of the other and thus has never really been popular, this despite the work’s unconventionality.

The final work on this disc presents the other pinnacle of the middle period, his F minor Sonata Op. 57, the Appassionata. It was composed alongside the Eroica Symphony in 1803-4, although it was probably not completed until 1806, and, like the Pastoral Sonata, it was given its name by Beethoven’s Hamburg Publisher, August Cranz. An archetypal Romantic sonata, the revolutionary character of the work is clear from the opening bars, with both main themes of the first movement sharing the same rhythmic intensity. Cast as a theme and four variations, the central Andante con moto acts as a kind of oasis of calm between the two outer movements; however, it must not be played too slowly, and Badura-Skoda gets the tempo spot on. As with many of these sonatas, he once again plays the second and third movements without a break, the final movement being announced by the playing of the two fateful chords, one quiet and one loud, seemingly linking these two movements. What follows is a maelstrom of notes, which further demonstrates the sonata’s Romantic credentials, with Badura-Skoda making the most of the dynamic intensity of the final Allegro ma non troppo.

The eighth disc opens with the big beast, the Hammerklavier, the sonata which I find the most fascinating and subsequently have the most recordings of. Surprisingly therefore, this is currently the only version of the work that I have performed on a fortepiano. In his brief contribution to the booklet, Badura-Skoda gives us his personal perspective on performing this sonata, the last he was to study with his teacher and mentor, Edwin Fischer and the last he learned to play, stating that it is “the most difficult of all”. That was in 1960, and he was then still far off playing the sonata; he has, however, made up for lost time, with, I think, at least five recordings since. The term “Hammerklavier” simply means “hammer keyboard” and derives from the desire to use the language German as a result of growing tide of nationalism after the Napoleonic wars. Described by as Robert Schumann as “uniquely great”, it is Beethoven’s longest sonata and has the greatest tonal range: it extends over six octaves, and could not, therefore, have been played on early fortepianos. Badura-Skoda has chosen here a Conrad Graff instrument from around 1824, which he uses for all the sonatas on the last two discs. The instrument has a great part to play in this sonata, and while I am sure that some people would like a larger sound, the Graf stands up well to scrutiny, with Badura-Skoda pulling out all the stops to achieve a thrilling performance, which conveys all the drama of this monument to the art of piano composition. The sonata is then followed by its predecessor, the A major Sonata Op. 101, which, according to the autograph, was completed in November 1816. The fact that the titles of the sonatas are here in German as well as the usual Italian again reflects the growth of nationalism. This is one of Beethoven’s Romantic sonatas, the general lyricism of the first movement and the characterful march in the second leading into the slow movement having a grave, hushed atmosphere, which Matthews links to the D Major Cello Sonata of the previous year, while the final movement is bright and energetic, the perfect foil to the “yearning” of the Adagio.

The final disc offers the three final sonatas, which, after the expansive nature of the previous sonatas, especially the Sonata No. 29, always seem something of a let-down to me. However, I have come to see that while Beethoven achieves a more concise structure, it could be argued that the last three sonatas are equally dramatic; this is especially so with Badura-Skoda’s performance. In the E Major Op. 109, Beethoven opens with a short movement containing two distinct sections, the first being an unhurried Vivace with a rippling effect which soon gives way to a flowing Adagio section. Then, Badura-Skoda hardly has time to breathe before he rushes headlong, without a break, into the even shorter second movement Prestissimo. The third and final movement consists of a theme, one of Beethoven’s most intimate and touching melodies, followed by a series of six variations, each of which is picked out and well-characterised well. The A flat Sonata No. 31, the only completed work of 1821, follows, this time played in a single track, and although they are played without a break, each of the movements is clearly discernible. The warmth of the first movement Moderato cantabile molto espressivo comes through very well, with Badura-Skoda’s interpretation expressing the full range of colour of the instrument. The dynamic change between the first two movements is evident, as the power of this short movement jumps off the page. Unlike most pianists, Badura-Skoda sees the Fuga, not as a separate movement from the Adagio, but as a continuation; this results in a kind of celebration of the growing health of Beethoven, after illness had stopped him from composing any other work, especially as he put the finishing touches to this sonata on Christmas Day. The final sonata, in C minor, Op. 111 of 1822, was another work dedicated to Archduke Rudolph, and is a fitting summation of the piano sonatas as a whole. Here, Beethoven applies all the developments he had made throughout his career as a composer of piano sonatas to one single work, its power and dramatic nature shining through.

Throughout these recordings, Badura-Skoda chooses tempos that tend to be on the swift side, leading to exciting results. These are enthralling performances which, apart from the slightly disjointed opening of the Sonata No. 12, are excellent throughout. His choice of instruments suits the sonatas as they are contemporaneous with their composition, thus demonstrating not only the development of the piano, but also how Beethoven developed his compositional technique to coincide with those developments. The sound Badura-Skoda achieves from his instruments is quite remarkable, as they have enough power and quality to please all but the most ardent fortepiano hater. Yes, the sound quality of the recordings of the earlier sonatas I have on BIS and performed by Roland Brautigam, tends to be a little more secure, but they are played on copies of the original instruments, whereas these are on period pianos, making this not only a wonderful performance, but also a historical document.

In addition, we get very good sound which enables us to here every nuance of the music, and the booklet notes are also excellent. Not only do we get fifty pages on the piano sonatas by Harry Halbreich, we also get Badura-Skoda’s short reflection on playing the Hammerklavier, an introduction to the pianos of Beethoven, and a brief description of the instruments of the Badura-Skoda Collection, photographs of which are also included, 68 pages in all and in English. I don’t know whether the booklet will differ from country to country, but both French and German translations are available on the Outthere website. This set represents a stunning bargain, especially as it seems to be retailing at around £30 to £35 from various online retailers.

Stuart Sillitoe

CD 1 [68:39]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1 [20:18]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 2 No. 2 [22:49]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 [25:24]
CD 2 [65:00]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 [27:11]
Piano Sonata No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22 [24:28]
Piano Sonata No. 9 in E major, Op. 14 No. 1 [13:13]
CD 3 [71:53]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10 No. 1 [16:33]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in F major, Op. 10 No. 2 [17:00]
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10 No. 3 [22:27]
Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major, Op. 14 No. 2 [15:44]
CD 4 [67:35]
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 'Pathétique' [18:42]
Piano Sonata No. 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 [18:51]
Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 No. 1 [14:53]
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight' [15:03]
CD 5 [70:00]
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 'Pastorale' [24:51]
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31 No. 1 [22:56]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 'Tempest' [22:07]
CD 6 [69:10]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 [21:47]
Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78 [10:19]
Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79 [9:01]
Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a 'Les Adieux' [15:03]
Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90 [12:52]
CD 7 [73:45]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 'Waldstein' [23:24]
Piano Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49 No. 1 [7:59]
Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major, Op. 49 No. 2 [7:37]
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54 [11:23]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 'Appassionata' [23:18]
CD 8 [60:18]
Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106 'Hammerklavier' [40:47]
Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101 [19:26]
CD 9 [59:49]
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109 [17:22]
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 [18:01]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 [24:21]

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