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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109 [16:45]
Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110 [16:37]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 [22:48]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
rec. 2019, Herkulessaal, Munich

If my memory serves me right, it was in the early 1990s when I travelled down to London to hear Maurizio Pollini perform Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall. It was the first of several of the pianist’s recitals I have attended over the years. I recall that he did not play any encores on that occasion; he left Beethoven the last word in the ebbing measures of the Op. 111 Arietta. I eagerly sought out his mid-1970s recording of the monumental triptych, which he set down in the Herkulessaal, Munich (Opp. 109 & 110) in June 1975, and the Großer Saal of the Musikverein, Vienna (Op. 111) in January 1977. Since that time, this version has been my preferred version of these sublime works.

His latest traversal of the last three sonatas, just released, is his welcome response to the 250th celebration of the anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. His previous cycle was analogue, these newcomers are live and digital. I do not find many interpretive changes, except that tempi are marginally faster now, though he states that he has “discovered new riches in every detail” in these sublime masterpieces. The pianist’s technical mastery remains very much intact despite the passing of years.

The first two movements of Op. 109 are brief and terse. The first opens as if in mid-sentence, and there is an improvisatory feel in Pollini’s take. The Prestissimo is brusque and punchy. The third movement, a theme and six variations, is twice as long as the previous two movements put together. The theme has a soothing effect with melancholic leanings. In Pollini’s hands the sense of development is tangible; the variations successively grow in confidence as they progress. In Variation 6, the theme undergoes intricate adornment, which he exquisitely articulates. At the end the theme returns, and peace and resignation reign.

With gentle voicing of the opening chords of Op.110, Pollini creates a magical and wondrous atmosphere. When the arpeggios appear, they are beautifully shaped and evenly distributed. I particularly like the sense of fantasy created. The Allegro molto is rhythmically tight. The sombre Adagio is brooding, and speaks of doubt and despair. The Fuga is distinguished by evenness of articulation, clarity of lines and confident abandon.

In the final Sonata, Op.111, the pianist throws caution to the wind with an opening movement of tremendous energy and drive. It is significant that Beethoven wrote it in the key of C minor. For him the key depicts stormy emotional intensity, turbulence and heroic struggle. Pianist and scholar Charles Rosen wrote: “Beethoven in C minor has come to symbolize his artistic character. In every case, it reveals Beethoven as a Hero. C minor does not show Beethoven at his most subtle, but it does give him to us in his most extrovert form, where he seems to be most impatient of any compromise.” The second movement, by contrast, is an Arietta, whose theme is both simple and exalted. Four variations and a fantasy-like coda follow. You experience the cumulative effects of each subsequent variation becoming more rhythmically complex, providing tension and drama as the movement progresses. The performance captures to perfection otherworldliness and an underlying inevitability.

For this new venture, Pollini returned to the Herkulessaal, Munich, one of his favoured recording venues. I listened to both his cycles side by side, and was amazed how different the sound is. The piano in the earlier recording is more forwardly profiled, and there is a greater feeling of intimacy, but less air around the instrument. Fast forward 42 years and the story is very different. The recording was made during a concert in the presence of an audience, though I could not detect their presence in any way. Apparently it was also filmed. The piano sound reaches the ear of the listener from the perspective of a concert hall, with a spacious, comfortably resonant acoustic. At the end of the day, it all boils down to personal taste. My preference lies with this new recording, which sounds much more natural and less claustrophobic than its predecessor.

Stephen Greenbank

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