Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ludwig von Beethoven: Favourite Piano Sonatas

This post highlights a very impressive double-disc package of Beethoven piano sonatas issued by the German record label, Philips, and consists of performances recorded between 1970 and 1977 by Alfred Brendel, born in what is now the Czech Republic and who lived for many years in Austria.  At around 40, he finally received recognition outside of Austria and later moved to England where he still resides, at age 81, though arthritis ended his performing career four years ago.

Brendel was known as a skilled performer of works by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and others from the 18th and 19th centuries, though he is also highly regarded for his performances of twelve-tone row serialist composer Arnold Schoënberg.

Beethoven, of course, had a long and varied career filled with staggering works embracing his nine powerful symphonies (to be featured in a "For Fanatics Only" post one day), dynamic string quartets, and a catalog of excellent concertos.  In the liner notes essay "A Spiritual Journey:  Beethoven Piano Sonatas" by Julian Haylock, a musician who has written biographies on such figures as Puccini and Rachmaninov, worked as a critic and penned a great many essays for liner notes, the writer notes that "the piano was Beethoven's natural expressive outlet" and the composer was a virtuoso on that instrument, especially in physical performances that had a profound impression on audiences and often physical ones on the battered pianos, to boot.

The seven sonatas featured on this impressive 150+ minute set feature some of Beethoven's most beloved and timeless works, such as the "Appasionata," "Pathétique," "Pastoral," and "Moonlight."  The latter, titled the Quasi una Fantasia by the composer when completed in 1801, has generally been considered the best, or at least one of the finest, of Beethoven's works for piano, though some have taken issue with the popular title of "Moonlight," pointing out, with ample reason, that the "Fantasia" is more appropriate because of the great range of emotions, tempo, and coloration embodied in the three movements. 

The power of the final movement is such the Haylock quotes a friend of Beethoven and composer Anton Reicha regarding his role in Beethoven's rendition of this astounding movement: "He asked me to turn the pages, but I was too busy wrenching the strings out of the piano as they broke, while the hammers got jammed . . . I worked harder than Beethoven!"

Another nice little anecdote, touching upon Beethoven's often-prickly personality, deals with his "The Tempest," which opens disc 2 of the set.  When asked about the inspiration for the sonata, the composer is said to have burst out with "Read Shakespeare's The Tempest!"  There doesn't appear, evidently, to be much directly in common between the two works, so it is assumed the composer was applying a caustic sense of humor that may not have caught on particularly well.  While there is much passion and energy in this work, there are also beautiful moments of contemplation and calm, as is often the case with the great composer's best work.

Meanwhile, the "Pathétique," which was finished in 1798 was a highly-successful work from its release and its middle movement, the Adagio cantabile, is famed for its melody.  The work has often been viewed as being directly influences by Mozart's 14th piano sonata from about fifteen years before.

The "Appasionata," finished in 1805 or 1806 as Beethoven's hearing had greatly deteriorated, begins solemnly and stately enough, but is soon transformed in its first movement into a propulsive and driving force of nature with crashing cords from both hands complemented by some gorgrous lyrical themes.  The second movement, as is often the case with "middle passages" in classical music is a more soothing, calming exposition of a theme and several variations.  Intensity returns full throttle during the closing movement with ends in a staggering coda of great power.

This set of seven of Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas is an excellent cross-section of his works in that genre and Brendel plays exquisitely throughout.  Amateur listeners, such as YHB, can benefit greatly from Haylock's concise and clear discussion of these works, and this essay is an excellent example of liners that strike a solid balance between being too technical or worshipful and being too general or vague.  Philips has put out a disc that seasoned Beethoven lovers and newcomers alike should appreciate.

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