Classical CD Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major – Angela Hewitt, p. – Hyperion

Angela Hewitt inscribes Volume 4 of her Beethoven cycle with the same intelligent passion and decisive clarity as mark her previous efforts.

Published on December 27, 2013

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major – Angela Hewitt, p. – Hyperion

BEETHOVEN (Vol. 4): Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat Major, Op. 22; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3; Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101 – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion CDA67974, 72:29 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (11/25/13) ****:

Angela Hewitt proffers her fourth volume in her survey of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, recorded 15-18 August 2012 in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, the venue of many a fine orchestral performance. Hewitt performs Beethoven on a Fazioli instrument with a bright upper register and resonant bass, especially alert when she engages a sforzato. She assembles the sonatas with no pre-conceived program or subtle connection, thematic or harmonic.

With due pride, Hewitt feels good about her relationship to the 1800 Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, an opus of which the composer, too, expressed confidence that it would bring him esteem. The pianist’s right hand must survive many a test of flexibility and endurance from the outset of the Allegro con brio, which seems to test the limits of the classical formal and dynamic conventions. Beethoven juxtaposes symmetry and asymmetry in the same materials, unison chords that he soon breaks up into their knotty or syncopated components, revealing their capacity to assume new character.  The real character of this elusive sonata emerges in the 9/8 Adagio con molto espressione in E-flat Major, rife with sixteenth notes but melodic – an operatic cantabile – in spite of the forward motion. Hewitt invests the pauses with pregnancy, her bass line repeating a series of ominous B-flats. As at the end of the first movement, Beethoven omits a coda. 

Utilizing a turn from the Adagio, the Minuetto assumes an impish character. Hewitt demonstrates the fluency of her trills, answered by a fortissimo and some passing dissonances. Beethoven labels the trio section Minore, and it generates quick syncopes that may have influenced Schumann.  The Rondo: Allegretto at several points reminds us of the so-called “Spring” Violin Sonata, Op. 24. The music assumes a darkly contrapuntal quality, and the secondary materials utilize tremolos, thirds, and sixths.  The whole, difficult to bring together emotionally, maintains an improvised air, which Hewitt invests with color and technical facility.

Many scholars comment on the Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 (1802), that its delay in movement one of the tonic chord until bar 8 had become indicative of Beethoven’s oft-used dramatic procedures. A rather “questioning” motif brings an answer in four beats close to the Fifth Symphony. Still, the general tenor of the opening Allegro remains sunny and whimsical, the long runs, trills, and quick grace notes a favorite of another fine virtuoso, Clara Haskil. The frequent rumbling outbursts may owe their presence to the influence of C.P.E. Bach. The ensuing Scherzo proves a real toccata, challenging Hewitt to play fast, light staccatos and sudden fortissimos that clearly nod to the wit in Haydn. Thoroughly playful, the tempo, 2/4 Allegretto vivace, often projects an orchestral sonority when it’s not imitating a zither’s texture. Hewitt thinks of the Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) in E-flat Major as an elongated ballroom scene, graceful and even leaping elegantly in the trio, which Saint-Saens found agreeable for variations, Op. 35. Beethoven wants all the repeats, including the da capo, then concluding with a coda of eight bars that recedes from the room just as gracefully. A brisk “hunt” movement, the Presto con fuoco abounds with (detache) triplet figures, light and aerial, a brilliant hurtle through time and space. A joyful interchange of voices proceeds, allowing Beethoven’s Aeolian harp and percussive thunder to dialogue. The rollicking moto perpetuo creates a storm in itself, then lands on a decisive chord after Hewitt’s left hand has passed over the right.

Hewitt performed the 1817 A Major Sonata as part of her graduation recital in Ottawa, and then again in Cleveland for the Casadesus Competition. It was, coincidentally, among the few Beethoven sonatas that Robert Casadesus committed to recorded posterity. Artistic clarity and gracefulness of execution mean to be the sonata’s virtues, as expressed in its original publication by Steiner. Beethoven uses German indications as well as Italian to indicate tempos. The first movement, in a spirit of fantasy,  Allegretto, eschews all superfluous ornament, swinging in syncopes and communicating a deep desire for simplicity of means. The ensuing Vivace alla marcia fixates on quirky, dotted eighth and sixteenth notes, agitated and aggressive. Hewitt recommends not playing it too fast. She does grant the music a palpable, other-worldly quality at key moments. The trio section moves in strict canon, even dolce, then modulates to the initial march tempo. In soft pedal, the one-page Adagio, ma non troppo, con affetto serves as an introduction to the last movement.

Hewitt claims that “time must stand still” in this slow movement.  The pedal lifts, and a cadenza leads to a recollection of the first movement’s opening motif, only to proceed by trill (Allegro) to a seemingly jolly figure. Beethoven suddenly becomes enamored with polyphony, though he indicates degrees of pp and dolce for its procession. We can hear why the Schoenberg School would embrace Beethoven’s often pulverizing procedures for the kernels of melodic development. The low E was new to the pianoforte in Beethoven’s time.  The interwoven play of canonic figures as we move through dark and light had to constitute a bible of sorts to a “vertical mind” like that of Busoni!  Hewitt drops the tonality down a minor third, forecasting another fugue, but it’s a false alarm. Instead, a host of light, scintillating filigree rounded by a dark trill leads to a rousing knock on our befuddled heads!

—Gary Lemco

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