Angela Hewitt—The Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Vol. 7

Angela Hewitt extends her Beethoven cycle with four works of disparate emotional content. 

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79; Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 – Angela Hewitt, piano – Hyperion CDA68199, 70:22 (6/1/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Recorded 28 November – 1 December 2016, this set of Beethoven sonatas constitutes the seventh volume in Angela Hewitt’s ongoing recorded cycle. Insofar as Beethoven’s piano sonata provide him a kind of experimental laboratory in which to manipulate forms and structures, the 1801 Sonata quasi fantasia in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1, offers some fascinating procedures. The music opens, Andante, with a narrow harmonic range, returning to the tonic E-flat every fourth measure. The first thirty-six bars, in fact, might experiment with a seeming stasis of parallel scales whose third repetition enjoys a songlike character in C Major.  Ensuing upon some variants, Beethoven does in fact ground his Allegro in C Major.  Jabbing accents and a galloping tempo define this episode, but the gentle, rocking opening returns in the left hand. Hewitt’s Fazioli instrument—lovingly captured by Recording Producer Ludger Boeckenhoff—softens what might have been hammer blows into sweet caresses.

More initially aggressive, the brief C minor Allegro molto e vivace loves broken triplet figures spread over several registers.  The gallop maintains itself in the Trio, set in A-flat Major. For the da capo, the right hand provides syncopes over the left hand’s staccato. Suddenly, the mood shifts into pure nostalgia, Adagio con espressione,  a melody that ascends one octave and whose accompaniment in eighths underlines a tender, martial mood. Even the trills and runs, anticipatory of Chopin, assume an organic sustence to the melodic line. And once more, attacca, we find ourselves thrust into the Allegro vivace, a perpetual motion procedure that Beethoven will again employ in the last movement of his Op. 31, No. 2. Hewitt’s articulation of the accented pulse proves stroking and pungent, as are the passing moments of polyphony. Beethoven brings back—after a “resounding” caesura—his slow melody, but this time in the music’s tonic E-flat Major.  But the ironist in Beethoven has not yet had its final moment: a sudden the composer’s capacity for rough, improvised humor erupts, Presto, with a shattering coda.

The 1810 Sonata No. 25 in G Major had its delights first revealed to me by Dame Myra Hess. The piece opens Presto alla tedesca, in the “German” style of a quickly rustic (or laendler) one-in-the-bar dance in triple time. The sudden changes of key make the piece mercurial, witty, and knotty, at once. The music, courtesy of the composer’s call for pedal effects, can sing as well as erupt. The quicksilver pulse becomes infectious as well as beguiling, and the melodic line stretches over the accents effectively. All kinds of witty punctuations and accacciaturas mark the last page. The lyrical second movement, Andante, also in G, proffers a gondolier’s song well in advance of Mendelssohn.  The last movement, Vivace, once more exploits G Major, though here Hewitt’s tempo imbues the music with a gavotte-like character. The theme itself undergoes slight variations in each appearance, all of which enjoy a sense of improvisation. Beethoven had considered entitling this piece a sonatina; but for all its brevity and concision, the last movement theme stayed with Beethoven to open his E Major Sonata, Op. 109.

The most pained of the four sonatas in this group appear from 1802, that troubled year in which Beethoven conceded his oncoming deafness and degree of personal crisis. Set in a truly grim D minor, the Sonata No. 17, Op. 31, No. 2, reveals that sense of harmonic indeterminacy that Beethoven will exploit in his most famous composition in this mode: his Ninth Symphony. The music first sounds like an improvisation: a Largo opening, in rolled chords set in inverted A Major yield to an Allegro set in a two-note figure. Then back to the rolled chord, now in C. The music gains breadth and lift to reach by measure 21 the tonic D minor, utilizing the opening motto as a left-hand accompaniment. The melody itself has become ambiguous, so the interpreter decides to play the top line with the hand of his choice, and Hewitt chooses the left. The rhythmic and harmonic displacements assume a mournful, subjective character when Beethoven cites an aria, Es ist vollbracht, from Bach’s St. John Passion. The development section owes much to the emfindsamkeit “school” of the Bach sons, emphatic, dissonant, chromatic, and startlingly simple, when Beethoven asks for recitative just before the recapitulation. In staccato, the Allegro returns, interrupted by pregnant pauses. Each articulated attack feels like a direct stab in heart, marked by a sense of rolling, distant thunder, as tenderly poignant as anything in Chopin or Schumann.

A lengthy, broken chord opens the Adagio, which, like the later slow movement of Les Adieux, Op. 81a, bears a noble carriage. Turns and rumblings accompany the gently martial progress.  Hewitt herself notes that the melody at measure 31 is “heartbreaking in its eloquent simplicity.” The vocal character of the writing remains primary, a parlando effect that conveys much of the composer’s inward musing. The final Allegretto presents another moto perpetuo impression, though it does not require speed as such. The appearance of Bach polyphony adds to the sense of unrest, given—as in Schubert—a sense of galloping fate. There do appear moments of intensity and tragic passion, but this music offers no triumphant resolution. Hewitt emphasizes the romantic, subjectively emotional, legato aspects of the music that the Fazioli accommodates beautifully, much in the manner of my first encounter with this movement, by way of Erno von Dohnanyi.

The 1820 Sonata in E Major remains among my own favorite Beethoven sonatas, as much for its concision and restraint as for its flexible sense of unity-in-variety.  From the opening gesture—taken from the Op. 79—Beethoven ascends to A-sharp, then he utilizes his device of a diminished seventh to reach A natural, which alters the tempo. From the Vivace ma non troppo we enter an Adagio espessivo, as though Beethoven were experimenting as much with affects as with harmonic gestures within a confined space. At moments, the music assumes the character of a hymn, an effect he will expound upon in his variation movement. Beethoven has utilized a broad palette in his keyboard, exacting tones from opposite, extreme registers.  One more moment of emotional contrast occurs when Beethoven provides a dark interlude that has a C Major fortissimo chord, just prior to the rather gentle coda, set resolutely in E.

The second movement, Prestissimo, asks for loud chords, set in declamatory, double counterpoint, restless and dramatic, in a threatening way. The opening bass line becomes absorbed into his theme as part of his canonic manipulation. A series of martial three-beat motifs concludes a shattering movement of personal aggression and frustration. Beethoven now asks for his Finalé—in both Italian and German—for a song given with a most intimate sense of feeling. Beethoven adopts a sarabande—in Spanish rhythm—from Bach’s French Suite No. 6 in E Major. The music is stately and noble, capable of serene melancholy. Hewitt’s right hand does wonders with variation one, an arioso over a steady processional accompaniment. Variation two proceeds in staccato, with the melody’s having been marked “tenderly.” The third variation sounds as if it were specifically conceived for Glenn Gould, in inverted counterpoint.  Variation four proceeds in groups of six that seem to flow forward.  The fifth variant is all Bach, a fugue that tests the hands in stretched position. The sixth variation returns to the original theme in bare outline, similar to how Brahms will give a bare outline as a transformation. Hemiola rules as the metrics move into quarter notes and triplets to sextuplets and to trills. The trill (this on a low B) emerges as the means to all rites of passage—much as it will for Scriabin—and it has assumed an irradiated quality, light and bell-chimes, at once. When the “complex” sounds die away, we find ourselves gripped by the utter simplicity of the opening theme —shades of the Bach Goldbergs—and we are besieged by Beethoven’s version of amor fati, love of fate, in all its wonder and tragedy.

—Gary Lemco

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