BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Sonatas – DGG (8 CDs)

by | Apr 11, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Sonatas  – DGG 479 4120 (8 CDs), 65:27, 72:49, 69:35, 74:05, 74:20, 76:18, 71:44, 81:54 (12/2/14) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

The release of this compilation of Beethoven Sonatas by Italian virtuoso Maurizio Pollini (b. 1942) fulfills a project stretched through forty years, 1975-2014, mostly studio recordings, although multiple performances exist of several of these repertory standards, including live-recital realizations. Pollini, like his mentor Michelangeli, has suffered epithets like “intellectual” and “detached” in the course of a long and distinguished career. But such “accusations” of “cool distance” in his affective temperament do not belie the prodigious technical facility Pollini possesses, nor his thorough command – akin to Michelangeli – of precise articulation and dynamic contrasts.  Some of the negative publicity – his “flinty lack of color” – might be attributed to the poor quality of DGG engineering, which has done little to “soften” the hard patina in Pollini’s sonority.

The bravura Beethoven might well begin with Pollini’s 1997 Vienna inscription of the Waldstein Sonata, which some might perceive as glib and intellectually facile. But the forward propulsion becomes literally staggering, certainly in the same heroic manner we ascribe to another pianist from this same “school,” Martha Argerich. No doubting Pollini’s seriousness of purpose in his 2002 Appassionata from Munich, a reading that for many will remind them of the middle-period Arrau. Less classic, doubtless, Pollini’s willful, first-movement crescendos on trills seem gratuitous, here in the manner of Rudolf Serkin and his own tendency to dramatic percussion. For some, Pollini will always “reduce” virtuoso scores to “toccatas” – exercises in crisp, aloof technique; but for those who savor his often explosive bursts of fury, the results astonish.

Let’s try another tack: the Largo, con gran espessione from Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7, a Michelangeli specialty which Pollini inscribed in 2012 in Lucerne.  The blending of austere, majestic sonorities with piercing clarity brings a solidity of mass to early Beethoven that some find inappropriate. But for those who see in this 1797 work an interior rebellion against classical strictures, this realization has potent, affective accuracy. Certainly, the ennobled melody in the treble part assumes a bel canto loftiness over and against the heavy toll of the bass. The entire Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major “Quasi una Fantasia,” Op. 27, No. 1 (rec. Munich, 1991) communicates a demure restraint that only occasionally bares its teeth. The more explosive passages explore the titanic urge to Romanticism burgeoning in the Beethoven ethos. If Pollini’s execution of the brief Allegro molto vivace second movement reminds me of anyone else’s concept, it is that of Glenn Gould. Commentators claim that the Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3, has proved Pollini’s favored opus (rec. 2014), a “new path” work of 1802 which likewise gained the undying affection of Clara Haskil. The Pollini rendition enjoys a delighted bustle of optimistic energy, rife with pregnant pauses and songful episodes, some supplied by Pollini’s hums at the keyboard. The Menuetto movement must represent one of the more tempestuously galant moments in Pollini’s recorded legacy.

Where, exactly, do “the late sonatas” begin?  Many wish to assert Pollini’s realization of the works that begin with Op. 78 (1809-1810, rec. 2002) and following partake too much of an “ascetic” sensibility once characterizing the performances of Charles Rosen. Having been introduced to the F-sharp Major Sonata, Op. 78 by Egon Petri, I could well appreciate the gracious suppleness of Pollini’s own arpeggios and rising scale passages, each cantabile. Like the E Minor, Op. 90 (rec. 2002), the work compresses a world of Romantic, intimate expression within a confined space. The rather percussive, hard-driven first movement in the E Minor does succumb to a rarified charm in movement two many may find surprising in Pollini, who here invokes both Schubert and Chopin.  And whom do you prefer on the monumental Hammerklavier, recorded by Pollini in 1976? Those familiar with the Germanic school of Backhaus and Arrau will appreciate the breadth of Pollini’s conception in the opening dotted chords and etched, gossamer arpeggios, while those who favor a more lyric bent will gravitate to Gilels and classic Kentner.

A final thought: how do we regard the Beethoven sonatas as a whole; and is any one pianist going to prove “definitive” in the collected oeuvre?  I have always conceived these pieces as a “Vulcan’s laboratory” for Beethoven’s experimentation with form and structure within the ever-expanding possibilities of the pianoforte as it literally evolved as a percussion and singing instrument. Whenever Beethoven felt he had “solved” a musical problem, the usual result tends to be a string quartet. So, when we approach the series of sonatas, Opp. 101, 109, 110 and 111, here by Pollini, we go back in time – for his E Major and A-flat Major – to 1975. We expect, demand, that Beethoven’s “new” lyricism, 1816-1823, should convey the musical equivalent of mysticism. We want to find adumbrations of Scriabin in the elongated musical periods and expressive accents, in the extended trills. The fugues and massive adagios must become testaments of faith, the modal progressions indicative of later Symbolists and the “school” of Debussy and Ravel, their compression pre-Schoenberg.

If Pollini eschews these powerfully subjective works as “Romantic” in the affective sense, he does follow Beethoven’s explicit wishes for their literal realization. Clarity and sincerity of expression, besides fabulous technical execution, must be values in themselves. We can maintain this fine set of the Complete Sonatas without our sacrificing the Hess, Schnabel, Gilels, Gulda, Arrau, Hungerford, Frank, and multifarious versions of individual sonatas. The Beethoven treasury accommodates us all.

—Gary Lemco

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