BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 16; Piano Sonata No. 17; Piano Sonata No. 18 – Thomas Sauer, piano – MSR Classics MS 1284 [Distr. by Albany], 69:05 ***:
The Opus 31 sonatas represent the penultimate group of works that Beethoven issued as a collection under a single opus number. They’re just about as heterogeneous a group as can be imagined. Certainly the last such collection—the three Rasumovsky Quartets, Op. 59—represents a more “unified front” than the three sonatas, whose differences of demeanor led Charles Rosen to characterize them as representing the comic, the tragic, and the lyric in musical guise.
The comical elements in Op. 31 No. 1 have to do with a rhythmic awkwardness in the first movement that seems almost like musical stuttering. It’s as though the pianist is hard pressed to keep his hands in sync. This seems the most classically minded sonata of the three; its lighthearted playfulness recalls the Haydn of, say, Sonata No. 50. When we turn to Beethoven’s Op. 31 No. 2 (actually written before No. 1), we enter a different musical world: dark, restless, indeed verging on the tragic in intensity. This may be the most popular—and arguably the most Beethovenian—of the three, but Op. 31 No. 3 (nicknamed “The Hunt”) has always seemed to me even more interesting, embracing several different emotions across its four movements. In this sonata, the lighthearted passages, including a typically athletic scherzo, alternate with more searching ones, and the whole offers an emotionally varied experience that seems to anticipate the Beethoven of the Late Period sonatas.
Thomas Sauer appears to be on the same page as me; his performance of Op. 31 No. 3 strikes me as clearly the best of the lot. Sauer is mindful of the emotional range that I mentioned earlier, and he produces more color, catching the shifting moods quite tellingly here. In the case of all these sonatas, there is so much recorded competition that any new recording must be special indeed to stand out, but Sauer pretty much holds his own against competitors.
Not so in the other sonatas, I’m afraid. There’s a blandness to Sauer’s playing that’s probably the result of a number of factors: largely undifferentiated dynamics, rhythmic staidness, insipid phrasing. In isolation, these thoughtful, well-played entries in the Beethoven sweepstakes seem perfectly satisfying. Turn to Alfred Brendel’s performances on Philips, however, and it’s almost as if you’re listening to a different composer—one you’ll like better, I guarantee. So while I enjoyed Sauer’s Op. 31 No. 3, competition is just too overwhelming for me to give this CD an unqualified recommendation.
— Lee Passarella
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