Murray Perahia offers two distinct Beethoven sonatas from polar aspects of his idiosyncratic Romanticism.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”; Piano Sonata No. 14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight” – Murray Perahia, piano – DGG 470 8353, 55:42 (2/9/18) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Beethoven in 1818 had composed relatively few pieces, and the arrival of a new Broadwood instrument suddenly impelled him from his creative lassitude.  The great range and potent sonority of this keyboard approximated, for Beethoven, the “symphonic” equivalent that he had imagined but could never quite realize.  The ubiquitous interval of a third has become an ironic fixture in a work so innately vast in scale that its effect as a connecting tissue might seem trivial, especially given the breadth of the gestures that run rampant in the opening movement. The “competition” or juxtaposition, of conjunct, thirds and disjunct, leaping, block-chord, double-dotted figures continues, offset by cascades of scales, the sonorities of which sound like pearly music boxes.  The progression prefigures the “Handelian” overture for The Consecration of the House, with its development marked by displacements of the original B-flat harmony and into D and G Major.  In a distant key of B minor, the music achieves an eerie sense of disquietude. Perahia takes this first movement Allegro rather briskly, displaying his gift for double thirds and double trills, even while vaulting in the big gestures to the skies.

The ensuing Scherzo – Assai vivace always seems incongruous, whimsical and willful. The motion leans forward, grimly fixated and decisive. Yet, it too exerts the same penchant for progressions in thirds, rather symmetrical, in fact. The middle section gravitates into B-flat minor, the left hand’s rolling underneath. This music begins to act unruly, wending its way into high register.  If the sense of a cosmic joke were insufficient, Beethoven in the coda creates a mock-duel between B-natural and B-flat, in which the hammer blows of the latter prove victorious.  The interval of the third infiltrates the monumental Adagio in F-sharp minor, set in sonata-form and opening with a rising third and two falling thirds. This music, ornately long and exquisitely sad, retains something like an operatic melodic line, groping, varied, passionate, and beset with syncopations effected by repeated notes off the beat: might they serve as sighs and sobs?  In the falling figures, do we hear intimations of the Brahms E minor Symphony opening movement? Perahia infuses the music with a plastic, nocturnal atmosphere, moving with subdued, introspective grace to the thirty-second notes in the development section that testify to a rarified transfiguration, the light of a distant star.

Beethoven’s gift for improvisation—witness his Fantasia, Op. 77—marks the mercurial Largo section of the last movement, Largo – Allegro risoluto, serving much as a prelude would precede a Bach organ fugue. Once more, the interval of a third will provide the means of transition—in high trills and a group of runs—to the massive, even archaic, fugue. The first, accelerated motion belongs to a Bach toccata. With the dominance of trills and a quasi-march in syncopes, the agitated fugue proper begins, invoking all the ancient procedures, especially that of stretto, the layering of the augmented and inverted figures as they pass between the hands. The trills themselves become absorbed into the texture as countermelodies.  Perahia manages to negotiate the multifarious voices with lithe, resilient energy. Even the underlying dance-character of the motive shines through, despite its aggressive, protean metamorphoses. Despite a temporary lapse of histrionic movement, the fugal impulse renews itself, now become a veritable vortex of hastening motifs. Some of Perahia’s fierce staccati will doubtless invoke the ghost of Glenn Gould. The opening movement’s octave leap and trills tie the music to its source, an ourobouros whose paradoxical momentum has given us a sense of liberation.

By contrast with the Op. 106, the “revolutionary” character of the famed Moonlight Sonata (1801) seems the soul of subtlety, with its three-note arpeggio’s having become both melody and mantra. Each movement of the sonata remains kin to C-sharp minor, a tonality foreign to all of the Mozart sonatas and appearing only once in Haydn. The gentle Allegretto rocks and lulls us with an enharmonic, D-flat, that plays on the sonata’s home key.  Its lightly martial middle section beguiles rather than startles us. Typically, the virtuosic  Presto agitato gives us “Prometheus Unbound,” a sense of the emotional tempests to which Beethoven fell heir. This is Shelley’s West Wind at its most poignant and voluptuous.  Both the Moonlight recording (July 2017) and Hammerklavier (November 2016) deliver a crisp, pungent sound that still allows for moments of refined intimacy.

–Gary Lemco