BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 – Steven Osborne, piano – Hyperion CDA68219, 63:39 (5/3/19) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****:
Recorded 5-7 February 2018, the last three Beethoven sonatas by Steven Osborne – recorded in Perth Concert Hall, Scotland – enjoy a brilliant and serene resonance that might convince us that we really did require yet another survey of these three pillars of the repertory. The 1820 E Major Sonata may be the most elusive gem of the three, given its opening, eight-measure vivace theme whose 16th note figures Osborne performs with liquid grace. Beethoven has assigned two competing time signatures, and the secondary tune depends upon a diminished seventh, so its surface simplicity, adagio, constantly challenges our security in what feels like an improvisation. Osborne then seizes the E minor Prestissimo by the throat, imparting to its interior tumult – a scherzo sans trio – the Baroque character of its models, Handel and Bach. The last movement, a theme and six variations, at first impression might be a sarabande in two eight-bar phrases in triple time, with an accent in the tune’s second beat. Besides its singing character, the music once more invites Bach in both the third and fifth variation. The last andante variant includes the layering effect that miraculously possesses an emotional power rare in music. Osborne’s pedal effects and (liberated) trills bestow the required magic, and the gloss of his keyboard patina – courtesy of Producer Stephen Johns – preserves the rendition in immaculate amber.
The 1821 A-flat Sonata has some debts to a Bach chorale, but its dense texture, combined with an uncanny, inner serenity, establish its unique place in Beethoven’s oeuvre; even more so, since it may be the only piece he completed in 1821, since the Missa Solemnis occupied his thoughts. Lyrical beauty, gently paced, dominates the order of the first movement, and Osborne imparts a plastic sense of arioso pulse that turn his Steinway into something other than a percussion instrument. The sections of the movement rather coalesce, with a brief sojourn into E Major. The bass line expands as richly as the treble, whose runs and parlandi bask in periods of ecstasy. As in Op. 109, the brief second movement storms in the minor key of F, syncopated and rollicking back and forth to C, so the Allegro molto contains a gruff humor whose trio embarks into the distant key of D-flat. The last movement has many points of grand design, an Adagio that leads to a thoughtful Arioso dolente of sublime imagination. Bach counterpoint ensues, perhaps a means to codify suffering and the heroism of personal dignity. The arioso returns, signifying that the power of expression must combat the evils in this world. The fugue subject, too, returns after a clarion repetition on a single chord – but the fugue theme appears in inversion. As in the earlier Pathetique Sonata, Beethoven pits the chromaticism of his pain against the diatonism of his indomitable will. Here, the music must “revive” little by little until a staggering apotheosis of the spirit reigns over the miscarriages of fate.
That leaves us the monumental Op. 111 in C minor of 1822, begun even before the Op. 110 had been completed. The great pianists make the portentous opening chords, Maestoso, as fateful as anything in the Fifth Symphony. Even with its manic impetus, the music relents briefly for a bucolic moment in A-flat Major. But the overpowering character of the grumbling, hurtling motif alternately plods and rushes onward, the voicing of the hands obviously a model for Schumann’s and Thalberg’s three-hand effects. Despite the colossal impetus and violence of the music, it subsides in Osborne’s sunny major mode.
A marvel of understatement, the second movement claims itself Arietta: Adagio. The four variations present a labyrinth of thematic and harmonic complexity, in which stretti, syncopation, pulverized thematic fragments, and chains of trills assume a new, potent expressivity. Still, Beethoven insists upon the singing character of the Arietta and its progeny. The music at times will dance with a willful, modern character, 12/32, which even Oscar Peterson must admire. In its upper registers, the music defeats anything like gravity, while its bass figures, De Profundis, sound harmonies Dante and Liszt know well. By the last variation, the sections have merged so that the coda emerges as a kind of enigma, the emotional tenor of which combines exuberance with an awe of the inner life. Osborne bears the many affects of this Herculean journey with a clarity and drive that should repay his adherents with many returns to his traversal of the most audacious products of the keyboard imagination.