BEETHOVEN: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Paul Lewis, piano – (Gramophone Record of the Year for 2008) – Harmonia mundi box (10 CDs)

by | Feb 3, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Paul Lewis, piano – (Gramophone Record of the Year for 2008) – Harmonia mundi box HMX 2901902.11 (10 CDs), 10:55:00 total *****:

Familiarity with individual Beethoven piano sonatas that are heard quite frequently can diminish our sense of their initial revolutionary impact. Listening to all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a short span of time helps to remind us just how remarkable a creative odyssey the composer documented in these works. They are the purest distillation of his genius. Composed between 1794 and 1822 the sonatas are, along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the seminal keyboard works in European music. It is appropriate that Bach’s great keyboard compilation was increasingly influential as Beethoven created a new form of musical expressiveness in his late sonatas: one which combines the most intimate emotional utterances with the most abstract contrapuntal forms.

Beethoven’s earliest sonatas show his teacher Haydn’s influence but already exhibit a quality of strangeness and emotional frankness that the older master found distasteful. The three Op. 2 sonatas are larger and more expansive than anything previously composed with an almost orchestral grandeur. The mastery that pianist Paul Lewis exhibits in these recordings is apparent from the start. His touch is deft and sensitive with a lyrical beauty that imbues Beethoven’s questing, muscular sonatas with unusual warmth. However, Lewis never sacrifices the musical architecture which is always in focus. He is capable of the most intimate expressiveness when Beethoven turns his music inward. But he exhibits a crisply potent dynamism when the composer is at his most public and heroic.

Beethoven’s middle sonatas grapple with fate as he confronts an increasingly soundless world. They are also a musical documentation of the Napoleonic era. Lewis conveys Beethoven’s brashness with gripping forceful confidence. Yet he always allows that insistent worry found in Beethoven’s music of the period to surface whenever appropriate. There are much darker pianistic colors here that are not found in the earlier works. It is the emotional rightness of Lewis’ playing that is often the most impressive aspect of these recordings. His use of dynamics as a conveyor of emotion is exemplary.

It is in the abstract inner-realm that Beethoven inhabits in his magisterial final sonatas that Lewis discovers a truly transcendent mode of expressive technique. It is playing that is partly withdrawn, partly engaged in a world that now exists only as a series of connected musical tones, lyrical and intellectually rigorous. This is playing of breathtaking beauty and skill, reminiscent in some ways of Brendel and Kempff yet always unique. It is pianism worthy of the accolades it has received, making this an obvious recommendation as a Beethoven piano set to own.

Harmonia mundi’s engineers have produced a stunning recorded sound. The piano is vibrant and clear with a lovely reverberant bloom that lends an enticing liquidity to Mr. Lewis’ playing. The soundstage is intimate and always well-focused with wonderful clarity.

– – Mike Birman

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