BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101; Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 “Hammerklavier” – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 198, 75:12 [www.cembaldamour.com] *****:
Recorded in September 2020, the pairing of the only two sonatas that Beethoven “Germanized” with the term hammerklavier for his chosen instrument has the ever-scrupulous Mordecai Shehori reconsidering two scores many other pianists have taken for granted or simply ignored in terms of the composer’s directives. The two sonatas proffer vast contrasts in texture and approach, given Beethoven’s penchant to use the form of the piano sonata as an experimental laboratory to explore music in its physical and spiritual applications. History has kept the hammerklavier designation for the Op. 106 alone.
The 1816 Sonata in A Major insists upon expression over bravura technique. Beethoven marks the first movement Allegretto, ma non troppo, in Italian, but he directs the player in German, to deliver the melody from deep within the soul, Etwas lebhaft, und mit der innigsten Empfindung– “Somewhat lively, and with the most heartfelt expression.” The spare, economical texture calls for a ff but once, asking Shehori for restraint that concentrates on warm syncopations in the second subject. The feeling has been intimate and inner-directed.
Shehori maintains the dynamic restraint in the succeeding Vivace alla Marcia, lulling us with the pattern of dotted 8ths and 16ths, where many a pianist has shattered us in a martial storm unleashed in fury. This does not mean Shehori’s rhythm belies the menace in the trills and passing dissonances Beethoven invests into this music, which moved Robert Schumann enough to imitate it in the second movement of his C Major Fantasie, Op. 17. Shehori invests the trio section with a warm repose, whose gentle counterpoints bear a rare intimacy. When the da capo returns in full, we detect variety in the colors, their meditative insight as well as their fierce aggression. The Adagio enters with some audacious, passing harmonies, its progression almost static at moments and reminiscent of movement one; but all has served as a transition to a brilliant scale and trill that herald a pungent Allegro in the form of a four-voice fugue, which Shehori introduces marcato. Rather than exploit the music’s musculature, Shehori makes the figures dance in staid, measured periods, singing in competing registers. The bass sets off another round of fugal competition, even more intricate, playing the tune in inversion and a variety of procedures to make J.S. Bach take note. The trills themselves have become liberated in a way that Scriabin would later appreciate. The height of fancy comes with a chorale-like utterance and a series of scalar passages that seem to dissolve in soft legatos. But Beethoven, in a fit of late humor, staggers his phrases so as to conclude with seven shattering A Major chords that remind us that Prometheus can only be bound temporarily.
The 1817 Hammerklavier Sonata evolves from the arrival of the new Broadwood piano from London into Beethoven’s life, with its expanded tonal compass, and the direct influence and appreciation of Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph of Austria, whose own name helps to build the rhythmic, fanfare motto of the opening B-flat Major chords. Beethoven conceived this momentous Allegro as a vast, symphonic synthesis of conjunct and disjunct melodic kernels, whose specifics in immediate variety – two sfzs then p, and then one sfz then p, and then f and one sfz and then p, to be rendered in periods of increased dynamics – which Shehori obeys fruitfully. Shehori renders some enchanting clusters of sound , especially in running arpeggios. His sforzandos have bite and weight, his sudden bursts of energy, menace. Having respected Beethoven’s considered markings in nuance and pedal maintains its cosmic spontaneity. Shehori’s fugatos enjoy clarity and interior bounce, and they dissolve into affecting plays between legato and staccato impulses. We come to relish this pianist’s expansive tempos as a measured affection for this, the most imposing creation for the keyboard after Bach.
After the fff finale of the Allegro comes the succeeding Scherzo, Assai vivace in B-flat minor. Dazzling yet delicate triplet figures and quirky runs, marcato, from Shehori play havoc with our emotions as well our sense of poetic closure. Beethoven builds a fierce tension between B natural and B-flat, and the rare disjunction of affect – especially after a quizzical run abruptly breaks off so the triple meter might return – leaves us in a state of suspension. The gloriously slow Adagio sostenuto, appassionato e con molto sentimento, opening with A and C#, casts us into a distilled sense of melody whose tender simplicity belies its depth of experience, Manichean in its contrasts of darkness and light. The contrasts of rapture – after bar 27 that culminates early, measures 85-103, senza corpo – suddenly yields to a spiritual malignity at bar 104ff, as the bass line becomes dominant. The drooping figures in thirds well remind us of the opening of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. Paul Bekker characterized the movement as “the apotheosis of personal anguish.” Shehori maintains a taut line, restrained dynamics, and tension in this extended, exalted moment of synoptic vision, akin to Dante’s in his Divine Comedy.
The last movement, Allegro vivace – Fuga a tre voci, con alcune licenza, combines a sense of elastic freedom with the strictures of a three-voice fugue. The initial forte, bar 25, warrants that the main theme in F-sharp minor emerge in contrast, piano. The con licenza, the demand for the illusion of freedom, Shehori indulges with variety in his touches, subtle rubato, and dynamics, thus conveying the degrees of espressivo Beethoven demands. Musical procedure for Beethoven has becomes a personal testament of faith in the Divine order of things – to wit, measures 199ff, and 240-268, in which the theme, respectively, meets its own inversion, makes a descent via a cadenza into Hades, and then ascends – witnessed from some transcendent location: if this were Carl Sagan, he’d claim Vega. The final chords, perhaps “chorus” is more appropriate, leave us both exhausted and fulfilled, at once.