BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas: No. 20 in G Major, Op. 49/2; No. 19 in G Minor, Op. 49/1; No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31/3; No. 24 in F# Major, Op. 78; No. 25 in G Major, Op. 79; No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90 – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 206 (8/9/22) (77:15) [www.cembaldamour.com] *****:
Recorded June 2022, the six Beethoven sonatas performed by Mordecai Shehori extend to 19 the number of sonatas traversed to date, here recorded on Scheops microphones, which add an especial, pungent resonance to his chosen instrument, the 1914 Steinway grand that belonged to the legendary Josef Hofmann between 1932-1938. Shehori revitalized this precious keyboard with a new action and Renner hammers, all of which benefit from his approach to sound production, a product of his strict discipline with pedagogue and virtuoso Mindru Katz (1925-1978).
Shehori opens with the two, brief sonatas of c. 1796, Op. 49, but published in 1805 and so receiving the assignment to the composer’s middle period. The first to be played, the G Major, retains a healthy import for its second movement, Tempoum di Menuetto, whose tune Beethoven employs in his 1797 Septet, Op. 20. The Allegro, ma non troppo, 2/2, proceeds in sonata form, its two themes, rife with passing canons and trills, articulated with a light buoyancy reminiscent of Haydn. The last chords strike us with a hearty resolve. The martial second movement, ¾, projects a playful balance of alternate affects, moving in diverse registers. A momentary rocket figure proceeds to the coda.
The G Minor Sonata opens Andante, 2/4, thoughtful, with a contrapuntal impulse that moves into the treble voice before the sonata form closes. The ensuing Allegro offers a rondo in G, with diversions into the tonic minor and B-flat Major. The passing grace notes in the simple context Beethoven provides easily could be assigned to Schubert. The alternation of staccato and parlando figures adds to the color interest in this gracious rendition.
For my own audition purposes, I choose next the 1809 Sonata No. 24 in F# Major, “à Thérèse,” dedicated to Therese Countess von Brunsvik and first introduced to me via a recording by Robert Goldsand. The music opens with four measures, Adagio cantabile, 2/4, that segue into the Allegro ma non troppo, that demands, in its own way, a fluid series of runs, trills, and ornaments from Shehori while he maintains the main, arioso theme in various guises. The use of the high treble register contributes to the lyricism in this compressed sonata form whose chromatic gestures take us occasionally far afield. Shehori takes the second movement, Allegro vivace, 2/4, a bit more marcato than some interpreters, slowing down the motion to accentuate Beethoven’s color palette. A sense of obsession infiltrates the repeated patterns and the martial impulses in the mix, the melody’s moving higher on the keyboard to end, not with a bang, but with a soft, arpeggiated coda, in this realization quite disarming.
A striking contrast in affect seizes us in the G Major Sonata, Op. 79, a bravura work in compressed form rife with sudden harmonic shifts and moments of humor in the Presto alla tedesca’s ornamental accacciaturas. The three-note G-B-G motif at times becomes perversely insistent, but the thematic group in D keeps the sonata form reliable. Shehori takes the repeats, so the extended humor and inventiveness of the movement plays out in striking relief on an enlarged canvas. The Andante, 9/8, espressivo, almost resembles a G Minor barcarolle from Shehori, close in spirit to a moment in Mendelssohn. The 2/4 Vivace finale again finds Shehori more marcato than some interpreters, but Beethoven’s canny humor does not suffer. In fact, the manic propulsion that erupts in contrast to the opening motif provides plenty of agogic vitality to this witty rondo that suddenly disappears in a wisp of air.
The 1814 Sonata No. 27 in E Minor inhabits a world unto itself, even as it approaches the monumental sonatas of Beethoven’s final period of development. Its two movements demand a lyricism quite enchanting, and Artur Schnabel claimed that its mysteries eluded him for most of his active career. The two movements’ indications are marked in German, perhaps because of the music’s powerful intimacy of expression. Its effect on Schumann’s C Major Fantasie seems immediate and profound. Shehori captures the passionate, restless energy of the first movement, which can feel percussive even as it mournfully sings. The development section, quite contrapuntal and even convulsive at moments, avoids any sense of pedantry but remains lyric.
The astonishing beauty of the E Major second movement first came to this auditor by way of Peter Serkin. The music in 2/4 seems close to Schubert in spirit, though its contrasting episodes are tinged with a sense of spatial distance close to later Romanticism. Shehori imparts to this movement that vocal quality of expression not so far from Chopin, though the tone darkens, and the interior lines assume a complexity almost alien to the initial, singing impulse. The shifts in tempo in the delivery of the main theme compound our fascination with the course of this curious fusion of sonata-rondo form, here lovingly rendered.
I selected the 1801 Sonata No. 18 in E-flat for the last, fully aware how much the late Clara Haskil relished its generally optimistic character. The opening Allegro, ¾, employs Beethoven’s signature gambit, deliberately delaying the resolution into the stability of the tonic chord, much as he does in his Symphony No. 1. While the music may borrow expressive elements from the “emotional” school of C.P.E. Bach, its harmonic color looks forward to impulses in Wagner. Shehori, from the outset, colors the progressions with attention to the repeated bass motif, almost anticipatory of the “fate” motif later in Beethoven’s evolution. The fleetly executed modulations become dramatic moments in themselves, pregnant pauses indicating a sense of periodic design in the sonata form. Typical of the three sonatas of Op. 31, an improvisatory element, experimental in character, seems operative.
The sonata has no slow movement as such, the interior movements marked as a Scherzo: Allegro vivace and Menuetto: Moderato grazioso, respectively. The 2/4 Scherzo proves relatively rare in Beethoven, especially as it unfolds in sonata form. Its rustic energy extends the “hunt” impulse that characterizes movement one. Percussive and blithely irreverent, the writing in staccato and sudden increases in dynamics points to a hearty, often syncopated humor that Haydn would have appreciated. The Menuetto, ¾, provided Saint-Saens with the basis of his Op. 35 Variations for Two Pianos. The music, tenderly serious, enjoys a delicate fabric from Shehori; and even its martial interlude explores dynamic shading more than dire emotions. A kind of moto perpetuo, the 6/8 Presto con fuoco moves in Italianate gestures, a soft tarantella with persistent eighth note bass. Shehori rather kneads the phrases so that the dynamic contrasts ring forth beyond a mere study in technical effects. The music assumes a folkish character, perhaps at times more Scottish than Italian, but the rusticity proves learned in clever, chromatic coloration. For me, this sonata capped off a grand tour of Beethoven, lengthy and singularly rich in the composer’s capacity for novel invention.