Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 7 in D; No. 4 in E?; No. 23 in f,
Angela Hewitt (pn)
HYPERION 67518 (77:23)
No less a danger to musicians than to thespians is the risk of being typecast. Of the nearly three-dozen recordings Angela Hewitt has made, well over half of them—20—have been devoted to the works of J. S. Bach, a composer whose music has found in Hewitt a strong advocate and modern player of consummate skill and keen insight. And while philosophically I may
have taken exception to her delving into Couperin (see 27:2), I applauded her technique and artistry. Other recent excursions into Chopin, Chabrier, Granados, Ravel, and Messiaen have seemed a bit exploratory, almost as if Hewitt were searching for but not quite sure which composer to take on as her next project. Here we have the answer, for according to the note, the current offering is but the first in what is to be yet another essaying of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas.
For her first foray into Beethoven, Hewitt has chosen two of the composer’s earliest sonatas to sound his declaration of independence from both predecessors and contemporaries, and the last of the big-dramatic-production middle-period sonatas, the “Appassionata.” The E? Sonata, op. 7, published in 1797, is, according to Hewitt and for the statistically minded, the longest sonata Beethoven would write until the “Hammerklavier.” It is unquestionably “grand,” as the title under which it originally appeared suggests. Its Largo, con gran espressione, the center of gravity and heart of the piece, anticipates in a number of ways the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier,” and represents for its time a radical departure from the melodically and lyrically based
slow movements of an earlier period.
Often cited as the first true masterpiece among Beethoven’s sonatas is the D-Major, third in order of the set of three op. 10 sonatas published in 1798. Again, it is the funereal slow movement, Largo e mesto, that forms the emotional core of this extraordinary work, its seriousness contrasted, if not contradicted, by its quirky Rondo.
Hewitt’s nimble fingerwork and skillful delineation of counterpoint, honed to perfection from her extensive tilling in Bachian fields, serves the two early sonatas particularly well. In Beethoven’s pre-“Hammerklavier” solar system, the “Waldstein” and the “Appassionata” are the composer’s two giant gas planets. I describe them thus because awesome and magnificent as they are to behold, in truth, they are both inflated showpieces propped up by lots of drummed chords, arpeggios, swirling clouds of excited sixteenth notes, and fumaroles of diminished sevenths. Bigger and more massive still is the “Hammerklavier,” but its core is made of granite.
It may seem an odd thing to say, but if Hewitt’s disciplined execution did the earlier sonatas a world of good, it is her piano that does wonders for the “Appassionata.” This is not to say that she is any less technically in control of this boiling, roiling sea of notes, but that her choice of a Fazioli concert grand—a comparatively recent (1981) Italian upstart in the manufacture of pianos—anchors her to a bedrock floor. The instrument is as much a part of the performance as is Hewitt herself. Rarely have I heard a piano—or a piano recording, for that matter, to give Hyperion its due—with bass notes of such depth and amplitude. The keyboard is beautifully balanced over its entire range, but it’s the bass—from about an octave below middle C down—that really hits you in the solar plexus.
Hewitt’s tempo in the sonata’s last movement does not approach the warp-9 speed reached by Fazil Say (29:5), nor does she whip up quite the frenzy in the final measures that Rudolf Serkin does on a mono Columbia LP; but again, her transparency of voicing points up details of Beethoven’s brush strokes that tend to go unnoticed in readings that try to take in the whole canvas at once with a wide-angle, and necessarily more distant and less focused lens. If at least one nitpick per review be necessary, I guess this one would be with the variations second movement. To her credit, Hewitt does not ignore the
modifier of Beethoven’s
marking, but her constancy in maintaining the underlying pulse inhibits to some extent the beautiful second variation from opening up and singing. Rubinstein is more relaxed and poetic here in his 1963 RCA account, as are others—Ashkenazy and Cliburn, to name just two.
The last movement, in recent times it seems, has become an ever increasing, high-stakes race to see who can get to the finish line first. The aforementioned Fazil Say, I believe, is both the current champion and the all-time record holder for speed (6:58 compared to Hewitt’s 8:15). But we tend to forget that Beethoven qualified this Allegro tempo marking as well, this time with
ma non troppo
. Hewitt observes the yellow caution sign; and while her delivery of the movement may not leave you gaping and gasping for breath, it may actually be closer to what Beethoven intended.
This then is a very promising start to another Beethoven cycle, one that so far gives me little cause to equivocate as I have over András Schiff’s on-going series. If Hewitt continues on this trajectory, her Beethoven sonatas should be as enriching as her Bach has proved to be.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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