Notes and Editorial Reviews
Towering, magnificent, definitive Beethoven; very fine Schubert.
These Sonatas are arguably Beethoven’s greatest works and among the finest and most influential piano compositions ever produced. As when listening to Parsifal, one hears throughout the Hammerklavier little bits here and there that made it into many if not most of the ambitious piano compositions written since. I have on occasion ridiculed the banality and facility of some of Beethoven’s early and middle period attempts at theme-and-variations, but in these last works, produced in his final decade of life he attained supreme, sublime, completely individual mastery of the form. Perhaps even more remarkable is that after a lifetime spent performing Bach’s
Well Tempered Clavier, Beethoven attained a unique mastery of the fugue form also, and wrote a group of totally individual masterpieces completely unlike any of the models provided by his teacher.
The spirit of pianist Artur Schnabel hangs over these recordings. He made the first recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas on 78s in the ’thirties, and for many decades thereafter for most people any discussion of Beethoven sonata recordings began and ended with mention of his name. Schnabel had an astonishing ability to project his very considerable musical intelligence and showmanship by means of a piano keyboard. The recordings are still in print and easily available; many will say that the first step in getting to know the Beethoven Sonatas should be to acquire the Schnabel recordings. I have heard them, I admire them, I enjoyed them, and I think the previous statement to be perfectly reasonable. That said, I don’t have the Schnabel recordings and don’t listen to them.
The reason is that a concert grand piano is a living breathing animal; I’ve been in a small room with a huge concert grand piano with someone who really knows what he’s doing sitting at the keyboard, and the effect is almost frightening in its overwhelming power. Older piano recordings are like listening through a closed door; I want that door open. I’d rather listen to David Allen Wehr live than listen to Schnabel through a closed door. We mustn’t forget that pianists also listen to Schnabel and learn from him. In 1930, nobody else could do what Schnabel did; these days, that’s not true. I suspect many modern artists would tell you they’ve taken all they want from Schnabel and then added their own vision to that.
Since the Hammerklavier recording has a drier acoustic than the other recordings — all the better to clarify the textures in the fugue — I assume that it was recorded in Utica in 2004. The remaining sonatas have a more live acoustic, and I assume that they were the ones recorded during the previous sessions in Tarrytown. One of the results of this is that Wehr’s recordings of the final sonatas are often softer in texture than some others. One hears stories of Beethoven destroying pianos by pounding on them and some pianists assume the obligation to try to do the same thing to a Steinway or a Yamaha, but they forget a few things. A modern piano treated kindly can make a lot, lot more noise than an 1824 Graf piano, so it isn’t necessary to try to push it beyond the max. Also getting the maximum sound out of a good piano is not done with strength but with cunning. Even very sudden and loud Beethoven notes have harmonic content, and one should make sure that no matter how powerful the attack, all the notes should be audible. As Badura-Skoda’s recording shows, Beethoven’s actual piano was sweeter and more harp-like than most modern pianos, varied tonally more from register to register. As David Allen Wehr shows, it is possible to be powerfully dramatic and still make every sound as beautiful as possible, and the slightly richer acoustic of these recordings helps him do this.
It is a testimony to its quality that all the university and public libraries in my area have the Edith Vogel performance of the Hammerklavier in their collections, even as they may have others as well. She plays the first two movements with high energy and gives us a stunningly effective performance of the slow movement as an extended (nearly 24 minutes long!) dirge.* She puts up a terrific fight during the fugue but, in the end, it wins, if just barely. David Allen Wehr plays the adagio sostenuto with more richness and variety, ranging at times into the territory of Chopin(!) but it is during his performance of the fugue that we reach the pinnacle of this whole set. Wehr’s performance is absolutely astounding, enough to make Glenn Gould turn green with envy. Every note is in place, every line perfectly clear, the overall logic and sweep of the music perfectly delineated. I had never heard any Beethoven fugue so masterfully presented; after hearing this performance, I listened to every recording I have of the string quartet Grosse Fuge Op. 133, and found that, even though I’ve been listening to that work for fifty years, I enjoyed and understood it as never before, and could clearly hear who else grasps it and who does not. David Allen Wehr has taught me something valuable and important about Beethoven.
It is also important to comment on the quality of the recording which has made all this amazing musicianship audible. As I said, I want an open door between me and the piano. These CDs are all but indistinguishable in clarity and power from SACD piano recordings in my collection. Many pianists would not dare allow themselves to be recorded so clearly; their technique wouldn’t stand up to this level of examination. David Allen Wehr’s pianism shines through this clarity. You can listen as close as you want for defects and you won’t hear any, you’ll hear only Beethoven — perfect Beethoven.
The last three sonatas, Opp. 109-111, written over a period of three years from 1820 to 1822, are often considered as a unit and programmed together as though they formed a single gigantic hour long sonata in nine movements**. Wehr’s release is unique in that they are not put on the disks in sequence. No only are they on different disks but Sonata No. 28 is put between them. So, whatever Mr. Wehr thinks, the record producer clearly sees them as separate, distinct works, and so do I.
Wehr makes the opening vivace of Op. 109 into an enormous crescendo; the prestissimo is brisk, but Wehr does not sound rushed. The variations are another performance high point in this set, astonishingly beautiful and attain a Chopin-like grace, a notable achievement for Beethoven, late or early. Wehr plays with every bit as much control and flair as Glenn Gould, but with less attitude and more affection. Op. 110 gives us three strongly individual sonata-form movements. The whimsical rhythmic accents of the question-and-answer allegro molto have never been so convincingly presented. A very spooky adagio ma non troppo is followed by what is probably Beethoven’s very best fugue. The firm bass entry in this fugue is probably the loudest sound on this entire set, but is still beautiful; the exquisite crystallinity of the inverted entry makes a strong contrast. Even Bach would be impressed. The opening maestoso of Op. 111 could be a sketch for a symphonic first movement. Wehr gives the opening chords a Haydnesque stature, and the ensuing allegro reminds us of the Baroque ouverture form. But the canonic exposition never becomes a fugue as Beethoven struggles to go somewhere with it and finally gives up, content to produce a fine open-ended opening sonata movement. With the first notes of the ensuing adagio molto semplice e cantabile the matter is made clear. Triumphantly to finish off the ideas in the first movement would require youth, and in this, his final piano composition, a set of variations in search of a theme, Beethoven revels in the content perspective of old age, looking back a long, long time to the simpler more direct work of his earlier compositions. Is this sonata, at two movements, unfinished? No, at 24 minutes it’s longer than either of the previous two, and with such a strong sense of beginning and completion nothing more needs to be said.
Sonata No. 28 does not belong to the “late” sonatas, being jocular, theatrical, almost humorous in tone at times, with brief reflective slow movements. Beethoven, like Liszt, wrote some of his most profound music in march tempo. Wehr’s brilliant projection of the complex rhythms of this very serious alla marcia movement keeps the tone light and full of surprises. But this work is too deeply felt to be a “middle period” sonata, either, and must stand as the glue that binds middle to late. Here again we have wonderful realism, power and transparency in the bass register.
Another spirit hovers over recordings of the Beethoven sonatas from our generations: Daniel Barenboim. He began recording the sonatas in New York for Westminster records in the late 1950s and produced no less than four complete sets, two for EMI and two for DG, the last one in video. While these recordings are widely admired, he has his detractors and has never won any critical or popular sense of “owning” the works. His last set in video, out of which I have only seen about an hour, broadcast on US public television, has won universal acclaim, in which I concur; I await an opportunity to see and hear the whole set. The only complete Barenboim recording I have access to is the DG from 1984, and while I very much admire the performances of the middle and early sonatas from this set, the late sonatas, compared to David Allen Wehr, lack dramatic tension, seem deliberate and relatively uncommitted.
Glenn Gould’s performances are rambling, eccentric, coy, disrespectful, forgetting that it was Beethoven who invented Schumann, not the other way around. In his notes Gould describes these sonatas as “... a brief but an idyllic stop-over in the itinerary of an intrepid voyageur...” No, I don’t think so. Poor mono sound is another liability, although the recordings are very close and clear. CBS Masterworks’ engineers never did figure out how to record Gould while keeping his singing-along off the tape; they’d have been better off not to try.
Although he was a coffin bearer at the old man’s funeral and is buried near him, it is controversial as to whether or not Schubert ever actually met Beethoven. Just as well - they would have disliked each other. In modern times Wilhelm Kempff and Artur Schnabel established reputations with recordings of the works of both men, but not equally well, so David Allen Wehr is in good company if I say his Schubert does not quite live up to his Beethoven. In his youth, Kempff was a stellar middle period Beethoven interpreter, but in the later works his reflective approach is not appropriate for every movement. But to my taste Kempff is the greatest Schubert interpreter I ever heard - he was better live than on record - alone in his ability to bring out the mystical depth, the yearning for transcendence found in the piano works. Schubert passed on to Chopin only a small bit of this feeling, and Chopin’s ability to alternate it with a colorful extroversion yielded his distinctive style and prefigured Tchaikovsky. In Schubert’s symphonies transfiguration was achieved and the yearning fulfilled, but the piano works, even this most nearly triumphant, are more intimate and tentative. Schnabel’s approach is, as always, that of the showman; Nadelmann is more successful than Schnabel at what Schnabel attempted - and has the advantage of brilliant modern sound. Wehr Beethovenizes the work a little, not so much as Schnabel, and strikes a scholar’s median position stylistically. His is a clean forthright performance, and, for bringing all the disparate influences in the work into optimum balance, may be your favorite version. After repeated hearings, it may end up my favorite, too.
I haven’t heard the first volume in this set, the early Beethoven sonatas, but I think I can say with confidence that this set will rank among the very finest on disk. Connoisseur Society started out many years ago like many small labels, recording off-beat music with off-beat artists, but with the release of this Beethoven set, rounds off a catalogue which contains a superb Art of the Fugue, an equally remarkable Well Tempered Clavier, and a widely acclaimed set of the Mozart Keyboard Sonatas (which I have not heard) with Elizabeth Rich. Connoisseur Society can no longer be considered a specialty label, and its sound standards exceed all but the very pinnacle of major label productions. E. Alan Silver has always been a name to conjure with and the magic continues to produce wonders.
*Technically the performance is marred by a mild but persistent hum and occasional very distant rail traffic noise, but is otherwise very clear and realistic.
**The eight Schubert impromptus are likewise often considered to form two, or sometimes even one large sonata. But can the last three Beethoven sonatas be taken as a miscellaneous collection of nine piano pieces? No way, they lean into one another too perfectly.
-- Paul Shoemaker, MusicWeb International
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