Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 11 in B?,
No. 13 in E?,
No. 31 in A?,
Garrick Ohlsson (pn)
BRIDGE 9266 (62:21)
Piano Sonatas: No. 29 in B?,
op. 106, “Hammerklavier”;
No. 16 in G,
Garrick Ohlsson (pn)
A recital of Beethoven piano sonatas that includes early and late music, as is the case with both of these new releases from Garrick Ohlsson’s series of the complete sonatas, should make the listener aware of the degree to which Beethoven evolved as an artist, but also those elements that marked him as a singular genius throughout his career. Some pianists do this by underlining elements in the earlier pieces that point to the unique, even eccentric nature of the composer; highlighting an odd harmony or an exuberant melodic structure, as examples.
Ohlsson takes a different tack. Although Beethoven was well into his so-called first period by the time of the Sonatas Nos. 11, 13, and 16, they are still classically conceived constructions, more so in mold of his teacher Haydn than Mozart, especially in his frequent use of humor. Ohlsson does not downplay the brilliance of this music, or even its boldness, but hears it as a continuation of a tradition rather than anything radical. Beethoven’s music, from the outset of his career, is filled with surprises and wonderful dramatic twists, but in this playing, they are always neatly within the context of the overall logic of the music. It is an equally good prescription for playing Mozart and Haydn.
The Piano Sonata No. 31 is full of extraordinary imagination, but is familiar enough to our ears to be considered the most accessible of the late sonatas, especially because of its magnificent neobaroque counterpoint writing. And the “Hammerklavier” is simply
as a work of art. So somehow tying this music to earlier Beethoven isn’t really necessary, and Ohlsson plays them for their own sake. As has been noted in previous reviews, his tempos are on the broad side, which, in the case of both these late sonatas accentuates the grandiloquence of the music. This approach makes for an especially rewarding rendition of No. 31, which can sound rushed in less-mature hands.
The tempo question gets a bit sticky in the case of the “Hammerklavier.” Ohlsson makes no attempt whatever to play the first movement at the composer’s supposed metronome marking, but few do. Many have questioned the veracity of the marking, which seems ridiculously fast. A few pianists, notably Peter Serkin, can bring it off, with exhilarating results, but it is hard to deny that the more measured tempo of Ohlsson ultimately gives us a more musical and sensible interpretation. But for the full measure of what Ohlsson contributes to an immense and storied recorded legacy, one needs only to turn to his superb rendition of the hulking slow movement to this work. It is one challenge to gather up the furious notes of the outer movements of this behemoth, but in some ways even more daunting to hold together the oceanic center, which Ohlsson does with supreme grace and intelligence. It reflects everything else he plays. I can only echo previous
commentary from Boyd Pomeroy and Jerry Dubins to say that despite the multitude of excellent choices already available in this music, great artistry like this is always welcome.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
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