Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 21 in C,
op. 53, “Waldstein”;
No. 29 in B?,
op. 103, “Hammerklavier”
Vladimir Ashkenazy (pn)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 1304 (68:30)
Ashkenazy remade the “Hammerklavier” for Decca in 1980. Here we hear his 1967 thoughts (his first Beethoven recording for Decca), coupled with a May 1973 “Waldstein.”
All the famed finger fluency of early Ashkenazy is evident for
all to hear in the first and final movements of this “Waldstein.” The brittle sound I complain about in the recording of earlier sonatas in this Decca Eloquence series elsewhere in this issue is less distracting here, certainly in the first movement; it is in the stillness of the “Introduzione” to the final movement that Ashkenazy reminds us of what a fine pianist he could be in his day. There’s a sense of repose here that links to the world of the late piano sonatas. If the finale does not quite creep in as stealthily as it might, it nevertheless acts as a prolongation of the “Introduzione.” Backhaus was perhaps one of the greatest interpreters of this sonata, and it is to him that one might turn for a truly great performance, but Ashkenazy’s reading stands on its own merits perfectly acceptably.
The “Hammerklavier” reveals a pianist whose technique knows no fear. The brittle sound and reluctance to let the tempo bend in the first movement recalls Pollini’s legendary DG account (although without Pollini’s imperial streak). Yet Pollini retains and projects all of the movement’s grandeur, whereas Ashkenazy does not; yet it is Ashkenazy who wins the laurels in the slow movement, with his ability to convey absolute stasis. Ashkenazy’s technique in the second-movement Scherzo, too, rivals that of Gilels (DG). The speed for the finale seems suicidal at first, but amazingly Ashkenazy remains undaunted by Beethoven’s demands. The recording supports all Ashkenazy does, even in the fiercest outbursts. If one does not quite emerge with a feeling of awe for the piece’s greatness, this “Hammerklavier” remains valuable in its own right.
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
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