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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Late Piano Sonatas

  • Sonata #30 in E Major, Op. 109 (1820)
  • Sonata #31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110 (1822)
  • Sonata #32 in C minor, Op. 111 (1822)
Alfred Brendel, piano
Philips 446701-2 DDD 66:01
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This release marks the completion of Brendel's third recorded cycle of the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas. His second one, spanning the 1970s, was also for Philips, and his first, from the 1960s, was for Vox. Brendel has also recorded the five Beethoven piano concertos three times. Has there been another pianist to have thrice traversed these monumental sets? To my knowledge, there hasn't. It is well known that Brendel has devoted much time to Beethoven away from the recording studio as well, having on occasion played the complete sonata cycle over a period of several successive concerts. He has also studied and written extensively about Beethoven's music. What I guess I'm saying, albeit in a rather circuitous fashion, is that Alfred Brendel must be regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on the performance and analysis of Beethoven's piano music. Auditioning the disc under review confirms his preeminence in this hallowed corner of the repertory.

Brendel's account of the E Major Sonata is a tad faster than his earlier Philips rendition, but does not take a significantly different interpretive stance. The newer performance is both high-caloric and muscular, and more often looks forward to the Romantic movement than backward at the Classical period. The earlier Philips recording is clearly a more pristine, leaner rendering of the work, yet is rooted in the same pianistic framework of judicious tempos, scrupulous adherence to the composer's directions, and facile technical control, while eschewing the least hint of virtuosic grandstanding. Either version is good, then, but I'll opt for the newer, somewhat more substantive reading.

The A flat Sonata is played with virtually the same arsenal of pianistic virtues and, again, is superior to the earlier, slightly superficial Philips account. Here Brendel catches the beauty, the lightness, the depth, the humor, all in proper measure and all in a rich, gorgeous tone that has evolved over the years from the leaner, less legato-laden style of his earlier years.

Speaking of his earlier years, Brendel's Op. 111 rendition on Vox seems quite typical of his pianism then, and offers considerable contrast to the newer version. It's a performance that certainly is compelling, if a bit less probing than his latest account. Even though there's much to commend in his youthful first foray – and in the first Philips effort, as well – I personally favor the newer reading. When you listen to the sublime fifth variation and recapitulation of the main theme in the second movement, you notice greater depth, greater monumentality, a sense that you are being transported to the profound spiritual planes that so clearly occupy the final pages of Beethoven's last piano sonata. And try the fourth variation (track 9; 6:44), where Brendel's dexterously inflected, adroitly agitated enactment of this rather threadbare, yet miraculously rewarding thematic digression points up its auguring of much of the syncopated music of the twentieth century. (Did Beethoven here foreshadow rock-and-roll?)

There have been many fine pianists who have recorded the Beethoven sonatas with acclaim, including Richard Goode (a pair of his releases didn't impress me favorably, though), Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the justly praised Artur Schnabel. Brendel certainly takes his place among the greatest Beethoven interpreters of any time, and this disc finds him at his most inspiring. Philips supplies sumptuous sound and informative notes. Strongly recommended.

Copyright © 1997, Robert Cummings