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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 8
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, op. 2 no. 1 (1793-5) [21:44]
Piano Sonata No. 10 in G major, op. 14 no. 2 (1798) [16:28]
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, op. 53 (1803-4), Waldstein [26:27]
Piano Sonata No. 22 in F major, op. 54 (1804) [11:59]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
HYPERION CDA68220 [76:46]

The opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 1 is described by his star pupil, Carl Czerny, as “fervent and impassioned, energetic and varied”. No easy opener, then, even for Angela Hewitt on the penultimate volume of her complete cycle.  A contest between an opening theme which is an ascending flourish and a second theme (tr. 1, 0:24) which is a descending meditation. Yet might its key moment be the con espressione third theme (0:43), which tries to find an equanimity? It falls, then rises in three ever higher pitched sequences, a reminder that the second theme after its three falling sequences has rising fluttering before cascading down. Hewitt’s concentrated momentum is admirable. I like her soft, deceptive opening which belies the splenetic thrust of the movement. A detailed element of this, she points out in her excellent and engaging booklet note, is that in a good edition there’s no dot over the first note upbeat so the first staccato is on the downbeat. Every sforzando from Hewitt is telling, vividly so when the rising left-hand syncopated leaps combat the right-hand cascades from 0:34, yet the opportunity for relief in the ornamental triplets, especially in the transitional passage between the two themes from 0:14, seems to me somewhat underplayed. The development starts briefly smiling, but the second theme seems to have grown determinedly morose and the left-hand syncopated sforzandos alternating with right-hand sforzandos create a disjointed, dysfunctional effect. The picture Hewitt instils is of Beethoven as storm petrel. This isn’t an overly romantic reading: it’s not violently dramatic but placed within a trimly formal structure. Hewitt reveals all the elements Czerny identifies well except perhaps ‘varied’. I wonder is more equipoise needed for a movement which looks back to the 18th century as well as looking forward to the 19th? Attention to the former brings moments of hope and consolation, to the latter fear of change. I feel Hewitt weights the attention to the latter and her interpretation has a strikingly febrile quality emerging out of the mix.

I compared another recent recording, made in 2017 by Olivier Cavé (Alpha 385). He weights towards the 18th century, his interpretation characterized by combining melodious flow and animated progression, plus the caressing of the third theme which Hewitt’s note points out Czerny suggests may be played with some rubato. Cavé’s sforzandos are perceptible but not as stabbing as Hewitt’s. He gets more humour out of the frilly triplets and thereby more character. Hewitt sweeps through these as if frippery, Cavé appreciates them. He gets more dazzle than tension out of the cascades late in the second theme. His development sparkles with excitement and is latterly more playful, but the central offbeat sforzandos seem unduly smoothed over. Although his overall timing is much the same as Hewitt’s, though he unfortunately doesn’t make the development and recapitulation repeat, his approach is more rounded and less urgent. Like Hewitt he matches most of Czerny’s elements, but in his case not ‘impassioned’. He makes this early Beethoven sound Mozartian. I am torn: Cavé offers more flair and fun but Hewitt is more faithful to Beethoven’s markings in the score, a suggestion of demons lurking.

With F minor turning to F major, the Adagio (tr. 2) is the serene Beethoven you love rather than respect. From the outset Hewitt permeates it with a sense of stillness, tranquillity, a rapt gaze, a sustained cantabile to which the ‘turns’ to whose importance Hewitt refers add detail of exquisite craftsmanship. The turn is an ornament that turns around the main note, the first example being at 0:04. Hewitt points out that, in the central section in D minor (1:14), the huge leaps in the melody are Mozartian but the embellishments when the opening section returns are Beethovenian. Demisemiquaver clusters enter in the central section, but Hewitt keeps these quite delicate and thereby not disturbing, so they trip more lusciously at the return of F major. Lightness of touch is key here: Hewitt has it limpidly. Towards the close, from 3:31, dissonances and sforzandos are added but they are like a piquant sauce with no trace of the ungainly facet of those in the first movement.

Cavé is a little slower, timing at 5:03 to Hewitt’s 4:43. He brings to this movement a sense of repose, but his phrasing is less assured than Hewitt’s and his turns less poised, which introduces a hint of scrambling, weakening the illusion of perfection of craftsmanship. He has a pleasing fluidity to the demisemiquaver clusters, like those of Hewitt non-threatening. His treatment of dissonances and sforzandos is more marked and nuanced than in the first movement, but he doesn’t quite make this one special as Hewitt does.

The Minuet and Trio (tr. 3) are respectively in F minor and F major and can be viewed as two sides of the same character, the Minuet anxious and insistent, the Trio carefree and flowing. They both have climaxes. The Minuet’s is in a tirade of running quavers (0:42), the Trio’s in a cascade of triumph (1:58). Hewitt terms the movement “a reluctant Allegretto”, letting the genie out of the bottle. For me it’s a fair Allegretto and I love the smooth flow she brings to the anxiety and tempering of dynamic contrasts and sforzandos: the projection of melancholy as art in itself. After the second strain’s climax she seems to act with a mechanical wilfulness, then sinks down reflectively, the two-chord codetta wondering if the stress and effort was worth it. Her Trio Allegretto is for me a touch too fast, but is she suggesting an easy acceptance of a comfortable existence, the opposite of the Minuet, can become equally mechanical? It sounds an enforced jollity, an impression strengthened when the running quavers pass from right to left hand.

This time Cavé is a faster, timing at 3:03 to Hewitt’s 3:22, you might say more mainstream Allegretto. Hewitt questions Czerny’s description of the Minuet as “humorous and lively”, Cavé gives us this and is again Mozartian and scherzo like, with his codetta just confirming the happy-go-lucky whole. His softly murmuring Trio is very comfortable, except for the cascade climax which necessitates endeavour because of its crescendo and diminuendo.

The torrid finale juxtaposes crashing stormy chords and creamy lyrical flow which encase a Utopian central cantilena, as Hewitt puts it “as though another character just walked into the room.” The challenge is to make its Prestissimo exciting without detriment to the lyricism. Hewitt not only achieves this but demonstrates the transformative process Beethoven brings. Yes, the opening turmoil is exciting, but Hewitt makes equally memorable the sequential descending phrases which captivate the second part of the opening section after which its repeat seems fierier. The second section is marked sempre piano e dolce, which is just how Hewitt presents it and with a pristine simplicity in which repeats of the melody an octave higher create a beaming radiance. The transition from second section to first section return and its modification are a civilizing process, so what began as a shout of defiance ends as something approaching a triumphant consensus. This process is aided by observing Beethoven’s marked repeat of second section, transition and first section return, which Hewitt’s timing of 8:10 observes but Cavé’s 4:52 doesn’t. There’s not much difference in tempo, Hewitt a little slower, 5:05 before the repeat, but the greater breadth she brings to both those descending phrases latterly in the first section and the presentation of the melody in the second is more telling. In comparison, Cavé’s descending phrases sound matter-of-fact and his cantilena a touch tinselly, albeit his upper octave passages have an attractively pearly quality.

Piano Sonata 10 is altogether more relaxed than Sonata 1 yet in a vibrant, cheery environment. The opening theme has the left hand at first playing catch-up with the right and then contentedly supplying an accompaniment of rippling semiquavers as the right’s melody becomes more extravagant. The second theme (tr. 5, 0:39) lies back to savour the enjoyment in upper register, but then bursts into a gleeful flurry of demisemiquavers. The third theme (1:12), in lower register and marked dolce, attracts such tenderly echoing support from the left hand you feel a conversation has begun. It basks in repose until the surprise of the codetta (1:33), whose three sforzandos warn you the holiday is coming to an end. Hewitt satisfyingly balances the two perspectives of stasis and activity, so their coexistence is welcomed. But the repeat of that codetta gives way to a development in G minor and a suddenly bold bass, as if the male in the partnership flies off in a tantrum at which the treble’s accompaniment, the female’s response, goes into a panic. Beethoven’s answer to this is just pause and try starting the recapitulation as if nothing has happened, but some demisemiquaver heroics are needed by the lady and a firm interchange between lady and gentleman before the right key can be restored. The earlier tranquillity seems then appreciated the more with a slight fear it may not be sustained. The second half of the first theme (0:12) is extended through repetition a fourth higher (5:19) which Hewitt makes special, adding yearning to it.

For this sonata I compare another Hyperion CD, from Pavel Kolesnikov recorded in 2017 (CDA 68237). Timing the movement at 7:39 to Hewitt’s 7:10, Kolesnikov is a little slower largely because he takes more time to ponder key moments such as the end of the exposition and pause at the end of the tantrum before the feigned recapitulation. His opening is noticeably quieter and calmer than Hewitt’s. OK, the basic marking is soft, but I felt more attention might then be given to the sudden insistency of the crescendos and sforzandos marked within this remit, as Hewitt brings for instance from 0:12. Kolesnikov’s playing is very beautiful and the overall impression is of introspection and delicacy. This honours the relaxation of the work but underplays its activity, as if it stays in a cocoon until the demisemiquaver laughter at the end of the second theme seems a burst out of character. But the rather dreamy third theme does seem a desired summation, with the codetta used to make this firmer rather than suggest, as Hewitt does, a change of direction. The tantrum in the development is contrasted in dynamic but not emotion:  Kolesnikov gives it a jocular edge possible given the notes, rather than the sense of crisis, even bitter outburst than Hewitt brings. However, with less of a tiff, the man and woman can echo one another playfully to lead into the true recapitulation in which Kolesnikov brings lovely glistening articulation of the second theme in upper register and rich warmth to the return of the third theme. But overall Hewitt’s presentation is more rounded.

One reason Kolesnikov’s merriment in the first movement leaves me uneasy is that the second is clearly a comic movement, a cheery parade constantly modifying then reinventing itself. Its theme is a march which Hewitt, carefully observing the rests and sforzandos, presents as deliberate for all its strutting. Yet its second part is elegance and glittering decoration before the plodding element returns. Now there are three variations. In Variation 1 (tr. 6, 1:31) the left-hand parade gets smoother with the right hand enlivening it by lots of offbeat high Gs. Variation 2 (2:50) has more spring in its step. After a musing transition, Variation 3 (4:18) has a more reflective left-hand theme with the right shimmering around in semiquavers, a refreshingly new atmosphere from Hewitt but still with its feet fairly on the ground, especially the codetta ŕ la Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.

Kolesnikov has a crisper opening but for me it’s too sprucely efficient. The second part is rather dreamy and self-consciously beautiful before attention to sforzandos in the codetta brings a reality-check of the ponderous. In Variation 1 Kolesnikov poetically returns to exquisite daydreams which are quite beguiling, the high Gs a touch of refinement rather than a stimulus. He introduces greater contrast in Variation 2 than Hewitt by making it impish and emphasising the sforzandos and dissonances. In Variation 3 he achieves a magical delicacy of touch which makes everything ethereally diaphanous, but this is so different from the opening that it’s difficult to assimilate the transformation before he jolts back to earth with a little more sustained ff final chord.

Hewitt terms the finale “more a rondo than a scherzo” but I’d suggest Beethoven uses the anchoring of the returns of the rondo theme to make the episodes between (sections B to D) the more outlandish. Section B (tr. 7, 0:20) starts with the jolt of a loud chord in B major, as Hewitt points out, a full daylight revelation of the imperious manner which seems earlier to have been cushioned in soft lighting. Those chords are followed by semiquaver flurries, as if the ripples they bring about. Section C (1:03) has a tune that’s florid yet forthright, after which its second part settles for low register rhythmic insistency. After collapsing the rondo theme, Section D (2:44) finds a new snatch of a theme like a chummy mating call shared in turn by the left and right hands which then becomes part of a surge of energy which is as quickly shrugged off. The coda version of the rondo theme is in bracing upper register, to which the left hand responds with a low-register smirk. You can’t help enjoying this accomplished writing to which Hewitt’s playing makes an assured fit.

Kolesnikov goes for more finesse in the presentation of the rondo theme. In section B he showcases the dexterity of his fingerwork with the chords less dramatic then Hewitt’s. In section C, Kolesnikov is more delicate with the tune in the first half, yet more biting with its rhythms in the second part. His collapse of the rondo theme remains dance-like with the brief theme of section D presented with attractive transparency, less warm but more humorous than Hewitt, while his surge and deflation are smaller scale yet very neat. You must listen carefully for the left-hand final word to be aware of it as a very soft grunt. And your abiding memory of the movement is of Kolesnikov’s delicacy of touch. Hewitt is bolder, more dramatic: Kolesnikov makes the movement more rondo than scherzo.

Piano Sonata 21, the Waldstein, dedicated to the Count whose patronage had allowed Beethoven to study with Haydn, is the biggest featured on Hewitt’s CD, so much of it a whirlwind of activity. Hewitt refers to another stimulus, a new Erard piano with extended upward range and four pedals. You appreciate her playing the more when she points out the difficulties. First, to get the opening low register repeated chords even, pp and with the right balance. Later there’s a pp with crescendo sustained D sharp tremolo beneath stratospheric semiquaver runs. The opening chords thin out as a spurring background to a theme which is a scherzo-like gathering of flotsam and jetsam motifs and harum-scarum semiquaver runs. The second theme (tr. 8, 0:55), in E major and marked dolce e molto ligato offers a contrast to which Hewitt brings both breadth and an airy nobility. Yet it’s also capable of action when repeated combined with an immediate variation elaborated in quaver triplets in the right hand, played with a fresh breeziness by Hewitt. How deftly too she handles the change from quavers back to semiquavers and from legato to staccato, that tremolo (1:59) then fittingly placed. Hewitt’s acknowledgement allows you to share her admiration for Beethoven’s “making such a big thing out of so little material”, effectively the flotsam and jetsam elements of the first theme and triplet quavers variation of the second theme in ever weirder treatment which needs nevertheless to be a distinctive journey. Hewitt writes that any pianist will relish the bridge to the recapitulation (6:22), noting its comparability with the equivalent moment in the first movement of Symphony No. 4 (from bar 312) where wisps of theme suddenly gain sinew and sweep triumphantly into the return of the first theme. Yet having reached that point here, Beethoven continues to delight in exploring other tangents, Hewitt reckons so much so the long coda becomes “almost cadenza-like”, including the flotsam and jetsam turning ugly before more telling consideration of the nobility of the second theme.

I use for comparison another Hyperion recording, that from 2008 by Steven Osborne (CDA 67662). He’s slightly faster, timing the movement at 10:58 to Hewitt’s 11:24 and for me this gives it a more satisfying sweep. His quieter opening grips the attention more, his flotsam and jetsam more skittish but the sense of growing ferment more palpable. His semiquaver runs have a quicksilver shimmer. His second theme is more tranquil and its elaboration balmier and dolce. I don’t claim that his basic presentation of the theme is better than Hewitt’s more imposing approach, but his elaboration is more comfortable, where Hewitt streams forward, observing that Beethoven here drops his original ligato marking, but thereby rather ditching the dolce too. I feel Osborne’s whole exposition is of a piece, that late passage featuring the tremolo a point of frisson, but his reflective treatment of the codetta Hewitt rather eases over is also telling. Osborne shows me the wood and the trees, where I feel Hewitt dwells a touch overmuch on the trees. In the development Osborne’s flotsam and jetsam have a more powerful presence, as is the crescendo of the second theme in variation. Osborne’s left hand in the transitional material is more strikingly vivid. His recapitulation of the second theme is more chorale-like, the discords of his flotsam and jetsam more shocking. I love the way his second theme’s final appearance recalls the reflection at the end of the exposition, as if the culmination of the essential wisdom from the experience of the movement. Hewitt’s account remains compelling and its delineation of the movement’s structure is admirable, but for me it sometimes has an effortful quality that I don’t want to be so overt and Osborne avoids.

Next comes an Introduzione, a term usually denoting slow tempo preparatory material before a quicker movement. It’s not strictly a movement itself so shouldn’t really be tracked separately on this CD, but as the run-on is immediate the marking attacca subito il Rondo is achieved. It’s marked Adagio molto and is all ruminative searching varied by brief central glimpses of heartfelt melody (tr. 9, 1:25), bringing into flower the opening motif with a leap of a sixth. Yet this proves no more than a taste of the releasing power of melody, stalled while the ruminations move forward. Hewitt tells us “the G sharp octave in the bass is to die for … the light at the end of the tunnel.” Listen out for the lowest note at 3:45, a shift after three G naturals. All this isn’t easy to digest: perhaps think of it as re-living the process by which the rondo finale is created. The word ‘profound’ comes up in commentaries: I think that’s because you feel you’re looking over Beethoven’s shoulder as he’s composing. Timing at 4:35 to Hewitt’s 4:12, Osborne’s is more of an Adagio molto which for me is a mite too static, though more poised and poetic, with dynamic shading made more apparent yet the central melody more self-conscious. Hewitt is plainer, yet her opening is suitably rapt, moving concentratedly with an intense desire to progress.

Hewitt achieves the lovelier opening of the rondo finale: a creamily calm melody over an accompaniment of gently lapping semiquavers. Osborne is gentler and makes a case for a slightly more measured approach, timing the rondo at 11:20 to Hewitt’s 10:51. Osborne plays brilliantly and the varied effects in the movement are always clear, yet in comparison with Hewitt his approach seems appreciated from a distance rather than Hewitt’s being in the thick of things. With Hewitt I feel more a sense of active exploration. Her rondo theme begins with an airy tranquillity, grateful for being mostly, but not wholly, serene, the two appearances of E flat (tr. 10, 0:20, 0:24) looking towards C minor. Hewitt writes, “There is a strong sense of the open countryside in it” and the breathing space she gives it seems totally natural. While still responding to the bravura of the piano writing, Hewitt thinks the episodes should be deliberate and not rushed, which she also links to a rustic quality. We get the first of these in stomping semiquaver triplets exchanged between the hands (1:18) and settling into A minor. The rondo theme shows its steel then in that key but soon resumes its original appearance, pp, and becomes from Hewitt pure balm. Hewitt’s dance is more exciting, but Osborne, quieter at first in the rondo, makes more telling the crescendo into it. His dance is more bubbling than stomping, but his staccato left hand conjures a more graphic picture than Hewitt which made me think of Cossacks’ dancing. His return of the rondo theme seems to recede into a personal haven of tranquillity. The second episode (3:42) spikily brings in C minor, with a more forceful left hand against the whirling right-hand triplets. This makes the rondo theme stand to attention in its grandest appearance, ff presented clean and strong by Osborne, yet in a more grandiose manner by Hewitt. Then we get the surprise of a development section (5:07) based on the opening of the rondo theme explored with the freedom and assurance of a fantasia. Osborne shows a fascinated engagement with this, but Hewitt holds our attention too, even though we’re partly itching for the rondo theme return which comes with more edge, followed by a more animated returning first episode dance before the heady exuberance of the prestissimo coda. All these elements Hewitt captures vividly.

Piano Sonata 22 is an oddball one. Its first movement (tr. 11) is marked In Tempo d’un Menuetto and it begins softly as a Minuet, polite, courtly, rather quaint in its embellishment. Then, 52 seconds in, as Hewitt puts it, “all hell breaks loose” loud and staccato, quaver triplets in octaves in both hands, well yet unpredictably peppered with sforzandos. In the context of this CD you might think of the dance in the first episode of the Waldstein’s finale, though in that case there are semiquaver triplets not in octaves alternating between the hands. This is sterner, more bullish stuff and, unlike dance, its form is unclear, more like a brainstorm. Mercifully this all dies away into a bass recurring rumbling and then we’re grateful for the Minuet’s return, this time with a repeat with decoration in semiquavers. The ‘brainstorm’ comes back but only briefly, beginning to seem quite jolly, coming to a resolution in a loud fanfare of triplets followed by capitulation in a soft one. This leaves the final and extended return of the Minuet beginning, 2 minutes’ worth, to become ever more flamboyant, for instance in sextuplet semiquaver runs before the closing surprise of its own ff scrunchingly dissonant fanfare climax in octaves calling for nine simultaneous notes where the brainstorm’s required a mere five. Hewitt makes the piece powerful and yet also fun. I enjoyed it, but not for frequent listening.

This sonata is generally only encountered within complete recording sets and searching for a recent recording I found one in that by Llyr Williams (Signum SIGCD 527) recorded live in 2015. Timing the first movement at 6:22 to Hewitt’s 5:36, Williams’ greater relaxion is paradoxically more assertive and shaped, embracing the humour of the piece and achieving a more rounded account. Admittedly he understates some of the sterner elements, especially the sforzandos, which are thereby no longer overt protests. He brings out a wry quality in the atypicality of the Minuet in its chromaticism in its repeated presentation while its sextuplets can be regarded as its own form of brainstorm. The “hell” for Williams is a swinging devil-may-care spree.

The Allegretto finale (tr. 12) is a rare demonstration that Beethoven studied Bach, a classic example being the ostinato from 2:41. This puts two-part counterpoint in semiquaver runs into an airier and volatile series of modulations, which makes the piece sound surprisingly modern, for instance the dissonant ff bass from 1:32. From Hewitt we get from the outset the intriguing combination of warmly rippling energy and unwavering flow. The piece really comes to life in the second section (1:01), when a deep bass line in octave sforzandos makes a sturdy descent and a heroic battle-cry of motifs is heard spasmodically in the treble from 1:10. It still has the feel of an experiment in dynamic and textural contrasts, all faithfully revealed by Hewitt, with the Piů Allegro coda a resolute summation.

Williams has less ripple but more spring than Hewitt. His louder passages are less sonorous than Hewitt’s but have more dramatic edge; in both cases, this might be the result of a live recording. His descent of the sforzando bass line is grittier. His greater insistence in the contrapuntal flow has more tension and makes this piece more akin to mainstream Beethoven. Even the ostinato at the end of the exposition, which from Hewitt (3:06) is a thing of gloomy beauty, with Williams is unremittingly edgy. His coda is headier and more exultant, yet he also makes the rarely sustained quiet passage with espressivo marks, which is calm but less distinctive from Hewitt (1:44), a haven of repose. Overall, his is the more gripping account, but I like Hewitt’s championing the battle-cry melody.

To sum up, there are many worthy approaches to Beethoven and Hewitt’s aren’t always my preference for every movement, but she is consistently illuminating, vibrant and intensely ‘in the moment’. She brings a wonderful spontaneity of direct interaction.

Michael Greenhalgh

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