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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Piano Sonatas
André De Groote (piano)
rec. 1995-1998, Concert Hall, Royal Conservatoire, Brussels
ETCETERA KTC1676 [10 CDs: 651:00]

It is a pleasure to welcome the return of André De Groote’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle which dates back to 1995-1998. It had a previous incarnation on the elusive Solal label, but never received the high profile it deserved, and was not the easiest thing to obtain. Thankfully, the Belgian label Etcetera have taken up the mantle with this reissue. They adhere to the original format, where the sonatas are not arranged chronologically but grouped together so each disc presents a varied programme of early, middle and late sonatas. The cycle by Claude Frank (Music and Arts CD 4640) pursues a similar course, and it seems to work well.

André de Groote will certainly be unfamiliar to some. His name has never reached the upper echelons of his profession, unjustly in my view. Early on, he made a notable impression. He was awarded the Harriet Cohen Medal, and won prizes in the Tchaikovsky Competition (Moscow), the Queen Elisabeth (Brussels) and the ARD (Munich). He is an honorary professor at the Brussels Royal Conservatoire, has given masterclasses throughout Europe and Japan, and frequently sat on juries. He has a wide-ranging repertoire of some 50 concertos, and has recorded Brahms’s entire solo piano oeuvre, in addition to piano music by Korngold, Charles Camilleri and Arthur de Greef.

Although Beethoven’s early sonatas reveal the influence of Haydn and Mozart, the Sonata in F minor Op. 2, No. 1 is very Beethovenian in its unique voice. De Groote makes a conscious effort to emphasize the driving rhythms in the opening movement and the finale. The slow movement is the embodiment of simplicity and serenity. In No. 3 of the set, he delivers a profoundly musical reading of this technically challenging score. Not only is it vigorously muscular but daring and audacious. There is palpable despair, resignation and regret in the second movement Largo e mesto of Op. 10, No. 3. The following Menuetto provides some much needed balm. The Grave introduction to the first movement of the Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13 is disappointingly let down by lack of gravitas, absence of tension and anticipation, but once the Allegro di molto e con brio kicks in, we are away. The Adagio cantabile is deeply expressive with the phrases lovingly sculpted. The ubiquitous Moonlight Sonata opens with poise and refinement, with the finale technically impressive and meticulously articulated.

Beethoven the intrepid composer reveals himself in the middle-period sonatas. Experimentation and modifications to sonata form become more daring and expressive, and plumb greater depths. The Adagio of the Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor Op.31 No.2 Tempest is noble, with moments of soothing tenderness and poetic feel, and the finale is not rushed. There is no lack of drama in the outer movements of the Appassionata, which are passionately intense. The slow movement is one of inward calm. So, too, in the Waldstein the technical demands are huge. De Groote emphasizes the contrasts in dynamics and in the alternation of powerful chords and refined, delicate gestures. I also love his layering of voices. Throughout the three movements there is comfortable pacing, especially in the buoyant Rondo finale, where his tempo choice resists the temptation to sprint. The middle movement, marked Adagio molto, is a moment of serenity and repose.

The composer treads yet another new path in the late sonatas. The departure from conventional sonata form is even more radical. Fugal elements and a more improvisatory style became notable features. The Hammerklavier is not only gargantuan but its range of emotion, length and technical demands far exceed anything that went before. De Groote takes on the challenge head on with an epic, well-projected reading. The first movement has nobility, majesty and overwhelming dramatic power. The slow movement is eloquently sculpted, and the final fugue is negotiated with authority and determination. De Groote celebrates the vocal character of Op. 110 and achieves a beautiful cantabile in the opening movement. His rhythmic accents in the Allegro Molto are punchy with plenty of bite, and the final fugue is expertly voiced with precision and clarity. In Op. 111, after a potently realized first movement, the Arietta is sublime in its realization. In answer to the conflict of the opener, this second movement is one of resignation, peace and tranquillity. The ethereal closing pages transcend the mundane and transport us to another world.

De Groote, an artist of elevated musicianship, offers much to admire. These are rewarding and stimulating readings. I found the cycle illuminating and revelatory. The sound quality is consistently agreeable throughout. It is certainly one of the cycles I will be returning to, and it proudly stands in exalted company with some of my favourites: Brendel (3rd digital cycle), Kempff (mono cycle), Gilels (incomplete) and Gulda (1950s mono). One minor quibble: I would have liked a tracklist and timings included in the booklet, though each CD envelope does carry this information. The set gets my enthusiastic endorsement.

Stephen Greenbank

CD 1
Op. 10 nr. 3 D major (1796/98) [25:16]
Op. 27 nr. 2 C-sharp minor Mondschein (1801) [16:02]
Op. 53 C major Waldstein (1803/04) [26:30]

CD 2
Op. 2 nr. 2 A major (1795) [23:13]
Op. 31 nr. 2 D minor Der Sturm (1801/02) [23:31]
Op. 79 G major (1809) [9:10]

CD 3
Op. 2 nr. 1 F minor (1795) [16:10]
Op. 13 C minor Pathétique (1798/99) [18:31]
Op. 22 B-flat major (1799/1800) [26:35]

CD 4
Op. 14 nr. 1 E major (1798/99) [14:44]
Op. 27 nr. 1 E-flat major (1800/01) [16:12]
Op. 49 nr. 1 G minor (1795/98) [7:26]
Op. 57 F minor Appassionata (1804/05) [24:39]

CD 5
Op. 49 nr. 2 G major (1795/96) [8:18]
Op. 31 nr. 3 E-flat major Die Jagd (1801/02) [23:10]
Op. 78 F-sharp major (1809) [10:43]
Op. 101 A major (1816) [22:50]

CD 6
Op. 2 nr. 3 C major (1795) [25:54]
Op. 10 nr. 1 C minor (1796/98) [[19:03]
Op. 109 E major (1820) [20:18]

CD 7
Op. 26 A-flat major Funebre (1800/01) [19:05]
Op. 28 D major Pastorale (1801) [25:22]
Op. 54 F major (1804) [11:03]
Op. 90 E minor (1814) [12:51]

CD 8
Op. 7 E flat major (1796/97) [29:46]
Op. 14 nr. 2 G major (1798/99) [15:18]
Op. 31 nr. 1 G major (1801/02) [23:53]

CD 9
Op. 10 nr. 2 F major (1796/98) [12:44]
Op. 106 B-flat major Hammerklavier (1817/18) [33:02]

CD 10
Op. 81a E-flat major Les Adieux (1809/10) [18:39]
Op. 110 A-flat major (1821) [21:53]
Op. 111 C minor (1821/22) [28:50]

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