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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 29 in B-flat major, Op 106 “Hammerklavier” [43:47]
15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat major, Op 35 “Eroica” [23:02]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
rec. July 2020, Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria
PENTATONE PTC5186724 [66:49]

In his liner notes, Pierre-Laurent Aimard mentions the “inspiring turmoil and the fascinating recess that the Corona crisis has engendered,” forcing him to confront the “incomprehensible, the immeasurable” in Beethoven, especially the “insurmountable” Hammerklavier Sonata. The 1817 sonata evolved from the arrival of the new Broadwood piano into Beethoven’s life, with its expanded tonal compass, and the direct influence and appreciation of Beethoven’s patron Archduke Rudolph of Austria, whose own name helped to build the rhythmic, fanfare motto of the opening B-flat major chords. Beethoven conceived this momentous Allegro as a vast, symphonic synthesis of conjunct and disjunct melodic kernels, whose specifics in immediate variety – two sfzs then p, and then one sfz then p, and then f and one sfz and then p, to be rendered in increased dynamics – which Aimard ignores!  He plays each gradation after measure 17 exactly the same way. This is not to deny that Aimard renders some enchanting clusters of sound, especially in running arpeggios. His sforzandos have bite and weight, his sudden bursts of energy, menace, but to introduce a sense of color predictability into this most illustrious keyboard score deprives it of cosmic spontaneity. Aimard’s fugatos enjoy clarity and interior bounce, and they dissolve into affecting plays between legato and staccato impulses; we do sense this pianist’s affection for this, the most imposing creation for the keyboard after Bach.

After the fff finale of the Allegro, is the succeeding Scherzo, a Presto in B-flat minor. Dazzling triplet figures and quirky runs play havoc with our emotions as well our sense of poetic closure. Beethoven builds a fierce tension between B natural and B-flat, and the rare disjunction of affect – especially after a quizzical run abruptly breaks off so the triple meter might return – leaves us in a state of suspension. The glorious Adagio sostenuto, appassionato e con molto sentimento, opening with A and C#, casts us into a distilled sense of melody whose tender simplicity belies its depth of experience. The contrasts of rapture - after bar 27 that culminates early, measures 85-103, senza corpo – suddenly yield to a spiritual darkness at bar 104ff, as the bass line becomes dominant. The drooping figures in thirds well remind us of the opening of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Paul Bekker characterized the movement as “the apotheosis of personal anguish.” Aimard maintains good line, restrained dynamics, and tension in this extended, exalted moment of synoptic vision, akin to Dante’s in his Divine Comedy.

The last movement, Allegro vivace – Fuga a tre voci, con alcune licenze, combines a sense of elastic freedom with the strictures of a three-voice fugue. The initial forte, bar 25, warrants that the main theme in F-sharp minor emerges in contrast, piano. The con licenza, the demand for the illusion of freedom, occasionally for Aimard descends into pounding, from which he recovers with brisk, light filigree. What Aimard does convey are the degrees of espressivo Beethoven demands. Musical procedure for Beethoven has becomes a personal testament of faith in the Divine Order of things – to wit, measures 199ff, in which the theme meets its own inversion and then ascends - witnessed from some transcendent location: if this were Carl Sagan, he’d claim Vega. The final chords, perhaps “chorus” is more appropriate, leave us both exhausted and fulfilled, at once.

Artur Schnabel used to quip that the only appropriate “encore” to a Beethoven recital is more Beethoven. Composed in Leipzig, 1802, the Eroica Variations have their source in Beethoven’s first set of contredanses, then in his Prometheus ballet, and finally in the last movement of the Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, Op 55. A massive chord in E-flat calls us to attention for the theme – set as a series of bass progressions – and 15 variations and a virtuoso fugue. We have the feeling Bach’s Goldberg Variations provides the founding principle, especially given Beethoven’s seventh variation as a canon at the octave, and the eighth variation’s demand for crossed hands is succeeded by the appearance of the bass theme in grace notes. The change of color occurs at variation 14, in E-flat minor, which leads, Largo, into the expansive variation 15, in the initial tonality of E-flat major. The coda of the fugue, marked andante con moto, returns to the theme – which we have come to know from the opening and from the Third Symphony – and then Beethoven condenses its first four notes into increasingly short values. Aimard obviously relishes Beethoven’s capacity to color each variation with its own rhythmic or harmonic verve, especially rich in syncopations. Occasionally, Aimard’s bass tones assume a thunderous resonance, but the general tenor of the performance remains good-natured by way of one virtuoso’s warm embrace of another.

Gary Lemco

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