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Beethoven piano BIS2607
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G, Op. 31 No. 1 [23:50]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2, The Tempest [22:40]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat, Op. 31 No. 3, The Hunt [22:58]
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
rec. 8-10 January 2021, Sale de Musique, Théâtre Populaire romand, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
BIS BIS-2607 SACD [70:28]

The most striking work here is Sonata 17 whose nickname, The Tempest, derives from Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler’s reporting that, on asking for the key to it and the Appassionata, Beethoven replied ‘Read Shakespeare’s Tempest’. Many Schindler statements are dodgy, but this deserves consideration because Beethoven’s music is so dramatic and descriptive. The first movement starts with a Largo pp arpeggio, then restless Allegro right-hand quavers over staccato left-hand crotchets, crescendo-ing to an Adagio brief passage of gathering thought and ornament, before the Largo/Allegro contrast again. Think Prospero, premeditating then launching a storm. When its theme gets going (tr. 4, 0:54) it’s a duet between the common D minor chord of a bass and the trepidation of a soprano’s sforzandos trying to stay the fury. Right and left hands have quavers in triplets that sound like waves and towards the end of the exposition the soprano line emerges as valiant endeavour. The development (4:14) is from Andreas Haefliger on this CD grittier, the atmosphere more baleful. The human dimension Beethoven makes memorable at the Largo recapitulation: a recitative con espressione e semplice (5:44) Haefliger movingly interprets as a submissive, sotto voce plea for mercy in a point of stillness within the storm. Its perpetrator’s response is rejection in gruff staccato crotchets in both hands, the movement’s closing pp sustained chords like a wan epitaph. The surprise about it, and Haefliger’s playing, is its overall smooth flow and poise as thought progresses to action and much, rooted in fury, is delicate and clear-cut, in particular the way the light finally fades in the soprano’s resistance, making the perpetrator seem frighteningly impassive.

I compare Nikolai Lugansky, also recorded in 2021 (Harmonia Mundi HMM 902442). Timing at 9:09 to Haefliger’s 8:33, Lugansky’ s approach is more theatrical, the Largo passages more studied. The strong bass is always in charge of the duet, the soprano’s alarm clearer than capability of resistance. In the development the concentration is on brutal force rather than Haefliger’s bitter dissonance. Lugansky’s recitative pleading is eloquent, with pearlier tone than Haefliger’s, but not as meltingly submissive. Lugansky’s perpetrator’s rejection isn’t as biting and his closing chords are matter-of-fact reportage.

The Adagio slow movement, like the first, has an arpeggio opening, Prospero setting another spell. This is for a love duet between his daughter Miranda, soprano theme and his choice of partner, Ferdinand, baritone. Prospero keeps a wary watch on his arrangements in a motif of military demisemiquavers in triplets (tr. 5, 1:17). Now Beethoven mixes the palette: the song in mezzo register, the motif in the treble: so, is everyone affectionate and guarded? The second theme, p dolce but more ardent (2:16), is fully the lady’s initiative, yet soon the partners exchange exultant clusters of seven demisemiquavers (3:48), then movingly join together in chords of embrace (4:26) above the repeated bass and treble motifs. Haefliger plays all this wonderfully in the moment: you feel time is frozen, especially in the silence over the shading in the bass from low B flat to sustained A (6:42 to 6:46).

Timing at 8:24 to Haefliger’s 7:47, for me Lugansky is a little stiff in his lovers’ hesitation: they seem like automata. I miss Haefliger’s smoothness and flow. Lugansky offers some lovely nuances of dynamic shading, but his military motifs, never marked loud, I find too present and threatening. He brings out the gradual strength of affirmation, but his second theme isn’t quite dolce.

The Allegretto finale is dominated by motifs interlocking between the hands, the right rising and falling, the left rising. Beethoven’s pupil, Carl Czerny, says Beethoven created the opening theme on seeing a horseman gallop past his window. Unlike the first movement’s destructive energy, here’s the exhilaration of constructive speed, the streak of a horse’s mane in the wind, the rider spurring the horse into more impulsion, hence the crunching, mordent headed second theme in A minor (tr. 6, 0:33), its right-hand quavers against the semiquavers in the left after the hooves biting into the ground when the first theme plunged into the left hand (0:22). The discord starting the development (2:18) signals alarm. Haefliger shows everything impelled by sheer momentum and distinctive contrasts of environment are clarified, like the isolation through the disappearance of the left hand (3:33) and the equally sudden, roseate swing into B flat major (3:59). In this fabulous showpiece Haefliger conveys both endeavour and delicacy.

Lugansky, timing at 7:24 to Haefliger’s 6:04, is arguably more Allegretto, Haefliger closer to Allegro, but Lugansky begins more poetically studied before a gear change to turn thrilling with a thunderous left-hand take-up of the first theme and arrival of the second. Elsewhere Lugansky’s clarity is more important than momentum, the quieter passages like a phase of daydream. I prefer the greater bite Haefliger gives the staccato accents later in the second theme (from 0:42) where Lugansky seems more daintily preening.

Best of the rest? I choose the first movement of Sonata 18. Despite its Allegro tempo, Haefliger makes a refreshingly languorous impression, owing to the bluesy harmonies underpinning a three-note motif of springing descents, heard twice, followed by a ritardando portentous four-note motif suggesting future threat, also heard twice then scotched by a flighty rising phrase of optimism. That’s the first theme. Haefliger manages its contrasts of glee and foreboding well. The second (1:16) is in Beethoven’s most snook-cocking vein in the right hand, semiquaver pairings like written out appoggiaturas, its aftermath festooned with trills. The exposition codetta (2:05) mirrors the first theme’s ambiguity and only when visions of zany humour and chaos in the development (4:27) are overcome does the first theme discard its threats. In the recapitulation Haefliger makes the second theme seem more refined, though still cheeky, and the coda’s portentous approach is finally to stability. But its soft tripping close, notwithstanding playful crescendos and sfs, should end in a p perfect cadence. A closing emphasis on wit that Haefliger misses by playing it f, following the publisher Simrock’s unauthorized change of the most authoritative sources.

Michael Greenhalgh

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