Calling Beethoven’s Op. 106 a ‘piano sonata’ is a bit like labelling the Titanic a ‘boat’. Could any generic title encompass even half of what lies within this mighty creation? Sonata? Pah! The Hammerklavier is a seismic shifting of earthly and spiritual planes. It takes you from the edge of the impossible to the darkest places of the human psyche, then saves you through fugue alone.
The best recording
Peter Serkin (piano)
Musical Concepts MC122
In the early 1980s, Peter Serkin, son of pianist Rudolf, recorded the six last Beethoven sonatas on a fortepiano by Conrad Graf, owned by the Schubert Club of St Paul, Minnesota. The microphone placement varied from sonata to sonata, and for the Hammerklavier Serkin chose to give us a ‘pianist’s bench’ perspective on the work.
Little information about the instrument is provided; some internet research reveals that it has been dated to 1824-5, though its authenticity has been questioned. It’s hard to imagine how it could still be standing by the end, and its sound is full of vinegary overtones – but in terms of hair-raising energy and spiritual veracity, Serkin’s performance is electrifying from first note to last.
In the opening movement, taking Beethoven at his word about the tempo, as I rather think one should (ignoring it is just too convenient), Serkin sets off like a guided missile. There’s nothing polite, pompous or predictable about this playing or the instrument, though the composer’s nobility of spirit is there too. Throughout the work the flow is splendidly flexible, while the awareness of overall architecture is ever-present, yet worn lightly.
The countless thoughts flash by with fresh insights in every bar, delivered with a range of tone colours that may come as quite a revelation to fortepiano sceptics. The sense of struggle that is so much a part of the piece seems accentuated by the Graf’s vulnerability, rather than being restricted by it.
Indeed, it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it; even at the few moments when Serkin and the fortepiano seem perhaps not fully in agreement, the ‘authenticity’ of this performance lies not in the instrument
but in its performer’s soul.
The Scherzo is manic, its trio gloriously smoky in texture, with Serkin finding extraordinary sounds in the bass and persuading the instrument to growl, roar and snap like a waking dragon. The slow movement takes him 18 minutes and 28 seconds – slow enough to draw out the utmost expression, yet always keeping the flow.
The keyboard tone’s unevenness sometimes makes itself evident, but Serkin fills the melodic line with such anguished intensity that that scarcely matters. The last movement’s opening sounds as if it could have been improvised on the spot and leads into a fugue that unfurls at a tempo that seems bananas – but is delivered with irresistible exhilaration and wonder. Some others play it nearly as fast, yet without half such satisfying substance.
Three more great recordings
Warner Classics 476 8652
We’re allowed just three runners-up, so apologies that my all-male shortlist just misses out the fiery Mitsuko Uchida and shining-toned Yvonne Lefébure. But my next choice is Solomon, recorded in 1952. Sound quality is rough, and there are wrong notes, but this artist exists in some state of grace.
There’s a humane, multi-faceted radiance about his playing. He makes the most of the work’s colouristic potential for pointing up dramatic progression, something that is sustained throughout his glorious Adagio, as rapt as a state of deep meditation. And his fugue is life-affirming.
Friedrich Gulda (piano)
Decca 475 6835
The earlier of Gulda’s recordings, from the 1950s, is characterised by clear, vivid rhythm with a remarkable focused power within the sound, elemental energy plus a clear-eyed sense of architecture.
After a spontaneous yet streamlined Scherzo, the Adagio is magnificently voiced and flowing, with an inner stillness that emanates more from the tone than from the pace – the bass-voice episode seems to come from another world. His fugue is light-fingered and focused, teetering on the edge of reason.
Stephen Kovacevich (piano)
Warner Classics 623 0812
Among the sock-it-to-’em interpretations, Kovacevich’s is vastly rewarding. Recorded in 2001, this is a generous, vivid, playful, great-hearted performance, with a Scherzo that lives up to its name before evaporating in a ghostly puff, and a slow movement where profound tragedy is evoked through inexorable tread and a sense of limitless long lines. The finale’s opening is mysterious, full of startling outbursts, but it’s the white-hot fugue that really sweeps you away.
Glenn Gould (piano)
Gould’s opening is sluggish, with noisy singing along, and although his deep, strong Beethovenian tone is appealing at times, the development section’s fugato galumphs like an overweight donkey. The Scherzo seems bossy; the Adagio (20 mins 42 seconds) involves some nice contrasts of character but lacks flow and flexibility, and the fugue – even from this arch-player of counterpoint – seems to consist of sound and fury signifying not a lot.
This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of BBC Music Magazine.