WORKS: Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 2/1; Piano Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 27/2 (Moonlight); Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 31/2 (Tempest); Piano Sonata in A, Op. 101
PERFORMER: Malcolm Bilson (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: CD 50-2104
Here are four sonatas on four different instruments, two of them copies of Anton Walter’s fortepianos, which Beethoven liked better than other makes. Oddly enough, for such an experienced player, Bilson sometimes sounds rather uncomfortable. His articulation in the first movement of the first Sonata is less than neat, and there is certainly nothing dainty in his approach to a relatively fragile instrument. He takes the finale at a furious tempo.
In the first movement of the Moonlight he keeps the dampers up throughout and the ‘moderator’, or soft pedal, engaged, so that the effect is delicately melting. He also advises us not to turn the volume up too loud. The piano is a copy of a Schantz of about 1800 and it is recorded a little more distantly than the Walter instruments, while the tone has a stringy quality like a harpsichord.
The popular Tempest Sonata, on another Walter copy, comes in for clumsy treatment, with poor articulation in the first movement and excessive lingering for expressive effect in the last, which merely impedes its flow.
Surprisingly, the most successful performance is of the very difficult Op. 101. Using an original Gottlieb Hafner from the 1830s, which sounds more like a modern piano, Bilson conveys the pastoral bliss of the opening movement with casual ease, and he negotiates the very awkward second movement manfully, if sometimes clumsily. But he is very delicate in the Adagio, then strong in the rugged final movement.
Historic instruments aside, my benchmark for Beethoven’s piano sonatas is Richard Goode, allowed by a modern piano to reach an altogether more exalted level of expression. Adrian Jack