Beethoven: Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Piano Sonata in G, Op. 31/1

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Arabesque
WORKS: Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier); Piano Sonata in G, Op. 31/1
PERFORMER: Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Z 6737
The Hammerklavier was the one piano sonata for which Beethoven provided his own metronome markings. In the case of the outer movements they seem impossibly fast, and the only pianist in my experience who has taken them at face-value – with rather qualified success – is Peter Serkin. Garrick Ohlsson adopts a much more measured approach, especially in the opening Allegro; and for all the beauty of the playing itself, there are moments – the fugal episode in the development section is one – when it is possible to feel he has sacrificed something of the music’s cumulative energy. But as a whole, the performance is immensely impressive, with a broad, deeply-felt account of the vast slow movement (I have never heard the long-drawn-out ritardandos in the second half of the piece more sensitively handled), and a beautifully shaped view of the fugal finale.

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Rather less successful, I think, is the sparkling G major Sonata Op. 31/1. This is one of Beethoven’s wittiest works, and Ohlsson is a little poker-faced in the first two movements. But the Hammerklavier is the thing, and very fine it is, too. Of rival versions, only Gilels (DG) tugs at the heartstrings more affectingly in the slow movement, Beethoven’s most tragic piece of its kind for piano; but he is rather sedate elsewhere. Alfred Brendel is a pianist who certainly has the measure of the piece. Of his several recordings the 1983 ‘live’ performance is as spellbinding as one could wish. Misha Donat