Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos 16-18; Variations, etc
Andreas Staier (fortepiano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31/1; Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31/2 ‘The Tempest’; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31/3; Six Variations, Op. 34; Eroica Variations, Op. 35
Andreas Staier (fortepiano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902327.28 105:08 mins (2 discs)
Around the time he composed these pieces Beethoven declared himself unhappy with his work thus far and intended to embark on a new path. Certainly the two variation-sets here show a wilful determination to be original. The first, Op. 34, has each variation in a different key, tempo and metre so that the whole thing is rather like a succession of character pieces; while in the EroicaVariations, Op. 35 (they use the same theme as the finale of the Eroica Symphony) four variations on the theme’s gruff bass line elapse before we hear the melody at all. Scarcely less quirkily original are the three sonatas, Op. 31. The first is one of Beethoven’s wittiest pieces and the last a four-movement sonata which does without any slow movement. Between them comes the dramatic Tempest Sonata in D minor.
Andreas Staier uses an instrument of around 1810 by the Viennese maker Matthias Müller, the inventor of the upright piano. Its tone is warm and clear and the recitatives of the Tempest Sonata’s opening movement, bathed in pedal as Beethoven wanted them, sound particularly beautiful. Staier varies his tone by making occasional use of the una corda, or soft, pedal in moments such as the ending of the scherzo-like second movement of Op. 31 No. 3, where the music disappears in a puff of smoke. He is mercifully sparing with the twiddles he introduces on some of the repeats, though his fondness for arpeggiating chords is a bit tiresome. But these are stimulating performances, brought off with real aplomb.