Beethoven: Piano Sonatas; No. 4 in E flat, Op. 7; No. 7 in D, Op. 10 No. 3; No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas; No. 4 in E flat, Op. 7; No. 7 in D, Op. 10 No. 3; No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
PERFORMER: Angela Hewitt (piano)
Angela Hewitt’s Beethoven is every bit as intellectually lucid, technically secure and focussed, as her Bach. Particularly in the two earlier sonatas it’s the understanding of the musical thinking that stands out. Every surprise accent or harmonic detour makes sense within the larger frame of things. This exhilarating clarity of thought is matched by her clean, incisive sound (well caught by the recording), and helps contribute to the striking sense of purpose in these relatively early and still essentially classical works. All the same there’s something slightly impersonal about the end results. At times it’s like listening to a brilliant demonstration of Beethoven’s thought processes, in which colouristic or expressive elements are muted or pushed to one side. The slow movement of Op. 10 No. 3, for example, is very impressive in a monumental kind of way, but with less atmosphere and pathos than the greatest performers would lead you to expect. The impression deepens in the Appassionata, which can be very exciting, but which to my ears – and especially in the central variations – presents Beethoven more as a classicist who went weirdly astray than as a Promethean romantic, wrestling heroically with the fundamentals of musical form. Rather more of that deeper sense of struggle can be felt in Emil Gilels’s DG Appassionata: three decades old and not sounding as clean or resonant as the Hyperion disc, but the quality of the playing more than compensates. In the two earlier sonatas, Stephen Kovacevich is a good match for Hewitt intellectually, but with more warmth and fantasy. In comparison, Hewitt’s Beethoven can be something of a two-dimensional Titan. Stephen Johnson