Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3: Op. 2/1-3; Op. 7; Op. 26 (Marcia funebre); Op. 27, Nos 1 (Quasi una Fantasia) & 2 (Moonlight); Op. 54; Op. 57 (Appassionata)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3: Op. 2/1-3; Op. 7; Op. 26 (Marcia funebre); Op. 27, Nos 1 (Quasi una Fantasia) & 2 (Moonlight); Op. 54; Op. 57 (Appassionata)
PERFORMER: Paul Lewis (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901906-08
The nine sonatas in this penultimate volume of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven cycle fall into three distinct groups. The triptych Op. 2 and the lone E flat Op. 7 were Beethoven’s first sonatas – all of them expansive works in four movements. But already some five years later, with the Funeral March Sonata Op. 26 and the ‘quasi una fantasia’ pair Op. 27 (the second of which is the Moonlight), Beethoven was seeking fresh approaches to the sonata design. Op. 27 No. 1 is actually his only sonata to play continuously from beginning to end, and it finds him experimenting with new concepts of cyclic form. As for the F major Sonata, Op. 54, and the Appassionata, Op. 57, composed in 1804-5, they form a strongly contrasted pair: Op. 54 highly concentrated and largely intimate, the Appassionata grandly-conceived and unprecedentedly turbulent.

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As always, Paul Lewis offers playing of rare insight and intelligence. He is just as much at home in the dazzling brilliance of the C major Sonata, Op. 2 No. 3, with its concerto-like propensities, as in the graceful lyricism of the concluding rondo from Op. 7. These are deeply satisfying performances, and no less impressive is Lewis’s sweeping, dramatic account of the Appassionata. In the Moonlight, too, he conveys all the delicacy and mystery of the famous opening movement, before unleashing tremendous power and energy in the finale. Just occasionally elsewhere, Lewis’s playing seems to lack that last ounce of intensity the music demands. The finale of the F minor Sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, is one of Beethoven’s very rare pieces to carry a prestissimo marking, and while it shouldn’t sound garbled, it needs to live dangerously. András Schiff is only a hair’s breadth faster than Lewis, but he communicates greater urgency and tension. Again, the scherzo of Op. 26, coming as it does between two slow movements, sounds a little too laid-back in Lewis’s hands. Both Schiff and Richard Goode invest it with more dynamic thrust. But these are small points within the considerable achievement of Lewis’s performances as a whole. The Op. 2 triptych may have marginally more personality in Schiff’s hands, and Goode is remarkably consistent throughout, but these finely recorded new versions are highly rewarding. Misha Donat