Beethoven on Hyperion

2006-09-30 / Ottawa Citizen / Richard Todd

The Beauty of Beethoven

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas 4, 7, and 23
Angela Hewitt, piano

If recording the complete keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach is the most daunting project a pianist can undertake, surely the complete Beethoven sonatas can’t be far behind. Ottawa-born pianist Angela Hewitt established much of her reputation by recording the former, probably better than anyone else has ever done it. There’s nothing in the packaging or labelling of this, her first Beethoven CD, that promises recordings of all the sonatas, but don’t be too surprised if that’s what we eventually get.

The three here are so good that Hewitt’s countless fans are unlikely to sit still for anything less than a complete cycle. What’s more, the virtues of her interpretations are exactly those that music lovers have come to rely
upon: Without taking significant liberties with the music as written, she still infuses it with an inner light of understanding that is unique to her.

Of the three sonatas on this disc, the Appassionata is by far the most familiar. It was Beethoven’s personal favourite of his sonatas until he wrote the Hammerklavier 13 years later. With the possible exception of the Moonlight it is his most popular sonata with today’s public.

As Hewitt explains in her fascinating program notes, the Appassionata was written shortly after the Eroica Symphony at the height of what posterity would call his heroic period. Furthermore, he had recently been given a state-of-the-art piano with compass of five and a half octaves and the extended range gave the composer the opportunity to write grander, more expansive music for the instrument than he had earlier. (Today’s piano has a compass of more than seven octaves. One wonders what Beethoven would have made of it.) Although virtually any listener will hear the many beauties of Hewitt’s Appassionata, those intimately familiar with the sonata may have to listen more than once to parts of it to understand why she plays certain passages quite the way she does. This listener had to hear the coda of the first movement four times before quite getting her patterns of emphasis in the rapid-fire chords of the final measures. It was well worth the effort.

The program notes describe the Sonata in D, op. 10, no. 3 as the first masterpiece in Beethoven’s cycle of sonatas. Whether or not one agrees with the first” element of this assessment, Hewitt’s rendition leaves no doubt that it is indeed a masterpiece. Listen especially to the aching beauty of the second movement and its cumulative emotional power. And hear the singing beauty she creates with her Fazioli piano.

The other movements are hardly less impressive. The fourth, for example, is a wonder of tight logic and a seemingly paradoxical lightness of touch, its trills, runs and sequential figures presented in serene perfection.

The Sonata in E-flat, op. 7, while a less evolved work, is unmistakably Beethoven in technique and feeling. The lucidity and power of Hewitt’s playing make as strong a case for the piece as you’re likely ever to hear.
She brings to the slow movement a kind of temperate solemnity that anticipates some of the qualities of the Hammerklavier. And once again she uses the superb sound of her instrument to create music of the greatest beauty.”