The greatest digital recording of a Beethoven piano sonata?

Yesterday was one hell of a rollercoaster. Health issues beckoned, both for me and for my eldest daughter Francesca (though we’re coping), and although the calming prospect of words and music promised some respite, I had no idea what to turn to first. Angela Hewitt’s forthcoming Beethoven CD (Hyperion CDA68374) was among the most recent arrivals and I was curious. How might she tackle the two greatest Sonatas, Op. 111 and the Hammerklavier? I turned first to the former, principally because at 21:04 the theme and variations second movement promised a degree of breadth unheard of in my experience. But I wouldn’t be rushed. Hewitt’s firm handing of the pitch-black, ‘no-going-back’ opening Maestoso, a musical call to arms like no other, brooked little in the way of compromise. Precise in its attack and pedalling, with rolling arpeggios (upwardly rolling eyes in musical terms) its impact beggars belief. The jagged contours of the following allegro fractured that implacable surface to some extent, letting a modicum of light shine through in the process, but the drama remained; what we were facing was an endgame. 

And beyond that? Heaven, pure and simple. The second movement’s opening Arietta bore a closer resemblance to the great Artur Schnabel’s 1932 recording (Warner Classics) than any other I know of, it’s breadth and profundity of utterance; the perfect weighting of its chords and the rests between those chords, and a comprehensive understanding of the music’s harmonic architecture, all helped nudge old interpretative values into a new context, ‘old school for a new age’ you might say. As the movement progressed, a series of variations unfolds that becomes more and more outlandish as time passes, approximating a sort of stride piano at 6:25, though the effect is more iconoclastic Sgt Pepper than swinging Art Tatum. Next comes murmuring prayer before Beethoven ascends skywards on a series of repeated figurations which Hewitt interprets with maximum flexibility. This is celestial minimalism of the most rarefied kind, though the mood intensifies before we’re ferried away on a sea of quiet trills.

Interesting that Hewitt’s breadth is mostly tellingly employed for the latter part of that second movement and although highly individual I would suggest you wrap up any preconceptions you might have about the interpretation this music, dig a very big hole and bury them. Here’s your chance to listen with fresh ears, then turn to the Hammerklavier where the Adagio is played ‘con molto sentimento’ (as marked), a heartfelt confession in preparation for the finale’s fiercely fugal putting to rights, which Hewitt surveys with maximum clarity. The first movement is marginally more relaxed than Beethoven’s very fast metronome suggests, but gains gravitas in the process. Hewitt’s accessibly analytical notes add a further degree of pleasure to the listening experience and the Fazioli piano used rings resplendent thanks to a superb recording. If this disc isn’t shortlisted for prizes in 2022 I’ll be very surprised.

2 thoughts on “The greatest digital recording of a Beethoven piano sonata?

  1. Sarah Moyse

    Dear Rob Cowan

    I so enjoyed reading this report on Angela Hewitt playing Beethoven – I still miss your programmes on Radio 3 though it’s four years since they left the airwaves. Working from home, my days revolved around your programmes and I haven’t listened to Radio 3 or anything else much since then. I was inspired to listen to so much music from all your erudite disquisitions on such a wide range of music. I studied music – many moons ago, and my tastes didn’t totally coincide with yours – I just can’t tolerate jazz though many people have attempted over the decades to convert me – I’ve been to so many live jazz venues and had so much played to me by persistent devotees – and I love all sorts of Chinese music – having lived there and been involved in music making with Chinese musicians, but my deep abiding love is for Beethoven which I learned before I could walk or talk.

    I hope your health is improving and that of your daughter. I am looking out for my 90 year old mother who is very fit and looks set to drive me into an early grave with her demands and complaining!

    Wishing you a merry christmastide and happy and healthy new year!

    Very best wishes,

    Sarah Moyse

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    1. What a lovely post Sarah, I so appreciate it. And here’s to many more years with your mother (I just lost a dear uncle at 102). Our health is improving though my wife Georgie has just contracted COVID. Thank goodness we’re both thrice-jabbed. Your comments on my Radio 3 programmes are so heartening. I loved doing them while I had control over what I was playing but once that stopped there was little if any use having me in the studio. After all there’s no lack of excellent alternative presenters on Radio 3. But if there was anything special about what I did it was the act of presenting recordings that I dearly wanted my listeners to hear. Sadly, that privilege was no longer possible so I jumped ship to Classic FM – who initially allowed me to choose again – until COVID and related issues put paid to that programme as well. Sad in a sense but at least I was able to enjoy a golden age which I am eternally grateful for. Still, I do podcasts, YouTubes, etc and of course write, which I love doing more than anything else. Wishing you a merry christmastide and happy and healthy new year as well! Rob.

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