Picks and Pans Review: Beethoven: Piano Sonatas "les Adieux" and "hammerklavier"
Why have so many pianists recorded (and listeners paid for) complete sets of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas? Well, like Mount Everest, they are there. Furthermore, as Alfred Brendel noted in a 1970 essay, the sonatas "are unique in three respects. First, they represent the whole development of a genius...Secondly, there is not an inferior work among them...Thirdly, Beethoven does not repeat himself; each work, each movement is a new organism." The stuff of legend is in how a musician animates those complex organisms. Artur Schnabel's 1932-37 recordings are a romantic benchmark even today. Of the current generation, the top masters of the works are probably Maurizio Pollini (in a 1974 set), Brendel and now Vladimir Ashkenazy. Brendel's 1978 boxed set—from which Hammerklavier and Les Adieux have just been released as a single disc—is a masterpiece of unrelenting control. Ashkenazy, the poet in the group, is closest to Schnabel in emotion. Compare, for instance, the thunderclap chords that open the massive Hammerklavier. Ashkenazy's approach is startling, stirring. Brendel's opening, a bit slower, sounds dry by comparison. But first impressions can sometimes be misleading with Brendel. Give him any kind of a chance, and he will calmly deposit you in the center of Beethoven's stormy soul.