The duly famous living pianist Murray Perahia has taken his time with the Beethoven sonatas. This is the latest volume, number five? We have so far gotten stellar readings of the early three Opus 2 sonatas, plus sonatas 7, 8, 17, 18, 23, 26, 28 ... spread across four previous, separately released red book CD discs. Now we are able to add four more to the growing list of completed recordings. Not quite halfway through the famous 32 sonatas, then.
This CD starts off with 12, then goes to 9,10, and 15. I confess I don't quite get the shifted order, not that it makes that much difference; but as piano student I got comfortable with just taking the piano sonatas in sequence. If I really continue to be bothered, I can re-record a CDR in the serial sequence for home play.
The glorious thirty-two piano sonatas are a set, and not at all a set, all at the same time. One of the most fascinating things about following Beethoven is that followers may get involved in the challenge and fascination of his musical development and growth and deepening over the years of his singular, pivotal creative life. Thank goodness the composer was so prolific. We can follow amazing and wonderful paths of change in the symphonies, in the piano sonatas, in the string quartets, and to a lesser extent in the five piano concertos or the violin sonatas or the cello sonatas. Plenty of other works in the composer's catalog mark additional high peaks and enhanced musical topographies of sheer western classical discovery. Single works like the violin concerto, the Missa Solemnis, Diabelli Variations, Fidelio, the Triple Concerto - further light up the heart and mind, provided we can pay decent attention to so much treasure.
To my ears, the piano sonatas are like having unfettered access to a secret treasure vault filled to the brim with, say, Fabergé Russian Easter Eggs. Each is fabulous and uniquely wrought on its own. Taken altogether, the collection almost overwhelms the senses, and perhaps the mind.
Great pianists have played these 32 sonatas for a couple of centuries, and indeed the best of the available particular readings have seemed to plumb such depths that they strike the ear and heart and mind as musically exemplary, fulsome, wise, complete. Only to be superseded by more amazement as other pianists worked the seemingly inexhaustible veins of priceless raw ore. As Artur Schnabel said, Beethoven's music is better than it can be played.
One touchstone for comparisons is the Bruce Hungerford sonatas I can take down from the fav shelves. Hungerford did not live to do a complete set, though one dearly hopes that Perahia is able to finish. I also like the complete sets by Anton Kuerti (Canada), John Lill (UK), John O'Conor (Ireland), and Claudio Arrau (Chile, then the world). Other superb sets have been published. Among the many strong complete sets that we can properly consider front runners I fail to warm sufficiently to the relentlessly gray piano tone of Richard Goode to be able to stay that particular course.
One of the complex serendipities of Perahia's cycle so far is his complex, ringing, nuanced piano tone. He cannot make a harsh sound, though his szforzando is as vital and punchy as, say, Hungerford or Kuerti or Lill. Beyond the sheer joys of the player's fundamental physicality stand the high intellect and forceful humanity of the composer himself. Thus, one of the further delights of Perahia's readings is that he knows how to let his basic musical nature become transparent enough that our distance from Beethoven dissolves into shocking and alive encounter.
Some will criticize Perahia's physicality, perhaps; but the piano has changed greatly since the composer's era, and anybody now playing Beethoven on the modern concert grand piano must go far beyond simplistic originalisms or period performance practices. How little can the earlier fortepiano comprehensively define what Beethoven was saying to us, let alone limit or hold captive how we in this current century now bring ourselves to hear the message.
Another delight in Perahia's readings is how he lets the composer's fecund improvisatory genius shine through, particularly in the last fast movements of these four sonatas. Of the four, the Pastoral (15) is the better known and more often played in concerts. Yet what joy to hear Perahia taking each and every sonata for all its considerable worth, no orphans, no fairy tale lesser sister Cinderellas sentenced to the laundry or kitchens of mundane musical life on the grand Beethoven estates.
Despite not being SACD, the piano sound is just about as good as it gets. And given the resonance of Perahia's touch and tone, failing to record that keyboard without any touch of glass or hardness might have been the only downside. Compared to Kuerti, for example, the piano sound here is whole and round and balanced.
Most buyers will already have their established favs, but if not, the Perahia Beethoven discs are very fine places to start collecting the piano sonatas. The longer this series goes on, the nearer it stretches towards finishing, and the undertone of nail-biting worry sets in, that for whatever reasons Perahia may not finally be able to give us all thirty-two sonatas. But spin this disc, set aside worries, and let Beethoven remind us how humanity at its best is replete with wit, spunk, soaring intellect, and such generous, free warmth. Nothing at all on this disc prevents it from taking and sharing pride of place on the same shelves with Kuerti, Lill, O'Conor, Arrau, Hungerford, and a great many others of note.
All the Perahia Beethoven discs, highly recommended. My guess? These readings will last, and last, and last.