These performances of Beethoven's last piano sonatas are the kind that make pianists want to forget about playing the repertoire at hand, or forget playing the piano at all. Christoph Eschenbach is currently the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but while his conducting is exceptionally assured, it should not be forgotten what a great pianist he still is--though he plays solo concerts with all the frequency of a new Beethoven piano work being discovered.
The Hammerklavier Sonata, Opus 106, the first item on this Gemini EMI reissue, is the greatest recording of it I have ever heard of the forty-plus discs I own of this work. The first movement is brilliantly fast and cleanly-executed (listen to those powerful octaves and chords), yet imbued with a special warmth of sound both in the cantabile sections as well as in the forte and fortissimo passages (a rarely-achieved feat). This is all the more remarkable particularly considering the fact that the piece is being played quite close to Beethoven's quite unreasonable metronome markings. And some low bass-octave additions are not disturbing, but rather in keeping with the monumental quality of the performance. The second movement has terrific humor, gossamer-light articulation, and even violence--and many other moods besides. As a pianist who has played this composition, these attributes are all the more astonishing because I know personally how hard it is to make these elements coalesce!
The crowning moments of the work are in the Adagio (at over twenty-five minutes, this is one of the slowest of all Hammerklavier adagios, exceeded only by Michael Korstick's nearly twenty-nine-minute performance), given here with an ineffable beauty of sound and a feeling of sorrow unmatched by even Gilels or Serkin--the coda is truly soul-stirring, and everything preceding it is gorgeous when it must be, quietly dignified, even imperially remote, in its sense of awe-inspiring tragedy. The Finale (with its marvelous atmosphere of mystery in its exploratory beginning, followed by a complex fugue) has never been better clarified or planned-out. Like a great detective story, this is a performance that displays exhilarating suspensefulness, leading us down many terrifying and treacherous roads until we reach a true climax culminating in an overwhelmingly devastating peroration, an apotheosis of immense, mammoth dimensions. To repeat, this is without a doubt the best peformance I have ever heard of the Hammerklavier Sonata, unlikely to be surpassed in my listening. (And if it is bettered, I will be the first to say so on Amazon!)
The remainder of the two-disc set, while excellent, is not as exhilarating. The E Major Sonata is warm and deeply expressive, brilliant, and highly diffuse in mood. The A flat major Sonata is almost as fine as the Hammerklavier, again particularly in the finale, which reminds one of Brendel's vision of the finale as a kind of immolation, and once again Eschenbach's tone is of the most extraordinary beauty, particularly in the "Klagender Gesang" section in G minor.
Although the last sonata is not the greatest performance of this work committed to disc (listen to Jacob Lateiner on a long-deleted RCA LP, or my own personal favorite, Anatol Ugorski's massively-distended Deutsche Grammophon CD, also deleted), it is nevertheless thoroughly recommendable, as are the charming chips from Beethoven's workbench, the Bagatelles, played with all the requisite quirkiness of Beethoven's final period.
This very inexpensive reissue is however most important for the monumental performance of Opus 106, and it surpasses even Eschenbach's earlier Deutsche Grammophon disc from around 1967 (excellent, too, but also never re-released by DG--odd!). EMI have done Eschenbach's pianistic reputation much good with this 1976 Hammerklavier, which, as far as I know, was never released in the United States. I wonder why--it is a musical treasure. Sound is excellent, and I hope many buy this fine disc. Can we ask Eschenbach to do the Beethoven-Weingartner orchestration of the Hammerklavier Sonata with his Philadelphia Orchestra, if only to remind us of his fantastic EMI recording made thirty years ago? The orchestral "Hammerklavier" could very well compare to this unforgettable recording of the Opus 106 Sonata.