Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata n° 29 in B-Flat major, opus 106, “Hammerklavier” – 15 Variations and a Fugue in E-Flat Major, opus 35 “Eroica Variations”
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Recording: Stefaniensaal, Graz, Austria (July 2020) – 67’
Pentatone PTC 5186724 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English
The Hammerklavier is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some listeners are intimidated by what has become the threatening image of Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata. How can anyone escape its massive burdens of complexity, intellectualism and length, or the legacy of performers since Franz Liszt who have tamed, or have been tamed by its sweeping power? How does a pianist interpret the uninterpretable or find something new in the work’s labyrinth of textures and ideas? It stands like some gargantuan mountain peak outside the already spectacular vista of Beethoven’s other 31 piano sonatas, daring yet another fool-hardy adventurer to attempt a foot hold.
But human imagination and creativity seem to have no limits. It is with wonder and appreciation that we greet a new recording of this work by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. In this production, Aimard does not try to out-shine previous luminaries, nor does he disguise Beethoven’s thundering utterance with a sweetness that simply is not there. What he does in less than 45 minutes is present a Hammerklavier such as we may not have heard before: a work in which strident power takes a back seat to pure beauty. Aimard’s reading of the Hammerklavier emphasizes the lyrical beauty which so many others leave behind when tackling the monumental proportions of this masterpiece.
Listening to the familiar four movements as they unfolded under Aimard’s touch, the word “beauty” kept repeating in my mind. The pianist’s ability to elicit the beautiful out of the rocky terrain of difficult musical texts may also account for his popularity as an advocate for contemporary music. The man who can bring forth the beauty of craggy composers like Ligeti and Stockhausen can open our eyes and ears to a deep understanding that goes beyond our expectations.
Philosophers since the time of Socrates, and probably before, have struggled in vain to define what is beautiful, and my words do not add any meaningful content to the debate. Perhaps beauty in music suggests a combination of harmonious form and imaginative interpretation evoked with sonority and a feeling in which the pianist’s voice does not drown out the composer’s. There have been many mighty performances of the Hammerklavier, including Stephen Kovacevich’s album on Warner Classics which captures the chaos that raged in Beethoven’s mind. Listening to these two interpretations in sequence, one would hardly believe they are of the same work. There is no rage in Aimard’s study, which is reflected by the pianist’s expression on the album cover. Here is a man who can frown and smile at the same time, with his eyes closed, and a sense that he is listening to something eternal that we will not know until his hands touch the keys.
The booklet notes tell us that Berlioz, in his role as critic, called the long third movement of this sonata “a hymn”. I think that is only partly right, for a hymn requires a sense of obedience and obligation. We must worship, we have been ordered to praise. Here, there is nothing forced, but rather a natural reverence and acknowledgment that for all its sorrows, life is a beautiful gift. Aimard captures this in a way that does not detract from the other, more kinetic movements. There are no traces of anxiety, and this is especially noteworthy as Aimard recorded this album during a Covid-19 recess from the rigors of stage performance. Even the agitated passages of the final movement have a smooth pleasantness about them, the concluding fugue still a wonderland of the incomprehensible.
The album also includes a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and a Fugue in E-Flat major, full of unexpected twists and turns, showing the composer at his inventive best, and, like Aimard, with a frown and smile at the same time.