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“Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas”
Ludwig van Beethoven: CD1: Sonata n° 1 in F minor, opus 2, n° 1 [1] – Sonata n° 2 in A major, opus 2, n° 2 [2] – Sonata n° 3 in C major, opus 2, n° 3 [3]; CD2: Sonata n° 4 in E-Flat major, opus 7 [4] – Sonata n° 5 in C minor, opus 10, n° 1 [5] – Sonata n° 6 in F major, opus 10, n° 2 [6] – Sonata n° 7 in D major, opus 10, n° 3 [7]; CD3: Sonata n° 8 in C minor, “Pathétique”, opus 13 [8] – Sonata n° 9 in E major, opus 14, n° 1 [9] – Sonata n° 10 in G major, opus 14, n° 2 [10] – Sonata n° 11 in B-Flat major, opus 22 [11]; CD4: Sonata n° 12 in A-Flat major, opus 26 [12] – Sonata n° 13 in E-Flat major, opus 27 [13] – Sonata n° 14 in C sharp minor, “Moonlight”, opus 27 [14] – Sonata n° 15 in D major, “Pastoral”, opus, 28 [15]; CD5: Sonata n° 16 in G major, opus 31, n° 1 [16] – Sonata n° 17 in D minor, “Tempest”, opus 31, n° 2 [17] – Sonata n° 18 in E-Flat major, “The Chase”, opus 31, n° 3 [18]; CD6: Sonata n° 19 in G minor, opus 49 [19] – Sonata n° 20 in G major, opus 49 [20] – Piano Sonata n° 21 in C major, “Waldstein”, opus 53 [21] – Sonata n° 22 in F major, opus 54 [22]; CD7: Sonata n° 23 in F minor, “Appassionata”, opus 57 [23] – Sonata n° 24 in F- Sharp major, opus 78 [24] – Sonata n° 25 in G major, opus 79 [25] – Sonata n° 26 in E-Flat major, “Lebewohl”, opus 80a [26]; CD8: Sonata n° 27 in E minor, opus 90 [27] – Sonata n° 28 in A major, opus 101 [28] – Sonata n° 29 in B-Flat major, “Hammerklavier”, opus 106 [29]; CD9: Sonata n° 30 in E major, opus 109 [30] – Sonata n° 31 in A-Flat major, opus 110 [31] – Sonata n° 32 in C minor, opus 111 [32]

Boris Giltburg (pianist)
Recording: Jaques Samuel Pianos, London, UK (December 3, 2019) [1] and Fazioli Concert Hall, Sacile, Italy (December 18, 2019 [2]; December 19, 2019 [3]; December 20, 2019 [4]; January 8, 2020 [5] [6]; January 9, 2020 [7]; January 29, 2020 [9][10]; January 30, 2020 [8][11]; July 15, 2020 [12]; July 16, 2020 [14]; July 17, 2020 [15]; July 20, 2020 [13][19]; July 21, 2020 [16]; July 23, 2020 [18][25]; July 24, 2020 [17]; July 25, 2020 [20]; July 27, 2020 [23][24]; July 28, 2020 [21]; September 8, 2020 [22][26]; September 10, 2020 [30]; September 11, 2020 [27]; September 12, 2020 [32]; November 16, 2020 [31]; November 18, 2020 [29]; November 21, 2020 [28]; November 22, 2020 [32]) – 600’39
Naxos 8.509005 – Booklet in English and German

Several albums and a number of live and streaming performances of Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas (hereafter referred to as the B32) have emerged during the Covid era which last year coincided with the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. I watched and/or listened to a number of these (Levit, Biss, Williams, Barenboim, Möller, et al.), all or in part, fine performances each in their own way.

One of the most recent to appear as both a film and an album is the B32 of Boris Giltburg, an engaging young pianist who seems to have been busier and more visible than ever during the height of the pandemic. After observing an online master class that he taught, and later enjoying his stream of the Beethoven Piano Concerto n° 3 with Tabita Berglund and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra almost exactly one year ago, I was impressed by his technique, interpretation and on-stage charisma. Following his encore (the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata n° 30), in particular, the sixth variation, I wrote in another publication that his playing was “simply unsurpassable”.

Little did I know that Giltburg would indeed rise beyond his own high standard of excellence.

This nine-CD boxed set is unlike other collections in that it was originally filmed by Stewart French, founder and director of Fly on the Wall, a company that creates films from musical performances. For this recording, Giltburg performed one take per movement (of the more than 100 sonata movements in this album, which can be found through a search on YouTube). After observing and listening to each take, the movement was adjusted accordingly and then filmed straight through. This final set of movements, stripped of video content, became the recordings in this audio collection. For this mammoth undertaking, Giltburg memorized the complete B32 and performed as he would have before a live audience.

Which leads me to the substance of this review, which, for reasons of space and time, cannot do justice to all the selections in this album. The short version of this review is, “It’s great. Buy a copy and enjoy”.

The long version, like an in-depth view of the sonatas themselves, is more complex, addressing some curious performance habits and raising questions about maturity and approach, while extolling a remarkable achievement and artistry worthy of the finest pianists practicing today. Most of my criticisms are for peccadillos that may irritate this writer and a few other listeners, not necessarily global condemnations or anything that needs fixing.

To begin, Giltburg’s album closely follows the notion of three distinct periods to Beethoven’s life, reflected in his music. This view was out of favor for a while, but it really is a simple way to categorize and think about the composer’s music, life and worldview. We have the early period (Bonn and early Vienna), middle period (deafness, custody battles for nephew Karl) and late period (rich inner life, mysterious and unconventional compositional style). Giltburg’s performances tend to follow this threefold perspective to a T. There is a sense of sameness about his renderings of the first 11 sonatas, which fall squarely into the first period. They are well played and clearly within the boundaries set by conventions of his time. Like a frisky puppy, this Beethoven is playful but not too boisterous. Giltburg’s steely fingers pounce on the keys, reminding us that in some circles, the piano is viewed as a percussion instrument. The first and third movements of Sonata n° 4, for example, are delicate, yet bouncy, even pert as though Beethoven were masquerading as Mendelssohn. Yet, in the most famous sonata of this period, the Pathétique (n° 8), there is fragility rather than passion. Even the Sonata n° 1 in F minor, Beethoven’s first completed mature sonata, deserves to be played with the fire and sensual intensity that no doubt emanated from this romantic young composer in his first years in Vienna.

But all this takes a dramatic shift as the Sonata n° 12 emerges with its silky finish, rustling like the satin gown of a grande dame making her entrance at a society ball. Nimble fingers caress each variation, and the first licks of fire in this collection rise from the “Scherzo”, a sensual heat one does not usually encounter in a funeral march. What if this march is more of a stroll in the park rather than a cortège lumbering to the cemetery? That’s fine, because it comes from some place deep in Giltburg’s imagination, not because of coaching or other external expectations. He holds that last chord an awfully long time, and that is fine as well, since there is a fermata whose gravitational field slowly pulls the listener into the “Rondo” that follows.

But consider this. The difference between the sonatas through Number 11 and those that begin with Number 12 is so startling that one wonders whether Giltburg had a transformational experience during the six months between their recording dates in Italy. Sonata n° 11 was recorded in January 2020, when the Corona virus was only a phantom on a distant horizon. Sonata n° 12 was recorded in July 2020 when thousands of deaths in Italy and the closing of cultural landmarks were reported around the world. During this period, Covid deaths in Italy rose from 0 to 35,000, and soon thereafter shot up to more than 125,000 casualties. The effect of the pandemic on artists’ creative and interpretive activity cannot be underestimated. At the very least, it could make a compelling topic for a dissertation or thesis.

Signaled by the arrival of n° 12, Beethoven’s middle period (as defined by performances on this album) offers a more interesting pathway for Giltburg. His rendering of the Sonata n° 13, one of the two quasi una fantasia sonatas, expresses real urgency, even pain, a sense of stretching and striving to achieve a higher level of craft, but also interpretative originality and a thoughtful unraveling of the composer’s intent. His reading of the first movement of the often-performed Moonlight Sonata n° 14 is exceptionally subdued, a beautiful approach, as though he were a “key whisperer”, barely brushing the keys with his hands. This may be the most tender expression of this movement that I have ever heard, although he can barely shift from pp to ppp in the final measures because he is already at a level of tenderness bordering on inaudibility.

What follow are two sonatas which never particularly attracted me, pursued by two others of arresting appeal: The Tempest (no. 17) and The Chase (no. 18, also known as The Hunt). The Tempest includes one of those inexplicably mysterious phrases that appears out of nowhere in several of the sonatas. This one appears beginning in measure 143 in some editions, mirroring the “Largo” of the very first measure of the sonata with a simple almost spoken phrase set against a halo of pedal.

After the child-like two-movement Sonatas n° 19 and n° 20, Giltburg marches through several which have captured the popular imagination (the Waldstein, n° 21), the Appassionata, n° 23)—not particularly impassioned in this performance—and Lebewohl, also known as the Les Adieux, n° 26, a sentimental farewell to a departing friend, the Archduke Rudolf. These lead toward the monumental Hammerklavier, n° 29 and the final three sonatas: n° s 30 through 32. (It is common to refer to the last five as “the late sonatas”, but for some of us, it’s the final threesome that seems to speak as one voice.)

The Hammerklavier is widely considered Beethoven’s grandest sonata, though I think it could do with a little more introspection by most artists. Then there is the matter of a couple of peculiar measures prior to the sempre e dolce in movement one, about a minute before the arrival of the “Scherzo”. Though they are not errors, they usually sound like a mistake, and I’m sure they harbor an interesting backstory. Giltburg’s Hammer is a powerful one, but as he plays this work in future years, I am sure that Beethoven the philosopher will overcome Beethoven the lion-tamer in good time. For Boris Giltburg is a pianist of deep understanding and a contemplative spirit. Despite some minor irritants in his playing of the early selections, such as the tendency to hammer away at the keyboard at the drop of a fortissimo, Giltburg has a rare grasp of the unity of the 32 sonatas. This is particularly true of the final three.

Two short movements and a lengthy third characterize the Sonata n° 30 in E major with its rhythmic opening and a lyrical third movement that unfolds in a series of piquant variations. There is a sense of controlled majesty here, as though we are on the brink of a beautiful but poignant farewell, not only to music, but perhaps to life itself. In these final sonatas, Giltburg takes an approach that emphasizes the legato style that Beethoven loved, sweet but not saccharine, sometimes arresting in its boldness, other times as though enveloped in a dream.

The threads of the final fugue in Sonata n° 31, composed five years before the composer’s death, uncurl sinuously, like a basket of snakes. It leads to one of the most spectacular effects in all of Beethoven’s art…that series of 10 firmly enunciated chords in sequence, increasing in volume from pianissimo to fortissimo, something anyone can learn to play and which sends seismic shivers through the marrow of our bones. Giltburg is never better than in these two final sonatas, culminating in the understated but heavenly two movements, recorded two months apart of Sonata n° 32 in C minor. In the last movement, there may be equals, but it is impossible to imagine any significantly finer performance by a pianist of Giltburg’s generation. Four variations, several long trills, and a sprinkling of 32nd notes that seem to float higher than the limits of imagination: what is it about these simple elements that can bear the weight of the world? Here is a pianist who knows what to do with them. What will this gifted young man bring to the B32 when he is middle-aged and later, full of the wisdom of years? We can only hope we’ll be around to find out.

Linda Holt




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