Had Beethoven composed nothing other than the 32 piano sonatas, his genius would have been acknowledged. These works are at the summit of the piano repertoire, and many of them are still represented in the core repertoire on the concert stage today.
Beethoven intended them as studies, and there is a reference to a concert performance of just one of them during Beethoven’s lifetime. Yet the finest pianists still are challenged to perform and/or record all of them as a cycle.
Igor Levit’s recently recorded release of the cycle is particularly fine. He is performing them in recital at the truncated Salzburg Festival this season. My particular favorite is the cycle by Friedrich Gulda, recorded for Austrian radio during the waning days of the Soviet occupation of Vienna after World War II.
The Beethoven sonatas have become almost synonymous with the name of Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), a principal exponent of the German school of pianism (although he, like Gulda, was Austrian by birth). The performance style of pianists of this school (Backhaus, Serkin, and others) is said to be characterized by strict discipline, careful technique, and an intellectual approach to the music.
I would have agreed with this broad assessment of the pianism of the German Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), in particular. His recordings reflect immaculate technique, exquisite taste, and a certain emotional detachment. He is recognized as a master in particular of the piano works of Beethoven and Schubert.
He recorded the cycle of the Beethoven sonatas in 1951 at the Beethovensaal in Hanover. That recording, to my ears, sounded recessed, lacking in warmth, and affirmed the assessments I had read of Kempff’s pianism.
A remastering of those recordings, recently released on the French label Pristine Audio, however, proves how a substandard recording can lead to a misleading assessment. Andrew Rose, the label’s founder, has remastered Kempff’s recorded performances using his XR technology, which adds resonance, warmth, and stereophonic sound without a hint of artificiality.
The first release of the cycle (Pristine Audio PAKM 082) includes Sonatas 1-7, and what a wonder it is. Kempff’s deft, but tasteful use of the pedal is fully in evidence, as is a warm, singing tone to the piano. Technically, of course, they are beyond reproach, but the performances are fully engaging emotionally as well.
The Mozartian grace of No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3 is delightful. No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1 points the way to the future, as does one of my favorites, No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3. Beethoven’s favorite of these early sonatas was No. 6 in F major, Op. 10, No. 2, which he played for his own pleasure. It is bursting with ideas, and even a modern listener is astonished at Beethoven’s imaginative use of rhythm and harmonic invention that was far in advance of the music of his own day.
Judging by Volume One, this cycle by Kempff goes right to the top of the heap. If you would like to hear the sonatas in sequence, tune in to WTJU’s Piano Forte on Thursday evenings at 7 P.M. Your hosts Matt and Paul are presenting their own favorites for your enjoyment.
Wilhelm Kempff: The Beethoven Piano Sonatas Vol. 1
Pristine Classical PAKM082