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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Sonatas

Artur Pizarro (piano)
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Recording details: October 2002
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: June 2004
Total duration: 78 minutes 20 seconds

Beethoven's famous 'Pathétique', 'Moonlight', 'Tempest' and 'Appassionata' sonatas played to perfection by pianist Artur Pizzaro.


'Artur Pizarro now re-emerges on Linn Records with performances of Beethoven sonatas sufficiently individual and freshly conceived to make them emerge as new-minted rather than over familiar. Let no-one say that there is no room for another set of established masterpieces when the pianist is possessed of this sort of recreative energy and exuberance! … Pizarro is not frightened to go his own way, and I think that his way of allowing such pages to erupt in a blaze of romantic fire would have won Beethoven's hearty applause and approval … I hope this is the start of what promises to be a more than distinguished series'' (Gramophone)

'[Artur Pizarro] has an exceptional sense of musical line: not just in the elegantly vocal long melody that opens the Pathétique's famous slow movement, but also running through the furious torrents of notes in the finale of the Moonlight. It's a very Romantic view, but it's delivered with conviction, intelligence and refined pianism that demands respect at the very least. And in moments like the 'voice from the tomb' recitatives in the first movement of the Tempest sonata, the poised intensity can be pretty compelling … this is a remarkable effort from a pianist who deserves more attention' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'Pizarro is emabarking on a year long Beethoven sonata cycle in London. As a sampler, here are four of the most popular: the C minor Pathétique, C sharp minor Moonlight, D minor Tempest and F minor Appassionata. It is a lot of minor, but his commitment is manifestly major, and the quality of his realisation is scrupulous. He avoids exaggerated gesture, but always rises to Beethoven's dramatic challenges, never more thrillingly than in an Appassionata of faultless bravura. Sometimes the precision can seem steely, at the expense of poetry: the Moonlight's evocative opening needs a drop or two more of silver, but he captures the uncanny quality of the pedalled recitatives in the Tempest, and his Pathétique is sterling' (The Sunday Times)

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'The popularity of these sonatas can probably be attributed to the public’s liking for titles, since those with titles are among the best loved.' So said the pianist Edwin Fischer; however unfair it may be on those Beethoven sonatas (or Haydn symphonies for that matter) lacking a sobriquet, the memorable nicknames undoubtedly helped to establish these works in the public imagination, where they have remained since Beethoven’s day.

Unlike the other works on this recording, the Grande Sonate Pathétique was so titled by its composer. Its mood of high seriousness is established in the Grave introduction, which turns out to be rather more than that. Its reappearance in the development and recapitulation looks forward to the 'arrest/movement' polarization of the Op 31/2 'Tempest' sonata. The popularity of the 'Pathétique' is due in part to the straightforward appeal of the Adagio cantabile, a simple rondo whose memorable theme is sung out in the rich tenor register of the instrument. The concluding Rondo, despite the defiant 'Beethoven-in-C-minor' final gesture, is lighter in mood than its preceding movements; its rather elusive theme, which Beethoven is said to have played 'humorously', is a world away from the brow-furrowed sentiments of the opening movement.

The 'Moonlight' title derives from a striking image from the pen of the poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab: 'A boat visiting the wild places on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.' The predominantly low sonorities of the opening Adagio sostenuto certainly conjures up a crepuscular scene. Timothy Jones has suggested that the constant piano (or softer) dynamic and the desolate, tolling melody could be 'a representation of Beethoven’s impaired auditory world and—at the same time—a lament for its loss'. The brief Allegretto—'a flower between two abysses' in Liszt’s telling phrase—is directed to be played attacca from the Adagio and serves as a moderately-paced bridge between the slow opening movement and the climactic finale. Beethoven employed a similar formal strategy both in Op 27 No 1 (like the 'Moonlight' entitled Sonata quasi una fantasia) as well as the preceding Op 26 sonata. In all of these works, Beethoven finds new ways of interconnecting materials between movements and of transferring weight to the finales. The concluding Presto agitato of the 'Moonlight' transforms material from the Adagio sostenuto in a movement of astonishing drive and force.

Indirectly, we have Beethoven to thank for the 'Tempest' tag to his D minor sonata Op 31 No 2. Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s circle, reported that he once asked Beethoven to explain the 'key' to the Opp 31/2 and 57 sonatas, to be gnomically advised 'just read Shakespeare’s Tempest'. The story has a ring of truth about it; it was not the only time that Beethoven made reference to Shakespeare with regard to hidden 'programmes' in his music. If it was his intention to link his genius with Shakespeare’s, it worked; during the nineteenth century, the notion became a critical commonplace. The D minor sonata opens with a stark opposition of materials; a soft, arpeggiated chord, marked Largo, followed by a nervous burst of active music, which has more than a hint of the opera house about it. The arpeggios take on an unsettling quality when they reappear at the beginning of the recapitulaion. They flower into strange recitatives, their poetry intensified by their very wordlessness. As Charles Rosen has remarked, Beethoven’s direction to hold down the sustaining pedal at this point lends them 'a hollow and even cavernous quality like a voice from the tomb'. Both the arpeggiated chord and elements of the recitatives are employed in the succeeding Adagio, in which the concept of opposites is also continued. Here, the farthest reaches of Beethoven’s piano are exploited in a dialogue of extreme registers. In the concluding Allegretto, the arpeggio is transformed into the material for a nagging perpetuum mobile in which the intimation of the human voice, ever present during the first two movements, seems entirely absent.

Czerny declared Beethoven’s Op 57 sonata to be 'much too magnificent' for its 'Appassionata' title. Beethoven disliked the nickname provided by his publisher, although he declared himself satisfied by the work itself. The enormous scale of its opening movement is symphonic both in structure and sheer volume; for the first time, a work for solo piano could challenge the power of an orchestra. The 'Appassionata' could only have been conceived for a state-of-the-art instrument. In 1803, Beethoven acquired an Erard grand piano, which afforded him an extended treble range as well as considerably increased robustness. The Walter fortepiano on which he performed the 'Pathétique' would have been reduced to matchwood by the shattering power of the fortissimo chordal assaults which Beethoven unleashes at various points in this stormy movement. The Andante con moto presages Beethoven’s visionary slow movements in his final sonatas. A stately, chorale-like theme is subjected to three variations, which ascend by degrees into higher registers of the instrument. As Donald Francis Tovey remarked, the Andante is 'a dream that must be shattered at the first hint of action'. The finale, a tumultuous Allegro ma non troppo, is a sonata form in which Beethoven directs the performer to repeat both the development and recapitulation, thereby creating an effective counterweight to the massive opening movement. In the coda, the pulse is further increased to a Presto for a savage, Dionysiac dance that breaks into a final, frenzied statement of the opening material.

Sandy Matheson © 2003

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