Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 31 Nos 1, 2 & 3; Variations Op 34 & 35 | classical album of the week

Andreas Staier
(Harmonia Mundi, two CDs)
The three op 31 sonatas, all written in 1802, sound lean and coherent on an 1810 piano, if occasionally things feel a little too well-mannered

Ein Neuer Weg (A New Way) is the title of Andreas Staier’s album, which brings together the piano works that Beethoven composed at the very beginning of the 19th century. All were published in 1802, the year in which Beethoven also finally accepted that his deafness could only worsen, and he revealed his incurable illness to his brothers in his famous Heiligenstadt testament. He was dissatisfied, too, with the music he had written up to that time, and the three Op 31 sonatas began his radical reinvention of the form that he had inherited from Haydn and Mozart.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 31 & Variations Opp 34 & 35 album art work
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op 31 & Variations Opp 34 & 35 album art work Photograph: Publicity Image

Staier plays them on a piano made by Matthias Müller in Vienna in 1810. It is a fine sounding instrument, with a clear tone in the upper registers that is never strident. If it’s perhaps a bit wiry and underpowered in the bass, Staier turns that leanness to good effect in movements like the scherzo of Op 31 No 3 in E flat, with its running left hand that he can articulate so clearly. If in other repertoire his performances, both live and on recordings, have sometimes tended to extremes, the playing here is a model of restraint and good musical sense; even in the so called Tempest Sonata, Op 31 No 2 in D minor, nothing is pushed too hard, as if clarity matters above everything.

There are times, in fact, when it’s all a bit too well-mannered. The beginning of Op 31 No 1, in G major, can surely seem wittier, more convincingly Beethovenian than Staier allows, with more contrast between its guileless opening phrase and the torrent of semiquavers that threatens to overwhelm it, while his account of the Eroica Variations Op 35 is so carefully managed it takes a while to build up real momentum. But overall these performances are models of thoughtfulness and insight.

This week’s other pick

In the mid-1970s, the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111, were among the first that Maurizio Pollini recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, the start of a survey that would take him 35 years to complete.

Now, for the Beethoven anniversary, he has returned to that final trilogy, with performances taken from concerts in Munich last June. But comparisons are almost entirely in favour of the earlier readings. Though Pollini’s sound is as chiselled and refined as ever, there’s now an impatience about the way that he deals with Beethoven’s rhetoric, almost as if he has played these works too often. Those who already own the earlier disc shouldn’t feel a need to hear the new one.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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