October 22, 2020


Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-6 (arrangement of Violin Concerto); Rondo in B-flat, WoO 6. Gottlieb Wallisch, fortepiano; Orchester Wiener Akademie conducted by Martin Haselböck. CPO. $33.99 (3 CDs).

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8 (“Pathétique”), 13 and 14 (“Moonlight”). Leslie Tung, fortepiano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Beethoven was not kind to his pianos. His temper tantrums as he tried to extract more from them than they were capable of delivering, his actual breakage of some of them, are the stuff of legend (in this case, legend firmly rooted in reality). But no matter how much Beethoven might have wished for an instrument along the lines of a modern concert grand – had he been able to conceptualize one – the fact is that what he actually had available was a very different sort of keyboard instrument, the fortepiano. With a span of five to six octaves rather than the modern 11, with a much smaller footprint and strings attached very differently, with up to five pedals for changing tonal quality rather than the usual three of modern pianos, fortepianos showed their relationship to the harpsichord much more closely than does any piano of today. Furthermore, while there is a certain sameness of sound to most (although not all) modern pianos, the makers of fortepianos were proud to produce instruments with very different actions, key spacing and travel, and damping. Fortepianos also had definite national characteristics, the ones from London being quite different in sound from those made on the European continent – and those coming from one continental nation being quite distinct from those made in another. Beethoven played the fortepiano, not the modern piano; and like it or not (he often did not), it was the fortepiano for which he composed. So although it has long been customary to hear Beethoven played on modern pianos, it is flat-out wrong to think that his music, heard that way, sounds the way he intended it to sound. Had he had access to the pianos that started to be made half a century after his death, Beethoven would surely have written very different music; but the music that he did write belongs to the instruments available during his lifetime.

     In this 250th year since Beethoven’s birth, there has been a veritable flood of recordings of his music – including, thank goodness, some that use historically accurate instruments and performance practices. The best of these are genuinely revelatory, letting listeners hear now-familiar music that sounds very considerably different from the way it usually comes across in large modern concert halls with contemporary instruments (piano and orchestral), up-to-date acoustics, and higher and brighter tuning than was used in Beethoven’s time. The CPO set of six piano concertos – the five numbered ones plus the piano version of the Violin Concerto – is so good that it almost argues against hearing this music on anything but a fortepiano (although of course that notion is absurd). Everyone involved in this project is an artist of the first rank, from fortepianist Gottlieb Wallisch to organist/conductor Martin Haselböck to the two dozen members of Orchester Wiener Akademie, which Haselböck founded in 1985 and still leads 35 years later. The fortepianos used here are themselves stars. For the first and second concertos and the rondo WoO 6 (the original finale of what is now Piano Concerto No. 2), there is a Conrad Graf instrument from 1818 that is known to have been played by Beethoven himself. It spans six octaves and has five pedals that can change the sound significantly. For the third and fifth concertos, there is a different Conrad Graf instrument, made several years later in 1823-24, somewhat larger than the 1818 fortepiano, with a span of six-and-a-half octaves and four pedals. And for the fourth concerto and piano version of the violin work, there is a Franz Bayer fortepiano from 1825, a six-octave instrument with four pedals.

     The distinctions among the fortepianos are by no means merely academic. The sound of the concertos is very different from work to work, based on which fortepiano is in use, and the sound of all the concertos differs dramatically from what is usually experienced in these works. The lightness, fluidity, and exceptional sense of integration between soloist and ensemble in these performances are quite remarkable – no expertise whatsoever is needed to hear how very different these readings sound from ones using modern instruments. There is far greater intimacy here than is usually heard in these pieces – a sound that fits Concerto No. 4 and the arrangement of the violin concerto exceptionally well and that also, surprisingly, pays remarkable dividends in the “Emperor” concerto, which becomes quietly outgoing, not overtly celebratory and buoyantly anticipatory of the full-fledged Romantic era. In the early concertos, No. 1 (actually finished second) and No. 2 (finished first), the fortepiano’s decidedly quiet sound (compared with that of modern pianos) emphasizes the almost neo-Baroque aspects of the music and certainly makes clear how indebted Beethoven was to Mozart. In addition, the small size of the orchestra and the authentic instruments it uses are a big part of the sound world here – as is the fact that the recordings were made in a Vienna venue used in Beethoven’s own time. Interestingly, Concerto No. 3 assumes a truly transitional role in this recording, because it quite clearly looks back to the earlier concertos in terms of structure and ensemble, yet just as clearly looks ahead to the greater emotionalism of No. 4 and the overall broader canvas of No. 5. This recording is time travel at its best: far from being fussy, mannered or in any way straitlaced, these historically informed and wonderfully nuanced performances are strong, involving, beautifully played and altogether remarkable in the insight they provide into the real Beethoven keyboard concertos, the ones intended for exactly the types of fortepianos featured here.

     Using a fortepiano for Beethoven’s sonatas – certainly the earlier ones – is as important for hearing them as the composer intended as it is to use fortepianos for the concertos. But it takes a fortepiano performer of very high quality to make this music sound moving and intense, not studied and academic – that is, to do for the sonatas what Wallisch and Haselböck do for the concertos. Just such a top-quality player is Leslie Tung, who offers three of the sonatas, including two of the best-known, on a splendid MSR Classics release. Tung plays not an original fortepiano but a well-constructed modern copy of an older instrument than any used by Wallisch. Built in 1983 by Janine Johnson and Paul Poletti, this fortepiano is based on a 1795 original by Johan Lodewijk Dulcken of Munich. This is a five-octave fortepiano, meaning it has a lesser span than any used by Wallisch, and it fits perfectly with sonatas composed in 1798 (No. 8) and 1801 (Nos. 13 and 14). These are some of the most impressive sonatas from Beethoven’s early period, and all have elements of fantasia – not just No. 13 and 14, each of which is actually labeled “Sonata quasi una fantasia.” The “Grande Sonata Pathétique,” No. 8, gets an especially thoughtful reading from Tung, who plays it essentially as an extended single movement with three contrasting parts, making clear the connections among the themes that collectively bring the work a strong sense of unity. The four-movement No. 13 actually does have all movements played without pause, and this work – the least popular of the three heard here – has some truly remarkable elements, such as the recollection of the Adagio con espressione toward the latter part of the concluding Allegro vivace. As for No. 14, the “Moonlight,” Tung does something here that eludes most other performers and that is very specifically made easier and clearer on the fortepiano than on a modern concert grand: he plays the opening Adagio sostenuto exactly as Beethoven wishes, Sempre pianissimo e senza sordino, and the effect is truly magical – this is not just moonlight but moonlight over fairyland. The sound of Tung’s fortepiano fits this music like a glove, which simply means that this is just the type of instrument that Beethoven had in mind when composing these highly creative and often exceptionally beautiful works. He would surely have done something very different had he been given access to another type of keyboard instrument – but what he did with this instrument, the fortepiano, was to explore areas of emotional depth and extraordinary beauty beyond anything that had come before, finding in the fortepiano an ideal vehicle for taking music past the Classical era and into a new and ever-more-expressive age.

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