December 02, 2021


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete). Boris Giltburg, piano. Naxos. $54.99 (9 CDs).

     One of the biggest treats of Boris Giltburg’s cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas is, surprisingly, not the performances, which range in quality from the prosaic to the profound (far more of the latter than the former, thankfully). The unexpected pleasure comes from Giltburg’s decision to write the program notes for this nine-CD Naxos set, creating a genuinely insightful and informative enclosure instead of the more-typical throwaway that so many CD booklets have become. Giltburg has something to say about every single sonata, discussing them in numbered sequence, and he does not hesitate to tell readers which works, and which movements within works, he finds especially enthralling and meaningful – and which others, in his estimation, fall somewhat short (although there are few of those). The writing is impressive in its clarity and strikes a fine balance between personal, often emotional commentary and analytical, sometimes technically complex discussions – the latter elements coming with references to designated times within Giltburg’s performances of specific sonata movements. Giltburg offers an absolutely first-rate way of learning about the Beethoven sonatas for the first time, or re-exploring them despite familiarity, or refreshing one’s memory about particular pieces or specific elements of individual works or movements. This is musical explication as it can be, should be, and all too rarely is.

     The actual performances, although they are generally exemplary, are, perhaps not surprisingly, a bit more of a mixed bag. They have certain very positive qualities in common, including unfailing technique, freshness of approach, clarity of line, and sensitivity to the different experiences offered by each of these 32 works. Most of their negatives are small ones, often in the form of missed opportunities to bring out particular details that would show Giltburg absorbing and then bringing out the thoughts and feelings outlined in his own written commentaries. One wonders, and not for the first time, whether the strengths and weaknesses inherent in using a modern concert grand are at least in part the cause of this. Giltburg is certainly aware of how different his piano is from those of Beethoven’s time, writing at one point about modern pianos’ keys being “much heavier and deeper than those of Beethoven’s keyboards,” and pointing out elsewhere how assiduously Beethoven for many years “was pushing against the boundaries of the keyboard, always asking the piano builders for more keys,” with “an ongoing defiance of the limited range” that led, famously and repeatedly, to the composer actually destroying instrument after instrument. Yet for all his determination to get more sound and a wider range from pianos, Beethoven also called for a limpidity, a transparency, in passages that are virtually unplayable on a modern instrument – such as the octave glissandi in the finale of the “Waldstein” sonata, a movement in which Giltburg’s articulation at speed is impressive but his penchant for heavy-handed (or heavy-footed) pedaling is unfortunate. Giltburg generally has an admirable lightness of touch when it is called for in this cycle, but there is only so much that he or anyone can do when performing on an instrument for which Beethoven did not write. It is worth remembering that Beethoven was a superb pianist himself until encroaching deafness made performance impossible: he was quite familiar with what instruments of his time could do, and that is precisely why he could stretch the boundaries of the piano-sonata form.

     Whatever the merits of using a hefty (in both weight and sound) modern piano for these sonatas, Giltburg does know when to do his best to keep matters light and transparent. This is clear from the start of the cycle in the three Op. 2 sonatas. The first, in F minor, is noteworthy for the passion and drama that Giltburg brings to the Prestissimo finale – although it has to be said that the quieter dynamics of 18th-century instruments bring this movement openness and clarity that a modern piano does not deliver. Both the first sonata and the second (in A) have clear ties to the Classical era as well as hints of Beethoven already exploring new territory, and Giltburg integrates these elements effectively. But the third sonata, in C, is a bit less successful, the performance rather uninvolved, even staid, lending the work a predictability that makes it seem a bit of a comedown from the first two even though Giltburg, in his written notes, calls it “the culmination of the opus.” This is but one of the occasional disparities between what Giltburg says and what he delivers in performance.

     Interestingly enough, at the other end of the cycle, Giltburg’s playing outshines his written analysis, as fine as that is. The first movement of No. 28, Op. 101, is simply gorgeous: Giltburg writes of it as being like a flower opening in morning dew, and that hyper-Romantic description turns out to fit his performance perfectly. No. 29, Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier” (a term Beethoven actually applied to No. 28 as well, although Giltburg does not mention this), is a touch over-controlled at the beginning of the first movement, but it includes a marvelously evocative Adagio and a concluding fugue that showcases an incomparable mixture of control and understanding. Giltburg writes that this sonata “might be more enjoyable to play than to listen to,” then goes on to prove himself wrong. As for the last three sonatas, Giltburg gives them somewhat short shrift in his written notes, indicating that the Hammerklavier represents a monumental struggle to surmount the heights of passion while Nos. 30-32 explore a summit that has already been reached – a kind of faint praise that is very much at odds with Giltburg’s musical treatment of these works. No. 30, Op. 109, is treated with simultaneous lightness and subtlety, emerging as a work that is contemplative and never overdone. No. 31, Op. 110, is sincere and rather sweet in its first two movements, and then in its third – which is as long as the first two together – becomes an astonishing mixture of the heartfelt and the thought-through, an emotional/intellectual contrast unlike anything else in the entire cycle. And in No. 32, Op. 111, Giltburg clearly portrays Beethoven moving into uncharted territory of both heart and mind: without overdoing the modernity of elements of this sonata’s variations (and in fact downplaying the proto-jazz elements when they appear), Giltburg takes the music into a realm that is almost beyond music itself.

     Between the Op. 2 set and Nos. 28-32, Giltburg’s cycle ranges from the ordinary to the inspired, in some cases within a single work. Thus, while the outer movements of No. 23, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”), are unerringly dramatic, there is little respite in the central Andante con moto, which is a touch on the prosaic side. Somewhat similarly, in No. 26, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”), the first two movements are emotionally as well as pianistically effective, but the joyful conclusion is somewhat too studied in its hesitancy before the last bars. On the other hand, No. 8, Op. 13 (“Pathétique”), sustains from beginning to end, melancholy rather than deeply tragic and all the more effective for being delivered with a simplicity that prevents it from sounding like a Romantic work ahead of its time.

     Giltburg also gives most of the less-known, untitled sonatas their due, although he seems clearly to have little interest in the sonatina-like Nos. 19 and 20, Op. 49, Nos. 1 and 2, whose numbering belies their early dates: Giltburg’s performances here are perfunctory. On the other hand, No. 11, Op. 22, practically overflows with charm, concluding with a Rondo that looks forward to the grace and beauty of Schubert while retaining a clearly Beethovenian character. And No. 13, Op. 27, No. 1, is simply wonderful, looking ahead not to Schubert but to Schumann in one section and contrasting evanescent elements with down-to-earth ones to truly superb effect. Like its much-better-known partner, No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”), No. 13 is titled Sonata quasi una fantasia – and while No. 13 certainly does not eclipse the “Moonlight,” in Giltburg’s hands it more than holds its own.

     Any Beethoven sonata cycle has its more-positive and less-positive elements, and listeners’ personal preferences as to tempo, fingering, and the sound of specific pianos used for the performances all come into play in terms of deciding which set is “better” than which other. But really, given the enormously high level of technical ability and musicianship displayed by so many pianists nowadays, it is a mistake to insist that one performer’s approach is somehow objectively better than another’s. Different, yes, and Giltburg’s penchant for taking a fresh look at Beethoven’s sonatas – especially some of the best-known ones – certainly qualifies this release as differing pleasantly and in positive ways from some more-traditionally-oriented ones. Giltburg’s performances are always well-considered and well-constructed, as his very thoughtful writing makes clear, and they are presented with care, skill and emotional engagement that, at its best, borders on the revelatory. By any standards, this is a first-rate Beethoven sonata cycle. And it is interesting to think that it is unlikely to be Giltburg’s only one. He specifically tells readers that for this cycle he learned most of the sonatas – 23 out of 32 – for the first time. And Giltburg is only 37 years old (born 1984), which means there is almost certainly at least one more Beethoven cycle to come from him as he lives with this music for a longer time period and his thoughts and feelings about the sonatas change and coalesce in new and different ways.

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