May 09, 2024


Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (complete); “Kurfürst” Sonatas Nos. 1-3; Andante favori. Tamami Honma, piano. Divine Art. $63 (10 CDs).

     Deciding which set of Beethoven piano sonatas to own – or more likely which sets, plural, as new recordings becomes available – is a balancing act. In any performer’s cycle, it is unlikely that any music lover will find every single performance of every single Beethoven sonata “just right,” since performers themselves are constantly making choices as to how to handle specific sonatas and, indeed, how to handle the same pieces over time, since it is not unusual for a pianist to record the Beethoven cycle more than once. The producers of these sets of sonatas also have many choices to make in terms of packaging, presentation, pricing and more. So while a new recording of the Beethoven cycle is always welcome, any such release is bound to please some listeners, displease others, and have its own set of pluses and minuses.

     Tamami Honma’s new 10-CD cycle on the Divine Art label positions itself firmly in the modern-piano-and-Romantic-temperament-approach camp. Honma takes full advantage of using a contemporary concert grand, with ample use of the sustaining pedal and very strong emphasis on the lower reaches of the keyboard being prominent features of her readings. She offers some distinctly personal presentations, in part on her own and in part because of the way the cycle is put together. The packaging insists that the correct number of Beethoven piano sonatas is 35, not 32 – that is, that the three early “Kurfürst” sonatas (“Elector,” for their dedication to Elector Maximilian Friedrich) should be counted as part of the sequence – and that, because some sonatas were published years after they were written, the traditional numbering (which is based on publication dates) should be omitted altogether. Accordingly, the sonatas are identified only by opus numbers, which is an unnecessary affectation: there is really no harm in referring to the “Pathétique,” for example, as No. 8, rather than insisting it be called Op. 13.

     The cycle does make a good theoretical case for presenting these works in order of composition, although Julian Brown’s generally very fine sonata-by-sonata essay (which takes up most of the enclosed booklet’s 88 pages) overdoes matters a bit. The “Kurfürst” sonatas have been recorded before, after all, as Brown acknowledges. Honma takes the works’ repeats, which gives a better sense of their scope than does a recording such as that by Jenő Jandó for Naxos. Brown notes that these sonatas, written when Beethoven was 12, almost mark the start of Beethoven’s composing for piano solo – being preceded by variations in C minor on a march by Ernst Christoph Dressler (1734-1779), which are discussed in the essay but not recorded by Honma. There was room to put them on the first CD, and they have been recorded before (for example, by Sergio Gallo on modern piano and Alessandro Commellatto on fortepiano in their original 1782 version, and by Susan Kagan in Beethoven’s 1803 revision); so omitting them (and including the Andante favori – the original second movement of the Waldstein sonata – on the first disc) was certainly a choice by the pianist, producers or both. This sort of thing is, of course, fodder for the usual nitpicking of any release of a Beethoven cycle, when what really matters (or at least should matter) is the music on its own terms – or at least on the terms chosen by the performer!

     Honma’s terms are at times polarizing, especially in the earlier sonatas. The inclusion of repeats in the “Kurfürst” sonatas is admirable, but Honma’s pedal use is often overdone and gives the sonatas a bigger sound than their musical material and time period warrant. The inauspicious beginning of the cycle continues through the Op. 2 sonatas (Nos. 1-3 in the usual numbering). The finale of Op. 2, No. 1 is actually pounded. In Op. 2, No. 2, Honma’s strong contrasts in power and volume in the first movement, with strongly accentuated bass notes, make the work sound more like something from Beethoven’s middle period. The second movement of the same sonata again features actual pounding in the louder sections, and this is obviously a deliberate choice, since Honma plays the delicate passages with care and a light touch. In Op. 2, No. 3, the first movement starts with pleasant lightness but quickly turns very intense indeed, leaving the impression that Honma is inordinately fond of sforzandi whether they are in the score or not.

     Next in this sequence are the sonatas usually numbered 19 and 20 (the two of Op. 49), and in these Honma shows herself capable of admirable delicacy in chord-playing, reinforcing the notion that when a light touch is not used, that is deliberate. Thus, when she moves on to Op. 7 (Sonata No. 4), and again hammers the chords in the first movement, this is clearly a personal choice.

     It is with the Op. 10 sonatas (Nos. 5-7) that Honma hits her stride and this cycle improves significantly. The finale of Op. 10, No. 2 is especially good, although Honma is somewhat reserved in the emotional depth of the second movement of Op. 10, No. 3. Nevertheless, performances are more effective from this point forward. The middle movement of Op. 13 (No. 8, the aforementioned “Pathétique”) is especially tender, and Honma finds very considerable differences between Op. 22 (No. 11) and Op. 26 (No. 12), playing up the structural and emotional contrasts interestingly and to good effect.

     From here on, listeners’ reactions to Honma’s readings will be highly individualized, depending on how each person hears and feels the elements of Beethoven’s sonatas. Honma’s approach will surely resonate with many and just as surely misfire from others’ perspectives. In all cases, however, she showcases formidable technique and makes it clear that she has studied the sonatas’ scores and interpreted them through her own emotional lens, as all first-rate pianists do.

     Among many further highlights and shortcomings of this set:

     In Op. 27, No. 2 (No. 14, the famous “Moonlight”), the opening movement drags a bit and the whole is a little heavy-handed. The humorous Op. 31, No. 1 (No. 16) is a bit too straightforward, and Honma misses opportunities to “overdo” elements of the overblown, parodistic second movement. On the other hand, in the second movement of Op. 31, No. 3 (No. 18, “La Chasse”), she does find considerable amusement. As for Op. 31, No. 2 (No. 17, “Tempest”), her finale has almost Lisztian fervor in the chords – very high drama indeed, although somewhat ahead of its time.

     In Op. 53 (No. 21, “Waldstein”), Honma offers exceptional delicacy through much of the finale, then breaks through very impressively, at a genuine breakneck pace, in the Prestissimo coda. Honma makes a particularly good case for the vastly under-appreciated Op.54 (No. 22), with the unending cascade of notes in the second movement handled especially well. Op. 57 (No. 23, “Appassionata”) is rather bland, except for an undeniably exciting coda to the finale. In Op. 79 (No. 25), the work’s delicacy is well-communicated, notably in the first part of the finale. In Op. 81a (No. 26, “Les Adieux”) there is also some effectively delicate playing – here, in the finale’s scurrying notes.

     Musically, the last four sonatas are in a class by themselves, and every pianist measures himself or herself against them in a different way. Op. 106 (No. 29, “Hammerklavier”) is a work of extremes and is not immediately appealing: it is intellectually impressive but not always emotionally gripping, inspiring respect rather than love. Honma offers a tremendously intense opening, but the first movement as a whole is somewhat episodic: this is a sprawling sonata that is very difficult to make cohesive, and in that respect her performance falls short. The third movement, which can seem overwhelmingly sorrowful, does not have great emotional heft here: it is well-played but somewhat standoffish, massive and stolid rather than emotionally engaging. Honma is at her best in the last movement, attacking the fugue with relish, pacing it quickly, and emphasizing its architecture with strength – but without the pounding that she sometimes overdoes in other sonatas.

     If Op. 106 represents a kind of climb to a pianistic mountain peak, Opp. 109-111 explore the view from the summit in three different directions. Honma’s reading of Op. 109 (No. 30) is matter-of-fact. Op. 110 (No. 31) is more successful: the first movement’s delicacy is impressive, and Honma provides good contrast between the two parts of the finale. In Op. 111 (No. 32), she really attacks the dramatic chords in the first movement, providing a sort of litmus test for listeners: her way of handling this material more or less sums up her overall approach to analogous music throughout the cycle. Honma then does a good job of differentiating the qualities of the second movement’s variations, especially the one that contrasts very low notes with very high ones. The sense of transcendent beauty toward which the movement strives is somewhat compromised by Honma’s insistence on intense sforzandi and very strong emphasis of bass notes, but it is simply impossible not to make the very end of this movement sublime, and here she does not disappoint.

     As a totality, Honma’s Beethoven cycle, despite some mischaracterizations (especially in the earlier sonatas), is a strong, meaningful and pianistically always impressive presentation of music that is subject to near-infinite interpretations that all shed new light on Beethoven’s Weltanschauung while challenging listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences to their responses to these variegated works. Honma’s approach will not please everyone – no pianist’s cycle can or should do that – but it certainly reflects thoughtfulness and a strong commitment to the music, in addition to very considerable technical skill.

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