Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Complete Piano Concertos

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas, Complete Piano Concertos, Gerard Willems, Stuart & Sons Piano

[ABC Classics 465 077-2, 465 264-2, 465 659-2]


April 2005

In a recent issue of Stereophile John Marks wrote at some length about a new and remarkable piano from Australia that had been used in an award-winning recording of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, played by Gerard Willems. My ears pricked up at this news. As those of you who have read my reviews in StereoTimes will know, I own a number of sets of these sonatas. If there is an “ultimate” set, I’ve yet to find it; even great pianists may not be consistently great. So it’s always very interesting, and often very fruitful, to listen at length to new versions of these supreme creations for the pianoforte. And that’s just what I’ve been doing for a couple of months now, almost to the exclusion of other music. 

Talk about an embarrassment of riches! In response to my email query, that reached him in Paris, producer Brendan Ward sent me for review not just the piano sonatas, but also the five piano concertos, and a DVD of the fifth concerto, the Emperor.(Unfortunately this DVD is currently available only in PAL format and most DVD players sold in the United States play only NTSC formatted discs. My notebook computer and a pair of Sennheiser 580s came to the rescue.) I rather viewed this latter as a curiosity. It is, after all, the music that counts. It is the music and the reifying mystery of the performance that creates an almost mystical relationship. However, I suppose for the same reason that a jazz aficionado likes to go to a club to watch his musical heroes play, I enjoy watching pianists whose playing I admire. Seeing them in action, in this case in action with a conductor and symphony orchestra, expands and enhances the composer/performer/listener relationship into a more complex and vivid experience. The Gerard Willems revealed in this DVD, with his programmatic commentary on the concerto (Napoleon had invaded and occupied Vienna at the time of its composition), who winks at conductor Antony Walker at the conclusion of the first movement, and who, in the supplementary material, conducts a master class for young students, seems relaxed, easy-going, free of self-importance and thoroughly likeable. How much more remarkable it seems then that his performances of the sonatas rises to such wondrous heights and gripping profundities. I have come to treasure all of these discs, including the DVD.

Most sets make some attempt at keeping the sonatas in chronological order. (Strictly following this plan would necessitate an additional disc.) This set is unusual in this regard: each disc seems programmed as if it were a single concert performance. This arrangement is quite unusual and I have come to like it a lot. For example, the first disc of the first volume has sonatas 21, 6, 24 and 30. There is a section in Arnold Steinardt’s delightful book, Indivisible by Four, that sheds an interesting light on this production choice. Steinhardt is first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet and he discusses their experience with the Slee Endowment in Buffalo, New York. Frederick Slee, a lawyer and passionate amateur string player, set aside money for an annual performance of the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle, stipulating the exact order of their performance. (The six-concert cycle begins with Opus 127 and ends with Opus 135, very much not in chronological order.) The Guarneri, as well as the Budapest Quartet before them, were invited to Buffalo to perform the cycle under the auspices of the Slee Endowment. Both groups bridled at the high-handed attitude by an amateur in dictating the order of performance, only to discover they really liked Slee’s specified sequence.

In fact, it was Brendan Ward’s intention to publish chronologically but numerous factors prevented it. This was the largest recording project ever undertaken in Australia. Mr Ward had to convince Gerard Willems, who is a senior lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to undertake the monumental task. He had to arrange for the use of the Stuart and Sons piano, which is housed in the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music and was available only on certain weekends. He had to solicit donations to pay for all this, eventually turning to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to complete the project. The ABC decided to release the three volumes over a two year period, leading up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It turned out a remarkably successful venture. The first volume sold over 10,000 units and won an ARIA (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy in the USA). The second and third volumes sold over 30,000 units, the second winning another ARIA! The piano concertos have sold over 10,000 units. As Mr Ward noted in an email, this translates to over 150,000 CDs of Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos in Australian homes. It is a wonderful cultural achievement.

Another unusual aspect of this set of CDs is the importance and prominence of the piano. The maker, Wayne Stuart, studied to be a piano technician at the Sydney Conservatorium and did postgraduate study in Japan (with Yamaha), and in Europe. He found the atmosphere hide-bound and stifling and began to rethink the tradition that “bigger and thicker [sound] is better.” More than twenty years later the result is the instrument used in these recordings, veneered in beautiful and very rare bird’s-eye huon pine from Tasmania. The single most important innovation of Stuart’s genius is the design of the agraffe, the device on the bridge that terminates the speaking length of the strings. Piano strings run from square-headed tuning pins embedded in a wooden pin block at the front, across the bridge (a curved strip of laminated hardwood that couples the string vibration to the soundboard), to the rear of the metal frame, or harp, where they terminate. (A typical concert grand frame must withstand up to 40,000 pounds of tension.) Individual notes consist of one string (bass), two strings (upper bass and lower midrange), or three strings (midrange and treble). Multiple strings are needed to maintain relatively even loudness as the strings get thinner and shorter. String termination in traditional piano designs, which hasn’t changed for over 100 years, consists of two offset pins embedded in the bridge. This imparts a lateral tension to the string. But of course the hammer strikes the string from underneath, imparting a vertical motion, and the conflict between vertical motion and lateral tension generates torsional forces. Stuart reasoned that these forces would create noisy transients, impair pitch security and cause a more rapid decay. Over years of experimentation he developed a device that terminates the string in the vertical plane. Structurally this places less stress on the soundboard, enabling the Stuart & Sons piano to employ a thinner soundboard. A thinner soundboard has less inertia and is therefore more responsive and produces a wider dynamic range. The strings vibrate for a longer time and have a very distinct character and unusual clarity. The Australian composer Andrew Ford comments that the Stuart “…bucks the trend of trying to smooth everything out [like a Steinway], so you don’t get an absolutely even sound on a Stuart piano…you get much more color.” I totally agree. To my ear, this piano captures the body and richness of the modern piano and the articulateness and clarity of the pianoforte of the early 19th Century. “I like to think,” wrote Gerard Willems, “that this sound is what Beethoven imagined in his mind as his deafness grew worse.” (If you’d like to learn more about this extraordinary instrument, please visit and download the MP4).

Listening to the sound of this beautifully recorded instrument gives me goose flesh. I still have love of the Steinway sound, but the Stuart & Sons piano has opened up new vistas of delight and gratitude. I cannot imagine a more perfect instrument for playing Beethoven. Embarrassingly real, is what one listener commented on the sound of the piano used in these recordings.

Writers of a more “romantic” bent, whether through choice or lack of knowledge about music, sometimes refer to Beethoven’s late piano sonatas (as well as his late quartets) in awestruck poetical terms: uncharted territory, transcendent, profoundly spiritual. J.W.N. Sullivan made no bones about it: the “Late Quartets” were for him the greatest music ever written, period; with the late piano sonatas a somewhat distant second. To talk at any length and detail about the latter, and in particular the last three (Opera 109, 110, 111), requires a better man than me, one with a profounder spiritual understanding, a better vocabulary, and a hell of lot more technical knowledge of music and music history. Like a lot of people, I can sense when I am in the presence of greatness, but I don’t seem to know how to adequately talk about it. The last movement of the last sonata, for example, an eighteen minute and thirty-one second set of variations (Beethoven loved variations), is like a series of transcendent epiphanies, beyond sturm und drang, beyond beauty, beyond peace, beyond love. And at the same time, utterly human. Difficult as it may be to talk about the late sonatas, to do them justice at the keyboard is surely a great deal more difficult. I can think of no higher praise of Maestro Willems musicianship than to say that I find his performance of these sonatas as deeply moving, as intelligent and insightful as any I’ve heard. And that includes some pretty exalted company: Sviatoslav Richter, Artur Schnabel, Ernst Levy. I once noted in an essay on Hamlet, that the Dane had genius, and that only a writer (and actor) of genius could have created him. By the same token, the late piano sonatas are spiritual testaments, they really do delve uncharted territory, and they require a piano player with the wisdom to understand this and the skill to express it. Gerard Willems has.

The following are a few notes I jotted down while listening. I thought they might be of some interest. These might have grown up into paragraphs, but they may prove more interesting and suggestive as they are.

Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op 81a, “Les Adieux”. Love this one, and the performance! Willems’ humanity and warmth temper everything. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. Wish I could buy him a shot of Johnnie Walker Red. That first movement, that clarion call, the great spiritual adventurer beckons. Never any doubt in Beethoven’s music, always on solid ground. Slow movement so full of longing, tears and joy. Shel’s [my brother’s] comment: “I’ve always thought that you have to be a little insane to play it [the last movement] properly. You have to come to the very edge of chaos. I listened very carefully, and can only say that Willems comes as close to this transcendental lunacy as is possible within the bounds of sanity.” This is immense praise. Beethoven gave Breitkopf hell for renaming it from Das Lebewohl! Damn! to hear so much and be able to say so little…

Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op 10, No. 3. What’s all this about early and late periods? I’ve never been comfortable with these absolute distinctions. Declares the composer’s genius, unabashed, fully fledged, something that cannot be contained within the artificial categories of the critics. Is there a single note that’s merely ornamental, that can removed without loss? Manus Sasonkin told me that Beethoven’s earliest compositions showed little promise: all of sudden, bang! a giant emerges. Willems handles the Largo beautifully, without sentimentality. This the same path trodden in the later sonatas, only not as far: is this true? does it make sense? Yes and no: one does learn from a life’s experiences. So dramatic and so sincere. The Menuetto really works, is really integral with what’s come before; a definite aspect of Willems’ musicianship. The last movement can hardly contain itself, contemplative and explosive by turns…and then, and then the gentlest disappearance.

Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op 2, No.3. A very early Beethoven sonata. There are passages that astonish with their radical departure from Haydn and Mozart, and their proleptic profundity. Stops me in my tracks, I have to go look at the liner note: it really is the third piano sonata. Surprises me again and again. That Adagio. Amazing.

Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op 106, “Hammerklavier”. What a performance! Czerny said Beethoven considered the Hammerklavier his greatest sonata (before he composed the last three??) but what a troublesome item it is for most pianists! It’s a bear to play, has some monstrous chord stretches, almost impossibly fast metronome markings, and most pianists don’t really seem to get it, to make it cohere. Perhaps Willems’ fugue could be more driven, more wild…consider the ‘50s Budapest recordings of the Grosse Fuge…no…I need to listen more, and more closely. Great structural clarity, and the Stuart simply soars here!

I remember reading somewhere that Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg was a precursor to the modern piano concerto due to the prominent role of the harpsichord, typically a mere continuo instrument. If that is so, the piano concerto had a remarkably brief gestation period, for it was not that long after Bach’s death that Mozart was producing masterpieces in that genre, the last, number twenty-seven, nine months before his tragic death just after midnight on December 5, 1791. A glance at my CD collection will reveal that I do not collect concertos; a handful by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Prokofiev. But there was a time I consumed piano concertos for breakfast, dinner and tea, so they are familiar territory. And I must say, Gerard Willems recordings with the Sinfonia Australis conducted by Antony Walker are splendid. The orchestra, using period brass and tympani, are spot on, clean, precise, utterly involved. All the understanding, warmth and genial passion Willems brought to the sonatas is in evidence as well in the concertos. I’ve never been more delighted by any recording of the Beethoven concertos. Again, a few notes.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op 58. The Rondo (Vivace) an uncanny and quite literal sense of Willems’ phrasing speaking to me, as though, if I listen very carefully, discrete, word-like information will be revealed. Why this continual sense of a simple and deep humanity, a special kindness, in his playing? The Sinfonia Astralis is fine, so dignified and professional. There is so much to love in this set of three CDs.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in Bb major, Op 19. More of Mozart than Beethoven…except now and then, very characteristic. The Rondo (Molto allegro) is beautifully done, Willems and the Sinfonia Australis are totally in tune with one another, like a jazz band: pure magic. Some reviewer noted there are more fiery and exciting versions of these concertos, but nonetheless he had high praise for this version. Bear with me here: in a rather obscure sense, how very odd it is to compare one performance with another. A work of art – a performance – either succeeds on its own merits or it does not. Each is unique. This is what I have to work with, these are the rules under which I work: integrity is all. Mendelssohn said music is too precise a language to be put into words.

Russell Lichter             


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