Desert Island Discs (2) – Beethoven and Schubert

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, known as the “Hammerklavier”, is widely considered to be one of the most important works of the piano repertoire.

Dedicated to Beethoven’s patron, the Archduke Rudolf, the Hammerklavier was composed 1817-18 and it explores many of the musical ideas that recur in Beethoven’s late period: a return to pre-classical compositional traditions, including explorations of modal harmony and reinventions of the fugue within classical forms. The sonata has four movements, of which three are large-scale.

In its density of musical thought and its technical requirements, the Hammerklavier presents a more telling test of a pianist’s capabilities than any other of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. The work has inevitably tempted all the significant pianists of the last 100 years, yet even some of the greatest fail to bring it off triumphantly. Of the older versions now on CD, the one by Solomon (1956) is often felt to come closest to the ideal, with an extremely moving account of its ethereal slow movement. Of the later versions, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Alfred Brendel, Maurizio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Arrau, and Mitsuko Uchida are much admired.

Gilels’s studio version (1983) is striking, but for me Brendel’s live recording (Vienna, 1995) is the most coherent and awe-inspiring.

Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956, was composed during the summer of 1828, just two months before his death. Having languished in a cupboard, it was first performed on 17 November 1850 in Vienna and since then is considered to be one of the greatest chamber music works ever written. The Quintet employs two cellos in place of the customary two violas. Schubert, like Luigi Boccherini before him, decided to replace the second viola with an additional cello, thereby enhancing the richness of the lower register. The Quintet’s second movement is plaintive, making it popular as “background music” for solemn scenes in television and film drama. It was extensively and effectively used in Episode 21 (“Dead on Time”) of the Inspector Morse television series.

Many heartfelt recordings of the Quintet exist, often involving a well known cello soloist as the “extra” player. The Hollywood String Quartet, the Alban Berg Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, and the Raphael Ensemble are all worth hearing.

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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