Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” sonata is one of the vertiginous summits for solo piano. Every great pianist makes the ascent.
Beethoven designated two sonatas as being for the Hammerklavier (an instrument with strings struck by hammers in contrast to the harpsichord which has plucked strings). But only the one in B flat major Op. 106 is known by this name. Dedicated to Beethoven’s patron, the Archduke Rudolf, it was composed from the summer of 1817 to the late autumn of 1818, a period that saw the genesis of the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony.
As the great pianist Alfred Brendel noted in Music Sounded Out (1990):
“Even today, this work shows up the outer limits of what a composer of sonatas can accomplish, a performer can control, or a listener can take in. In a magnificent exertion of will, it combines grandeur and delicacy, the grand sweep and extreme density of detail. The player should muster endurance as well as boldness, fierce intensity as well as the cool grasp of a panoramic overview.”
This is shorthand for a work that is technically and artistically fraught with difficulty, yet which lies at the heart of the classical/romantic repertoire. The work also makes striking use of una corda, in which the hammers strike only one string of a note, creating a more intimate sound and setting up sympathetic vibrations. Brendel describers the quality of sound produced by the soft pedal as “more shadowy and fragile than it is today, a sphere of whispering and subdued mezza voce singing.”
The “Hammerklavier” tests a pianist’s capabilities more than any other Beethoven sonata. Every pianist knows this and every pianist ultimately succumbs to the temptation of tackling it. Vladimir Horowitz never recorded it, although he undoubtedly knew it and the pianist Rudolf Serkin once heard him play the last movement’s fugue.
Listeners have their favourites among the many versions available on disc. Solomon recorded the sonata in 1956 and his take is still praised for its sensitivity and profundity. The inimitable Glenn Gould recorded the sonata in 1970 and by his own admission failed to resolve what he labelled “the piano-specialty gestures which annoyingly and perversely… get in the way of the music so much of the time.”
There are extraordinary recordings by Claudio Arrau (1963), Sviatoslav Richter (1975), Emil Gilels (1982), Alfred Brendel (1995), and Daniel Barenboim (2006). Not surprisingly, these are majestic, heroic, visionary and thrilling. And now a new contender has thrown his musical hat into the ring with a recording evoking grandeur, limpidity, delicateness, and an ever-present sense of spontaneity.
The Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov performed the “Hammerklavier” at the Salzburg Festival in 2013, but the recording was only issued in 2016. In terms of sensitivity, integrity, and musical inspiration it ranks alongside Alfred Brendel’s astonishing Vienna recording (both are live which makes them all the more remarkable) but it inhabits a different realm.
When it comes to climbing this musical peak, there are pianists who go it alone, a few (Richter, for instance) apparently without the need for supplemental oxygen. In contrast, Sokolov takes the listener by the hand, leading the way and from time to time pausing to admire the view.
The Independent newspaper’s classical music and dance journalist Jessica Duchen wrote (16 April 2005):
“Do you remember what tomatoes are supposed to taste like? Sometimes you go to the Mediterranean – Israel, Italy, the south of France – and you eat a tomato that has just come off its plant, as red as a garnet and with a flavour as rich as if it’s been ripened inside a volcano… Sokolov’s playing is like that.”