Damian Thompson

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were his musical laboratory – here are the best recordings

The sonatas are where Beethoven’s imagination catches fire most unpredictably

Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas were his musical laboratory – here are the best recordings
Martino Tirimo's new complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas is the greatest recordied achievement of the 250th anniversary. Here is Tirimo carrying the Olympic flame in 2004. Photo: Todd Warshaw / Getty Images
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If you want to understand Beethoven, listen to his piano sonatas. Without them, you’ll never grasp how the same man could write the hummable, easy-listening Septet of 1799 and the scraped dissonances of the 1825 Grosse Fuge, which even today scares Classic FM listeners.

It’s the 32 sonatas, not the nine symphonies or 16 string quartets, that join the dots. The symphonies are monuments rather than a guidebook. For example, the Second doesn’t warn you that the Eroica is about to explode in your face. The quartets, meanwhile, jump from the six of Opus 18, in which Beethoven essentially pours new wine into old bottles, to the three Razumovskys of Opus 59, by which time he has moved to another planet. In fact, only seven years separate the two groups of quartets; the change in Beethoven’s musical language seems bewildering unless you know the 13 piano sonatas he published between 1799 and 1806, in which he’s clearly planning to launch into space.

The sonatas are Beethoven’s laboratory. The opening bars of the Pathétique are the first proper eruption of Beethoven’s turbulent ‘C minor style’. The finale of the Hammerklavier sonata plunges us into the harmonic violence that makes the Grosse Fuge so shocking. And in the A flat Piano Sonata, Opus 110, we enter the sound-world of his late string quartets.

It’s in the sonatas that Beethoven’s imagination catches fire most unpredictably. The piano was his instrument. He used it to make mischief without explaining himself to posterity — or the performer. Pianists still struggle to make sense of the slapstick desynchronised chords of the G major sonata, Opus 31 No. 1, and the brutal double octaves that interrupt the minuet of the F major Piano Sonata, Opus 54.

The most perceptive performances of Beethoven’s sonatas tend to come from pianists who play all of them. Likewise, the most superficial readings come from cherry-pickers who splash around in the Appassionata or try to milk the profundities of the late sonatas while ignoring the rest. That’s why I like complete cycles. Alfred Brendel recorded three. So did Wilhelm Kempff, if you include his 1961 recitals from Japan; he also nearly finished one on shellac. Wilhelm Backhaus produced two. Although these three pianists sound nothing like each other, they allow Beethoven to speak for himself. That’s also true of Artur Schnabel, of course, and if he’d been born later he’d have left us more than one set. Alas, what might have been the greatest cycle of all, by Solomon, was cut short by a stroke.

Dozens of pianists have recorded all 32 sonatas. I’d single out the neglected Yves Nat, Maria Grinberg and Eduardo del Pueyo, plus the celebrated Stephen Kovacevich and Richard Goode. Equal to any of these is ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer, though you have to put up with her piano’s ear-splitting treble.

And now a bunch of pianists have finished cycles in time for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. Two of them, by Jonathan Biss and Angela Hewitt, are exquisitely played without a hint of coarseness. And that’s the problem. Sometimes Beethoven wants you to bang away like a pub pianist. So, as they say on Building a Library, it’s time to bid them farewell. And let’s lose Igor Levit, who rushes through movements without letting them breathe, presumably impatient to get back to his day job as a left-wing Twitter megabore.

Two new cycles cry out to be heard. Konstantin Lifschitz, recorded live by Alpha, takes huge interpretative risks: the Arietta of Opus 111 is almost motionless, which would be a crime if it didn’t descend into unforgettable tonal darkness. Fazil Say on Warner has a way of lifting individual voices out of the texture and letting them argue with each other, with thrilling, if unpredictable, results.

But one new cycle sweeps all before it, by a pianist old enough to be the 50-year-old Say’s father. Martino Tirimo was born in Cyprus in 1942. His command of structure is achieved with such fleet fingers that I wondered if it had been recorded decades ago. Not so: Hänssler commissioned him to record every note that Beethoven wrote for solo piano, and it’s all new.

If Tirimo were a lesser pianist, then the selling point of his 16-CD set would be its completeness. But here is a Waldstein, an Appassionata, a Hammerklavier and a final trilogy that match or surpass any recent competitors. I compared Richard Goode and Martino Tirimo in the finale of Op. 109. Goode invites us to marvel at the kaleidoscopic colours of his pianism, and we do. Tirimo reveals the profound logic of the movement’s variations without giving in to the temptation to stop and sniff the roses. It’s decades since a pianist has managed to convey such an overwhelming sense that we’re listening to pure Beethoven. And there are 20 hours of it — surely the greatest recorded achievement of this anniversary year.