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Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas on Fortepianos

Paul McNulty, 1996, after Anton Walter, 1795, 5-octave
Chris Maene No.1 i 1991, after Anton Walter, 1795, 5-octave
Chris Maene No.2, 1996, after Anton Walter, 1795, 5-octave
Thomas and Barbara Wolf, 1990, after Johann Schantz, c. 1800, 5-octave
Rodney Regier, 1992, after Anton Walter, c. 1790, 5-octave Salvatore Lagrassa, c. 1815, restored by Edwin Beunk and lohan Wennink, 1993, 6-octave
Gottlieb Hafner, c. 1835, restored by Edwin Beunk and lohan Wennink, 1993, 6'h-octave
Johann Fritz, 1825, restored by Edwin Beunk and Johan Wennink, 1991, 61f2-octave
Rodney Regier, 1995, after Conrad Graf, ca. 1824, 6'h-octave

Claves CD50-9707/10 (690 mins, DDD)

Malcolm Bilson
and colleagues

Tom Beghin

David Breitman

Bart van Oort

Ursula Dütschler

Andrew Willis


Zvi Meniker on YouTube

This box has to be our recording of the year, bringing "new ears" to canonic favourites.

In 2001, nearly a decade ago, Andras Schiff brought a Wigmore Hall audience face to face with thinking about possible alternatives to the ubiquitous Steinway. As Schiff lamented, "we have been brainwashed into taking for granted that pianos should always be black and made by Steinway". Despite an occasional fortepiano brought in by a recitalist, little has changed since then, whether at Wigmore Hall, in the world of piano competitions and recitals, or with the BBC.

Malcolm Bilson and six of his former students at Cornell University, now established early music specialists and university teachers, performed the entire Beethoven Sonatas series in concert on period pianos, the first time in history, and followed it up with these admired studio recordings, which have been re-released, as we learned at Bilson's recent (and rare) fortepiano recital at Wigmore Hall.

In a valuable overview of the project, he reminds us of the scholarship expended on these sonatas by "the world's most serious and significant pianists (Schnabel, Serkin, Brendel, etc.)" - most recently Barenboim - " - - erudition and deep contemplation probably unequaled by the works of any other mainstream composer - - on every aspect of these works in minute detail; except those instruments which he had in mind when he composed them". As an amateur pianist, I have studied the sonatas repeatedly over the years, and collected recordings from Schnabel's onwards through to Barenboim's.

Barenboim is prescriptive to finest detail in his classes; there is no conversational dialogue, and no mention of appropriate instruments for any of the works. Bilson takes a more 'democratic' stance, saying that "These performances are not meant in any way to be considered more authentic or more original (or any other mores) than the best performances on modern pianos, nor do we claim better end results than what is often heard on the later instrument by sensitive artists who feel deeply about these works. My colleagues (former pupils) and I have worked together and exchanged ideas, but what you will hear on these discs represents personal decisions and individual interpretations on the part of each player; there is no "party line". - - "

That the several performers have quite independent points of view becomes clear from their program notes; each written by the player of that particular work. - - "We would like to consider these performances as a first step toward a fresh evaluation of this repertoire, one that might open up new paths of thought and suggest untried expressive possibilities in the interpretation of these signal works."

Sonata by sonata, and pianist by pianist evaluations can be found in reviews by Gramophone (1998)and Music Web*. I have preferred to take the sonatas, their seven pianists and nine instruments (restored originals and modern copies) one at a time, immersing our ears with the variety of pianos that Beethoven knew.

A few perfomances may surprise and even shock! Some tracks will require volume level adjustment. Most are deeply satisfying and quickly get to feel "normal", even inevitably so, as one listens and learns. It will be hard to go back to the modern piano recordings!

Peter Grahame Woolf

* - - a totally new perspective - - belongs on the shelves of every lover of Beethoven’s piano sonatas.

Malcolm Bilson's new DVD "Performing the Score", his sequel to "Knowing the Score" is scheduled for release next year.