Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, op. 10

Daniel  Tong
Resonus RES 10307

Daniel Tong here plays a copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano of 1805 built by the prolific Paul McNulty. In his informative note, Tong makes a number of points regarding the advantages of playing Beethoven on a fortepiano, correctly observing that it brings both the ‘player and the listener closer to Beethoven’s sound world’. Strangely, among other well-made points, he doesn’t mention what to me is always one of the principal advantages of playing the music of this period on a fine fortepiano, which this example unarguably is. That is the deliberate contrasts of tonal colour in the various registers of the instrument, one of the key differences to the modern grand piano, which aims for homogeneity across the spectrum. This seems to me particularly on display in the opus 10 sonatas, where one senses time and again that Beethoven is deliberately exploiting the contrasting sonorities of the instrument. This exploitation is especially potent in such imitative passages between treble and bass (much exploited in these sonatas) as the coda in the Presto of the D-major Sonata.

The three sonatas that constitute opus 10 were published in 1798 with a dedication to Countess von Browne-Camus, the wife of one of Beethoven’s wealthy patrons, one of several dedications of his publications to both count and countess. As Tong notes, the sonatas follow a pattern that applies to almost all of Beethoven’s publications in threes, aiming at works of considerable diversity and one work in a minor key (No 1 in C minor). The one thing all three have in common is their evident intent to provide above all music for Beethoven the virtuoso pianist who wowed the aristocratic salons of Vienna during the 1790s. This is particularly the case with the D-major Sonata, the only one of the three with four rather than three movements and at once the most ambitious and the most technically demanding for the pianist. Tong meets these demands admirably, articulating the virtuoso passagework of the Rondo finale with nimble fingers and great clarity.  He is also capable of extracting poetry from the music where required, as for example in the final bars of the Largo e mesto of the same sonata, where the dynamics are exquisitely controlled to bring the movement to a close of perfectly attained peace. Neither is wit absent from Tong’s playing of a movement like the mostly playful Allegro of the F-major Sonata, where Beethoven uniquely in this set asks for the repeat of the development and recapitulation.

Overall these are admirable performances, enhanced by a recording that presents the instrument itself in the best light, its lovely bell-like treble admirably set off by a characterful middle register and richly resonant bass notes.        

Brian Robins 


Byrd: Pavans & Galliards, Variations & Grounds

Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
154:59 (2 CDs)
Avie AV2574

This is an intriguing double album: 39 of Byrd’s 101 surviving works for keyboard, composed for the contemporary harpsichord, but played here on the modern piano. The contents include all ten of the great Nevell pavans and galliards alongside the Quadran and Salisbury pavans and associated galliards, the three titled Grounds, his eight most famous settings of popular songs of the day, and three works which also qualify as grounds: The bells, Qui passe and, perhaps the only singular inclusion, the Hornpipe. Several of these pieces have been recorded by other pianists, the greatest overlaps occurring on the albums by Glenn Gould and Kit Armstrong (Sony B8725413722 and DG 486 0583 respectively; my review of the latter was published on 25 August 2021), but not forgetting Joanna MacGregor’s take on Hugh Ashton’s ground (Sound Circus SC007) and more recently Karim Said’s Qui passe (Rubicon RCD1014). Pienaar eschews the fantasias and voluntaries, plus (understandably) the works based around plainsongs which, with their many sustained notes, Byrd obviously intended (or at least preferred) to be played on the organ. So, where do these versions sit among the other substantial recordings of Byrd’s keyboard music played on the piano? What is there to be said about Pienaar’s interpretations of the pieces? And what do Pienaar’s interpretations contribute to the debate about performing these works on the modern piano, the emergence of which was still at least a century away in the future?

Playing this repertory on the piano raises a host of issues. Given the stratospheric status and quality of Byrd’s keyboard music, it is essential that it is accessible to as many people as possible. Nowadays there is a plethora of instruments based on keyboards, both traditional and electronic. To date, commercial recordings, broadcasts and public performances have been given either on the harpsichord and related instruments (hereinafter simply “harpsichord”), or the organ, or the piano. The last thing any sensitive reviewer would want to do would be to discourage performances on the piano, or to patronize pianists over their choice of instrument. While not quite an elephant in a room, the fact remains however that the music was composed for the harpsichord and/or organ, and it is at least arguable that had the piano been available to Byrd, he would have composed his pieces idiomatically to that instrument. And that matter of idiom – that a work composed for the harpsichord might not sit so well upon a different albeit similar keyboard instrument – can be a stumbling block, whether this is because the piano has a different mechanism from the harpsichord, or because a different technique is required for playing either instrument, or because it simply does not sound right to the listener. Pienaar’s recording throws up all these issues (and more – how long have you got?), which is unsurprising given the quantity and quality of the chosen music.

That chosen music is all, within the context of Byrd’s oeuvre for keyboard, familiar apart from the impressive Hornpipe of which there is only one other commercial recording – on the harpsichord – currently available (Friederike Chylek, Oehms OC1702). So, to look at that aspect from a critical perspective, we are being invited to listen to nearly forty of Byrd’s best-known pieces being played on the anachronistic piano when they are all easily accessible on recordings where they are played on the authentic harpsichord (noting that such recordings sometimes use harpsichords the designs of which postdate Byrd’s compositions). Or … we are being invited to listen to a large swathe of Byrd’s keyboard repertory played on an anachronistic but similar instrument which requires no alteration to a single note that Byrd has written, and which might, in the right hands, offer new insights into the structure and meaning of this incomparable corpus of works.

Pienaar’s performances are unapologetically those of a pianist, not of someone trying to make his instrument sound like a harpsichord. This is good in that it links Byrd with later composers for the piano such as Chopin for whom counterpoint is an important structural element, besides the rhetorical use of chordal passages (another penchant of Byrd’s, also noticeable in his vocal works, e.g. famously the A flat chord near the end of Infelix ego). This means that Pienaar can sound a bit precious in some of the pavans, but his essay in the accompanying booklet is an assertive justification for using the piano against those who show “moral outrage” at such a decision. Indeed, his rendition of Walsingham which is timed at an extraordinarily fast 6’39” (all other current versions whether on harpsichord or piano are over eight minutes, in one case nine) seems almost to be an aggressive demonstration of the capabilities of the modern piano and an exhibition of the technical capabilities of the pianist. And while this is one of Byrd’s most intense works (see for instance Bradley Brookshire’s article “’Bare ruin’d quires, where late the sweet birds sang’: covert speech in William Byrd’s ‘Walsingham’ variations”, in Walsingham in literature and culture from the Middle Ages to modernity, edited by Dominic Janes and Gary Waller, Farnham, 2010, pp. 199-216), Pienaar seems to be invoking the tune’s modest status as a popular song and, through his performance, provoking thoughts of Byrd’s passionate reaction to this place of mediaeval pilgrimage and to its destruction as a Catholic shrine by Protestants in 1538. Yet elsewhere his interpretation of O mistress mine, I must brings out all the light and sheer beauty in Byrd’s setting, making it sing in such a way as to persuade listeners that this music might actually have been composed for the piano.

So we have a choice. We can purchase the recording for what it is. We can purchase it as an experiment or a novel experience and enjoy finding out which performances work and which do not. Or we can decide that Tudor keyboard music on the piano is not for us. For this reviewer (and I did indeed buy a copy before I was invited to review it!), among some tracks that are dances that don’t (not all the Nevell pavans and galliards “take off”), or where Byrd’s momentum and polyphony are clogged by too many spread chords (ditto), or where something other than Byrd’s self-explanatory genius is being exhibited (virtuosity in John come kiss me now, another fastest version on disc), there are many performances that are decorous, thought-provoking or challenging (for instance Qui passe, The bells, and those three titled Grounds, plus the mighty Quadran pavan and galliard) and have made that purchase worthwhile. When I first encountered this repertory I had no access to a harpsichord and played through Byrd’s entire keyboard output on the family’s piano, so please, any pianists reading this review, please do play and perform Byrd’s keyboard music on your pianos, especially in this quatercentenary year.

Richard Turbet


La Famille Rameau

Justin Taylor harpsichord & piano
Alpha Classics Alpha 721

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Justin Taylor’s La Famille Forqueray now has a sequel of the highest standard. This programme includes a number of Jean-Philippe’s more popular pieces and music by one of his sons, his younger brother and a nephew. In addition there are two tributes: a set of variations on Les sauvages by J-F Tapray and (pause for fanfare and drumroll) Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau. This is played on a lovely 1891 Erard piano, a worthy complement to the fine double-manual harpsichord attributed to Donzelague used for the bulk of the programme.

Such splendid instruments deserve splendid playing and from the multiple-award-winning Justin Taylor they certainly get it. He is not afraid to go his own way with the ‘standards’ (though I did find his tempo for J-PR’s famous gavotte a little ponderous, even if the variations did not disappoint) and unfamiliar repertoire has been well chosen and thoroughly prepared.

Taylor also wrote the contextualising essay (the booklet is in French, English and German) though I doubt that it was his decision to print his biography as a page all in upper case type! This looks quite bizarre and is actually difficult to read.

But the playing and programme are tremendous. Treat yourself!

David Hansell

Sheet music

New editions from Henle: Beethoven & Rossini

Beethoven: Klaviersonate Nr. 27 e-moll, Opus 90

Urtext edition by Norbert Gertsch · Murray Perahia
Fingering by Murray Perahia
G. Henle Verlag, 2017. HN1124
ISMN 979-0-2018-1124-6

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]edicated to Moritz von Lichnowsky, the E minor sonata – described as a contemporary as “aside from two passages, one of Beethoven’s easiest” – consists of two movements, the first a troubled piece in sonata form whose innocent opening gives no hint of the searching doubt to be explored as the composer’s imagination takes flight, and a rondo in the major key which, though not without drama, is far more tuneful, the calm after the storm, as it were. After the introduction which details the work’s history and hidden story (which explains the opening movement’s tumultuous character), a separate text by Perahia discusses its structure (both are given in three languages); as seems to be the norm for Henle, the critical notes after the edition itself are restricted to German and English. The score is beautifully laid out, with footnotes drawing attention to aspects of performance practice and possible variant readings in the autograph source. Even if you have the complete sonatas on your shelves, this pristine version will be a valuable addition to your collection.

Rossini: Une larme

Urtext Edition by Tobias Glöckler
G. Henle Verlag, 2017. HN571
Score (v+4+2pp) and part (Urtext and fingered/bowed).
ISMN 979-0-2018-0571-9

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]obias Glöckler’s edition of this short lament from 1858 was inspired by the discovery of a second autograph manuscript in St Petersburg, which helped to date its composition. His informative introduction is given in French and German, as well as English, but there are no critical notes in French. The musical text is given twice, once in A minor (for bass in standard orchestral tuning) and again a tone higher for the brighter solo tuning. The solo part (a single sheet) has the clean Urtext version on one side and the editor’s minimal additions on the reverse; in other words, help where it might be needed without unnecessary interference. From a practical point of view, this consists of fingering and bowing marks, one suggested extra slur (Rossini already marks the phrasing), and the replacement of the original’s tenor (C4) clef with the treble (G2) clef expected nowadays when the music goes beyond ledger lines. Footnotes offer further performance advice. All in all, an excellent little edition, worth every cent.

Brian Clark


Sonya Bach plays J. S. Bach

Keyboard Concertos, Italian Concerto
Sonya Bach piano, English Chamber Orchestra, [John Mills]
103:02 (2 CDs in a standard jewel case)
BWV971, 1052-56, 1058

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese are rather exaggerated performances, recorded on two occasions – March 2014 and February 2015 – in St John’s Smith Square. Sonya Bach is a young Korean pianist who plays a Steinway and is photographed for the cover draped over it.

She is clearly in love with it, and has been playing since the age of two; and also with J. S. Bach, whose contrapuntal writing she had mastered by the age of 10. Her performances are mostly in the vigorous style, with heightened dramatic accents and rather exaggerated dynamics, including some pretty extreme crescendos and diminuendos. The ECO strings play neatly, but neither they nor she are as aware of HPP as – for example – Sebastian Knauer, playing concertos in Bach & Sons 2, with the Zürcher Kammerorchester reviewed above.
If you like your Bach Klavier concerti with this scoring and style, you may be seduced by these sounds, but I’m not very keen on this approach. 2422

David Stancliffe

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