Sorting out serious contenders in the Hammerklavier

Sorting out serious contenders in the Hammerklavier


norman lebrecht

March 15, 2020

Welcome to the 45th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Hammerklavier sonata, opus 106 (1819)

The 29th sonata, in B-flat major, was recognised as the summit of piano music, a status it maintained for a whole generation until Chopin and Liszt presented a different set of challenges. Even then, it maintained a kind of holy-mountain isolation as pianists feared to tackle its dangerous slopes.  For years, it stood unplayed. The first to perform it in public was Franz Liszt, at the Salle Erard in Paris in 1836, to general incomprehension. Pianists ever since have asked themselves: can I play it? should I? dare I? Beethoven’s British publishers had such little faith in being able to sell it that they published only three movements.

Beethoven gave a metronome marking of 138 to the opening allegro movement, a deterrent speed that most considered impossible. It is followed by a two-minute scherzo – blink and it’s over – and two slow movements, a 20-minute adagio and a mystifying largo. The work can last between 40 and fifty minutes. Almost every page carries the warning ‘do not try this at home’. From the amount of ink that has been spilled on the sonata over two centuries, you’d think that a PhD in philosophy was required just to listen to it.

Towards the end it seems that the composer has either run out of ideas or left us suspended in in mid-air until, without prior notice, he plunges at breakneck speed into an allegro risoluto that resolves absolutely nothing. No-one leaves this sonata unshaken. Beethoven wrote: ‘Here’s a sonata that will challenge pianists and that people will be able to play in 50 years.’ The title alone has no particular significance. It is the German word for ‘pianoforte’ and Beethoven had applied it once before, to his sonata opus 101. By the time he wrote the Hammerklavier, Beethoven was completely deaf. We can only speculate what sounds he imagined might emerge. One of my critical colleagues describes it as ‘music to play when you have just broken up with a best friend’.

There are more than 100 recordings of the Hammerklavier, starting in 1935 with Artur Schnabel, who is well beow form in what was, in concert, one of his trademark pieces. Maybe it just rained that day in Abbey Road. The earliest recording to catch my ear is by Louis Kentner (1905-1987), a Hungarian prodigy who settled in England in 1935 and eventually became Yehudi Menuhin’s brother-in-law and recital partner. There is nothing flashy about Kentner, as there would have been about his compatriot Liszt. Kentner attacks the opening difficulties at the prescribed speed and with dignified assurance, a decorum that turns majestic as he enters the great adagio. Kentner, who taught at Menuhin’s school, was either a very modest man, or one of limited ambition. He deserves a higher reputation.

The opening statement in 1956 by the English pianist Solomon is among the most arresting ever heard and the performance as a whole is an act of storytelling, the pianist holding us spellbound start to finish. What sticks in the mind is the clarity of his touch, allied to its lightness, even in the loudest passages. I am not sure there is, anywhere, a more likeable interpretation. Tragically, this is almost the last we hear of Solomon, who suffered a stroke later that year and never played again, though he lived until 1988.

The Austrian-born, London-based Alfred Brendel made the Hammerklavier his calling card through much of a long career. He starts out at a brisk 41 minutes in 1964, slowing to 43 minutes by 1996, adding a gloss of gravitas and sweet touches of wit. What the record industry loved about Brendel was his efficiency in studio, his appeal to both the high-minded and the mass-market, and his ceaseless industriousness in the classical and romantic piano repertoire, seldom allowing weeks to go by without making a record (although Maurizio Pollini (1977) collected more five-star reviews). To my mind,  the third all-purpose label pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy is strongest in the Hammerklavier.

Their antipode is the American intellectual and bon-vivant Charles Rosen, who stepped very rarely into the record studio and once boasted to me of the smallest audience he ever attracted – 15 people, most of them Nobel prize winners. Rosen (1971), for all his cerebral snobbery, is touchingly tender in the adagio and subtly edifying in the finale. Beside him, and in the same year, same label, the gravely reserved Rudolf Serkin seems practically a populist.

The Russians have their own way with this sonata, or rather several ways. Sviatoslav Richter (1976) is unmissable for the surprises he springs in the most familiar phrases of the work, as if he is rethinking it as he plays. Some ascribe a similar individuality to Grigory Sokolov (2016) apparently the only pianist to run over 50 minutes, but who’s counting? At the opposite extreme, the mystic Maria Yudina clatters away for 38 minutes on a badly maintained piano in appalling studio sound and an absolutely transfixing reading. It has taken decades for this tape to be exhumed and you really need to hear it. More recently Igor Levit (2013) is unignorable for sheer flair, courage and chutzpah. His is a very 21st century, ultra-communicative Hammerklavier.

Which leads me to the most penetrative of the Russians, Emil Gilels, who was supposed to deliver a full cycle of sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon but, in the late Cold War era, fell two or three short. Gilels, who wore a perpetual haunted look, was shadowed by KGB men wherever he went. He died in 1985, still in his sixties. In one of the slowest performances of the Hammerklavier, he takes us on an inner journey where he can be entirely himself. I think this recording, made in 1983, might be his most important legacy – indeed, possibly the most powerful interpretation of any Beethoven sonata

He is the alltime first choice of our panellist Erica Worth, editor of Piano magazine. Erica is also keen on Mitsuko Uchida (2007) whom she finds ‘far removed from selfish virtuosity and with a strong musical conviction’, valid qualities, as well as a distinctly feminine form of instrospection. Other panel favourites? The Israeli critic and psychoanalyst Amir Mandel directs me to Murray Perahia’s second recording, made in 2018 for DG and the fruit of a lifetime’s all-weather engagement with this force of nature. After years of struggle with a hand injury, Perahia conveys a sense of resignation, with a touch so delicate it is almost weightless

For those in need of retuning, there’s an orchestration of the Hammerklavier by Felix Weingartner, conducted by the composer in 1930 and not nearly as awful as it ought to be. That attribute falls to the arrangement for piano and electronics and another for string quartet – seriously, no.




  • YB Schragadove says:

    “Murray Perahia’s second recording”? I am not aware of an earlier Hammerklavier recording from Perahia. Could you point me to it?

    • Steven Holloway says:

      I can’t, but that’s probably because there isn’t one. [redacted: abuse] There’s a more interesting oddity tucked away in this one.

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    Could you add the Andras Schiff version of the Hammerklavier to your discussion? It might have been overlooked.

    • Steven Holloway says:

      Only if it’s in the Idagio streaming thingy, which Norm here represents. Schiff wasn’t overlooked: All other artists are out of consideration for inclusion.

      • Yi Peng Li says:

        I know I don’t use Idagio as Mr Lebrecht does, but does it carry the Schiff recordings? I thought Idagio might carry ECM releases including the Schiff Beethoven series.

  • Feurich says:

    It might be worth mentioning that the Hammerklavier is most effective listened to live and not in recording. Not just because the extreme dynamics are often lost in recordings but the extreme physicality involved in performing adds to the experience. It teaches you how much can be communicated by the body and how this influences our listening. I recently heard Pierre Laurant Aimard perform the Hammerklavier. He sometimes jumped up completely off his stool in forte passages. It was a terrific interpretation, more satisfying than Pollini and Sokolov, both of whom I have had the pleasure to hear in the work.

  • M McAlpine says:

    You miss out Annie Fischer?

  • Kempff says:

    it was definitely a piece for Wilhelm Kempff who played it incredibly touching – also the Backhaus recording is marvellous.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The arrangements of Beethoven’s works I never find satisfactory, including the orchestrations of his string quartets.The music loses its profundity. Among other pianists one could also include Wilhelm Kempff.

    • RW2013 says:

      Not referring to Tognetti by any chance?
      The Weingartner is worth listening to as a novelty.
      I’m surprised I haven’t seen it programmed this year.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The problem with orchestrations of Beethoven’s sonatas or string quartets is that arrangers keep much too close to the notes, instead of re-imagining the music for the other medium. Given that almost all Beethoven’s music is basically quasi-abstract, the musical ideas can be translated into different outward form. For instance, the piano sonatas are already a translation of musical, abstract ideas into a piano texture.

  • Been Here Before says:

    You forgot to mention Claudio Arrau’s superb rendering, part of his first Beethoven Sonatas cycle recorded in the ’60s. The opening is deeply convincing and the slow movement tender and sublime. I absolutely love this interpretation.

    Last week Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed the piece at the Southbank Centre. Although this was an excellent performance, to my ears is still fell short when compared to the masters of the past. However, one should not forget how difficult this work is – any attempt to perform it in public is an act of bravery, even more than 200 years after it was written.

    • Piano Lover says:

      Claudio Arrau’s recording of OP 106 is not a milestone.Far too slow in the last mouvement.The Sixteenth are too slow…Barenboim is identical-awful.

      • G.G. says:

        about the 60’s, I would like to add the weird experience of recording concertos without cadenzas, such Tchaikovsky by Zukerman.

  • Tully Potter says:

    Emil Gilels was due to record the last few Beethoven Sonatas but was overtaken by death – according to various sources, his hospital treatment fell short of the best standards. Besides the studio recording, he left at least one very impressive live account of the ‘Hammerklavier’.

  • RW2013 says:

    Who said “putting off learning the Hammerklavier doesn’t make it any easier”?

    • John Borstlap says:

      That is a good one.

      There have been pianists who prepared learning the piece by first having the score under their pillow at night, and others by ritually burning an extra score before sitting down at the piano. There is the story of famous pianist [redacted] who traveled around the world with the piece before the corona crisis, and laid down a big hammer at the side lid of the piano before starting it and banging it on the keyboard when the applaus broke loose.

    • WJM says:

      I seem to remember Barenboim stating something along those lines…

  • Esther Cavett says:

    Andre Previn was once asked in an interview, by a rather impertinent journalist about his dalliances in Hollywood as a young man. He replied that there were a lot of beautiful women he came into contact with and what was he going to do “…stop in and say I’m learning the Hammerklavier” ?

  • Vince says:

    I’d like to include Glenn Gould on this list. He played the Hammerklavier for a CBC radio recording. The first movement isn’t very memorable, but his playing of the slow movement and fugue is sheer brilliance.

  • Surprised that everyone seems to have forgotten about Friedrich Gulda. Here is a live recording of his rendition when he was in his prime:

    He doesn’t quite make the half-note = 138 mark, but he keeps up the tempo he chooses with the utmost consistency. Also leaves room for breathing in the more lyrical passages which are also in abundance in this monumental piece.

    Also, he brings the requisite “craziness” to the little wisp of a scherzo.

    One could add 2:30 minutes to the overall time since he leaves out the expositional repeat in the 1st movement.

  • HB says:

    And let us not forget Friedrich Gulda, from his superb complete set!

  • 106 says:

    Annie Fischer, Claudio Arrau, Yves Nat among others.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is a problematic work and not only because of the difficulties for the performers. Its style, in a musical sense, is orchestral, while the textures are ‘sort of’ pianistic. There are occasionally little details which sound a bit clumsy, in the Adagio there are passages which are mere dreamy improvisation without any shape, and the fugue is driven by a mixture of grandiosity and despair without finding a real relief – thereby expressing the claustrophobia which is sometimes part of the human condition and therefore all the more gripping.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I don’t like Gilel’s OP 106…too romantic .Not do I like Brendel’s or Kempff’s…
    I prefer Richter’s numerous versions (I have about 6 live)that he played in 1975(NOT 1976 as written).1975 was his Hammerklavier year.
    Constant speed all throughout the work.

    • esfir ross says:

      . I heard S.Richter 1975 playing 32 sonata. 1976 live recital in Kishinev shook the earth literally-earthquake during recital didn’t budge SR. But those recital reveal his skills were in decline.

  • Luca says:

    The APR remastering of Maria Yudina’s ‘Hammerklavier’ is perfectly acceptable – as always with this company – providing one can accept her very fast speeds.

  • Bloom says:

    Alfred Brendel has quite a grasp on Hammerklavier.

  • Herbert Pauls says:

    Before Liszt’s famous performance in the 1830s, there is the less-known historical detail that Mendelssohn also performed the Hammerklavier Sonata as a teenager, apparently from memory. That would have been something to hear.

  • Tara Wilson says:

    And John Lill? Oddly omitted given his Beethoven legacy…

  • Madeline karn says:

    You have forgotten to include EARL WILD’s Recording.

  • M.Arnold says:

    The first time I heard this live was in a recital by the Juilliard teacher Beveridge Webster @ the 92nd St Y in NY ca.1959.As I was leaving I remember someone holding the score and complimenting the performance saying, “Well, it’s unplayable and that’s what he did.” Any comments on Yuja Wang’s Carnegie Hall performance this past year?

  • Jess says:

    I would like to recommend the late Peter Serkin’s recording on a Graf fortepiano. It’s like sitting next to a dragon.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I read somewhere that after Serkin played the Hammerklavier in Boston, the instrument emitted a small cloud of smoke.

  • Gaston Frydman says:

    I would add Peter Serkin’s recordings too!

  • Esther Cavett says:

    ==And John Lill? Oddly omitted given his Beethoven legacy…

    He’s very workmanlike and dependable. Always turns up, can fill in for indisposed colleagues at the drop of a hat – but c’mon he’s never given a revalatory performance of anything. He’s a Brit but hasn’t been invited to the proms for about 20 years

    • esfir ross says:

      I heard John Lil live 1970 at Tchaikovsky 4th competition -his 1st prize didn’t match V.Krainev talent., Horasio Gutieraz, Cyprien Katsaris ,V.Postnikova and many others. Pedestrian.

    • Tara Wilson says:

      I don’t think he is trying to be revelatory but simply convincing in terms of what the composer intended. Beethoven aside, his Prokofiev is outstanding.

  • Jonathan says:

    I agree with NL about the way Solomon’s recording creates a mesmerising narrative which holds the listener’s attention. The only comparable performance I have heard was a chance switching on the radio to Martin Helmchen.

    The performance I cannot forget was by John Ogden. While the playing in his characteristically muscular style was predictably suited to the work, the event was memorable for the fire alarm going off in the middle. It stopped almost immediately, the cause was obviously known and not a hazard. However the hall was linked to the local fire station, and a few minutes later sirens were heard. A group of firemen walked down the aisles as quietly as they could in their full gear, checking everywhere, then left. All the while Ogden played on, seemingly oblivious, not even lifting his head to see what was happening, totally concentrated on maintaining the shape and impetus of the music.

    A good pianist I know once said the difference between himself and the great pianists was that they could maintain total concentration for 45 minutes.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Among classics, Mieczyslaw Horszowski hasoneof the most heroic and deeply felt of “Hammerklaviers”. Among moderns, Paul Lewis is virtually unexceptionable. In between and no doubt since, many other fine readings, from Schnabel and Serkin to Ervin Nyiregyhazi and Elly Ney.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Edgar,
      I have never heard a Nyiregyhazi performance – haven’t even heard OF one. Could you please supply details, and if it was issued on LP or CD, the label info, etc.? I’d much appreciate it! I have a number of LPs and CDs of his Liszt recordings (he was truly a force of nature), but no Beethoven.
      BTW, my choices are Nat, Rosen (ignore Norman’s absurd comment about Rosen’s “cerebral snobbery” – Rosen was a brilliant scholar, writer, and lecturer, someone who Norman would do well to learn something from), Gulda, Gilels, Richter, and Craig Sheppard. Schnabel left us a towering interpretation, but his technique was not up to the actual performance.
      Speaking of Sheppard, it seems that no commenter on this blog other than myself has ever heard of him. His cycle of the 32 sonatas is absolutely brilliant, in great sound, and totally worth searching out.

      • Edgar Self says:

        P.S. Greg, I replied to you a few days ago on the Mahler Resurrection thread that Norman started on Marh 11

        • Greg Bottini says:

          Hi Edgar,
          Mi dispiace – my remarks on that March 11 post refer to the 8th Symphony! I was replying to Guerrero’s post.
          I’m totally in agreement with you on the merits of the Mahler 2nd, a great work!
          I’m partial to Mehta/VPO/Decca (Mehta’s profound and powerful interpretation, state-of-the-art analog stereo, glorious soloists and chorus, and the VPO at its best), but I do like Kaplan, his LPO version IMO better than the VPO.
          Stokowski’s live LSO/Proms version is stunning, in surprisingly good sound from the Albert Hall. Both of Ormandy’s are great performances; the Philly Orch. in top form and in modern stereo, the Minneapolis a live version from the 30s, fervently if not immaculately played and sung, with not bad sound for the day.
          And the old Scherchen is so wonderful! Klemperer is awesome as well, with gorgeous playing from the classic-era Philharmonia, and excellent sound.
          I also love the Walter/NYP, the first version I ever heard and the one I “grew up with”. It is just lovely, in excellent sound. I still have the original old heavy Columbia LPs – now I also have it on a nice Japanese-issue Sony CD.
          The 8th? As I stated, Mahler totally miscalculated when he asked for 8 soloists. I have never heard a performance in which all those singers were of equal ability and well-balanced. For me, all that caterwauling is a trial to hear. The only saving grace is the instrumental opening of the second part. It is just plain beautiful.

          • Edgar Self says:

            Greg Bottini — Vastly relieved, as I love the”Resurreetion” but agree as to the Symphony of 300, which is too rich and grandiloquent for my blood. Unfortunately it’s my wife’s favorite,as she knows “Faust” by heart.

            Mehta’s “Resurrection” hassthe advantage of hrista Ludwig; I have it and like it. I am too youngtoo remember Ormandy’s first version andnever heard his other. All this is far from the “Hammerklavier”, but these are extraordinary times.

  • Feurich says:

    Totally disagree that Brendel is good in the piece. He struggles with the virtuosity, is too polite and intellectual and fails to bring out Beethoven’s radicalism.

  • esfir ross says:

    Maurizio Polinni, Richard Goode, Maria Mazo

  • M McAlpine says:

    One could add Stephen Kovacevich to a distinguished list

  • almaviva says:

    Richard Goode, anyone? I can’t think of anyone who can surpass his introspective rendering of the Hammerklavier.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Another vote for Solomon and Maria Yudina. Except for records I wouldn’t know the piece, having heard it live only twice: by Marc Ginzberg on his 90th birthday in Los Angeles, and by Rudolf Serkin a lifetime later, both harrowing for different reasons.

    I agree the orchestrations don’t work. To quote Henry James in another connexion: horrible, horrible, horrible.

  • David says:

    Surprised there’s no mention of Richard Goode

  • Walter Winterfeldt says:

    So many Hammerklaviers, so little time…. for more interesting reading on Hammerklavier performances, please see Jed Distler’s excellent roundup discussion in the Gramophone magazine, January 2020. Unfortunately he forgets to mention a favorite of mine…Christoph Eschenbach, both DG (1970) and EMI (1976). His adagio movement is probably the slowest on record, almost 25 minutes. I was able to hear him perform it twice in New York in the mid 70’s. And then there is the tale of an incredible Rudolf Serkin performance at Kent State in 1969. Anyone remember it?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Agree with Mustafa Kandan about orchestrations of Beethoven sonatas and quartets with the exception of the Grosse Fuge, which certainly works for Adolf Bush, Klemperer, and Furtwaengler; and the Cavatina from Furtwaengler’s incredible Telefunken studio recording.

    Even Bernstein with the VPO couldn’t make the quartet orchestrations work.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    In an old NYT article, Earl WIld said

    “I heard a lecture on Beethoven by Daniel Barenboim once, and he said the opening of the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata should sound difficult. I can’t play on that basis. Beethoven wasn’t trying to project difficulty.””

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg, I know Craig Shepherd’s name but nothing more. I’ve noticed your several comments and intend to hear him.

    Elly Ney’s commercial Norichord çCD is of the Hammerklavier adagio only, but I’ve heard private tapes of her and Ervin Nyiregyhazi playing all or parts of it. They were formidable.

    I saw two of Nyiregyhazi’s reitals in San Francisco, including the one at Old First Presbyterian with Liszt’s “Legendes” , and Brahms’s F-minor sonata at the California Club. I had lunch with him once but never heard him play Beethoven live. His friend Ricardo Hernandez knew Elly Ney, whom I heard twice in Germany. She was married off and on to conductor Willem van Hoogstraten,who conducted the L.A. Phil before the war around Klemperer’s time there.

    Sharp eyes!

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Edgar,
      Thanks so much for the reply!
      I am envious that you heard Nyiregyhazi play live, and even dined with him; as I wrote, I have only his recordings to go by.
      I am acquainted with Ricardo Hernandez, and have heard him play. He has a lovely tone and touch, doesn’t he? He once showed me a poster he owned announcing a recital of Elly Ney, I believe from the 30s.
      I am also acquainted with Terry McNeill, who made the cassette recording of that Old First Church recital you attended, which ended up as side 2 of the Desmar LP, IPA 111, that set off the brief “Nyiregyhazi Renaissance”. I still have that LP, and photocopies of a number of contemporary reviews of it. Nyiregyhazi’s playing, on the OFC recital especially, is indescribably powerful and evocative.
      Please do try to find Craig Sheppard’s Beethoven recordings. I own them on a 9 CD set on Romeo Records entitled “Beethoven: A Journey”. I acquired this set almost by accident, and it contains a great deal of the best Beethoven playing I’ve ever heard.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg, is Hernandez still alive? I haven’t heard of him in many years.

    Nyiuregyhazi at OFC was terrifying. I was afraid he might get loose. “St. Francis of Paola Walking o the Waves”… “Marching on the Floats” as the French has it … was some of the grandest pianism I had heard ‘pnt, and I knew it already from Kempff and Cortot, as I told him over lunch. He dismissed them with a wave of the hand. Schubert-:iszt “Wanderer” is an example of his concentration. I sat at the California Club listening to his Brahms sonata and wondering is this good, or is it not good? I’m still not sure. “What matters is the grandeur of the conception.
    Hernandez introduced me to Medtner’s Russian Fable in B-flat minor well before I heard Medtner and Svetlanov play it on records. I left youa P.S. on the Mahler “Resurrection” thread started here on March 11.

  • christopher breunig says:

    The preferable Ashkenazy/Decca is the earlier one (sleeve shown above), as it had a remarkable freshness – not to mention being a ‘demonstration’ piano disc for the audiophile! A new version by the young Italian Filippo Gorini I am finding ‘magnetic’ (to borrow a key word from the late Ted Greenfield’s critical vocabulary). It’s on the Alpha label coupled with Op.111.

  • gp says:

    I could never understand reviews of existing performances of op.106 which could ignore Claudio Arrau (especially an early recording out of his cycles), Wilhelm Backhaus (several magnificent performances, some of them live), Ernst Levy (a rarity) and Egon Petri’s colossal view. The criticism of Schnabel is also unfair. At the time of his Beethoven recordings, Schnabel was not any more at his peak for several reasons. However, his musical integrity led him to start the sonata with the left hand jump at the metronome =138, contrary to many (fortunately not all) of the pianists mentioned in the above review. Schnabel makes a mess of the sonata beginning but he tries to convey the true intention of the composer with great sincerity. The rest of the performance is quite beautiful notwithstanding Schnabel’unsuitability to the recording studio. There is a true artist and not one promoted by recorded companies.