This was not the way I planned it. In purchasing tickets for the following season, I always attempt to put some space between concerts—never two on successive nights and certainly not the same composer on two successive nights. Well, that was the plan.
This season, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society decided to honor Beethoven’s 250th Birthday with recitals of all 32 of his piano sonatas (as well as all of his string quartets), but performed by different pianists. The series was supposed to start with a February 4th recital by the eminent Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder, and then continue with a February 12th recital by the celebrated young pianist from Argentina, Ingrid Fliter. I had tickets for both. However, both were forced to cancel: Fliter was barred from travelling during her pregnancy, while Buchbinder cancelled his North American tour for health reasons. The Welsh Llyr Williams was booked in Fliter’s place, playing the same program on the same date. When Buchbinder cancelled (on shorter notice), the Society was able to arrange for the French Canadian Louis Lortie to perform in his place, also playing the same program. However, to accommodate his schedule, Lortie’s recital was moved to February 11th.
Although I had the option of switching to different concerts, I’m glad I stayed with these programs. Two successive nights of almost any other composer would be a recipe for sameness, but that’s not the case given the incredible variety of Beethoven’s output in this genre.
This was Louis Lortie’s program on Tuesday evening, February 11:
Beethoven: Sonata in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3
Beethoven: Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13, Pathétique
Beethoven: Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2
Beethoven: Sonata in F Minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
It is often noted that Beethoven’s early compositions reflect the influence of Haydn (his teacher) and Mozart. But despite its early opus number, the C Major Sonata is no mere derivative work. Rather, based on its length, complexity and originality, it stands on its own as a landmark in the piano repertoire. The F Major Sonata may be the least famous of the evening’s foursome, but it has much to recommend it. The final movement’s Presto, a contrapuntal romp, is especially appealing. And what else can I say about the Pathétique and Appassionata? These works are sources of wonderment and awe every time I hear them in recital.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to hear some great Beethoven players in recital, such as Andras Schiff and Anton Kuerti. After hearing him in this recital, I’d have to place Louis Lortie in the same rank. And based on the enthusiastic ovation each piece received from this knowledgeable audience, it was clear that I was not alone in my assessment of his playing.
One distinction from other recitals in this series: Instead of a Steinway, Lortie chose to play a Bösendorfer piano. Compared to the Steinway, the Bösendorfer seems to have a richer, more mellow bass, while the treble is just a little less brilliant.
Lortie played one encore, perhaps intended as a preview of the following evening’s program—the final movement of Beethoven’s first sonata, Op. 2, No. 1.
The next night, the recital by Llyr Williams was more uneven. He presented five sonatas:
Beethoven: Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2
Beethoven: Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3
Beethoven: Sonata in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2, Tempest
Beethoven: Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3
In four of the five sonatas, Williams’ lack of rhythmic consistency lessened some of the enjoyment of the fast movements in these works. Of course, a degree of rhythmic flexibility is appropriate in all of these sonatas, but it needs to be subtle to preserve the momentum that characterizes these works. However, there didn’t seem to be any rationale as to why Williams increased his speed in many passages in the opening movements of the first four sonatas. Sometimes, it seemed that he sped up just to show that he could do so while playing all the notes. I know that sounds harsh, but that was my impression.
The slow movements fared better. The gorgeous second movement of the D Major Sonata was particularly expressive and moving.
I paid particularly close attention to the Tempest, since that was a piece I studied and performed in my early years. Here, the slow movement was played at too slow a pace to maintain that gentle forward momentum that the music demands. Williams did maintain the flowing pace of the “galloping horse” third movement, but it could have used a bit more drama.
Finally, in the last sonata on the program, Williams seemed to have found his inner metronome, as well as his interpretive coherence. This E-Flat Major Sonata is not as famous as the “name” sonatas, but it deserves a place of honor among the set of 32. It also deserves a great performance and, this time, Williams delivered.
Although I don’t follow the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice that the PCMS audience seemed to agree with me in its appraisal of Williams. The applause that followed the first four sonatas was rather tepid and respectful. But Williams’ superb performance of the Op. 31, No. 3 Sonata evoked a tremendous reception from the audience and brought Williams out to perform an unusual encore. He announced that we had probably heard enough Beethoven, so he offered a well-crafted performance of Ravel’s La Vallée des Cloches (“The Valley of the Bells”).