BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No 29
Grigory Sokolov’s 1975 recording of the Hammerklavier Sonata is a minute faster overall than his live account from the 2013 Salzburg Festival recently issued by DG. The movement proportions are different, however. Thirty years ago the slow movement was even longer – 23'38" as against 21'28" – and even more searching. Studio recording it may have been, but it feels as though taken in massive long breaths. Admittedly, some of the daring ritardandos are not placed where Beethoven asks them to be, and it’s not just textual fidelity but structural contour that makes me favour the composer’s markings. But the control of sonority at all dynamic levels shows that the legend built up around Sokolov was not only down to his power and agility.
For those latter qualities, Sokolov’s first movement in 1975 was far superior to his recent rethinking, which is fully 2'15" slower, without any gain in clarity and with a significant loss in overall conviction. Both versions do tend to efface the difference between forte and fortissimo, and again my objection is not on textual but on structural grounds. Both finales, on the other hand, are awesomely articulate and hard to fault.
Sokolov’s voicing of textures throughout the sonata is a marvel in itself. But it is the 1975 slow movement above all that has the stamp of mastery of a Gilelsian order. Sokolov may only have been 25 at the time and not everything in his performance feels fully mature: occasionally he seems to be playing for effect rather than for truth. But he was already nine years on from winning the Tchaikovsky Competition, and there is certainly a massive self-belief and artistic presence here, so much so that I would take some convincing that his Beethoven has moved forwards over the years. The Sony booklet essay on the music makes refreshing reading beside DG’s paean to the pianist.