John Kersey plays Beethoven Sonata in B flat major, op. 106 “Hammerklavier”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Piano Sonata in B flat major, op 106 “Hammerklavier” (1818)

1. Allegro (00:15)
. Scherzo: Assai vivace (13:32)
3. Adagio sostenuto (16:38)
4. Largo – Allegro risoluto (39:27)

John Kersey, piano
Recorded at home during the national lockdown of 2021.

Artwork: Laurits Tuxen (1853-1927) – The North Sea in Stormy Weather. After Sunset. Højen (1909)

The “Hammerklavier”, as Beethoven’s longest and most demanding piano sonata (demanding on both performer and listener), sets some daunting interpretative challenges. In my performance, I hope that a number of principles are apparent. The most important of these is the conception of this sonata as a symphonic work. By this I mean not that it is conceived wholly in pianistic terms, but that it demands the same elements of textural balance and interpretative control as a large-scale orchestral work. Moreover, Beethoven consciously pushes the limits of what was considered achievable as piano music in this work, setting a challenge that the pianists of his own time were not able to meet.

Much attention has been given to the question of tempi in the “Hammerklavier”. It is fashionable at the moment to take brisk tempi and to seek to observe, at least in part, Beethoven’s ultra-fast metronome marking for the first movement (which is at odds with the main theme’s origins in a planned choral work). This tends to be accompanied by dry textures and little use of the sustaining pedal. There have throughout the twentieth-century been great pianists who have conceived the “Hammerklavier” in this way; for example Solomon’s memorable 1952 recording is notably fast-paced and transparent. However, I have come to find this approach to the work less and less convincing. Firstly, the sheer scale of the writing demands that its events are not piled on top of the listener as a continual stream of disruption and dissonance, but instead paced and staged as one would in a performance of the late quartets or indeed the Ninth Symphony. There is great internal logic to Beethoven’s writing, and it is only effective when it has room to breathe. Secondly, the “dry” sound is far removed in my view from the grand textural effect that Beethoven has in mind in his piano writing. For the concluding fugue, that approach does take us back to his roots in Bach, but it also risks making the work sound rather colourless and prolix. To balance the material successfully requires the performer to use the full range of the piano’s capabilities – whether we see that in terms of the pianos of Beethoven’s own time, which often had a greater capacity for sustaining sound, or in those of today, which have the potential for grander effect in chordal and octave writing.

One great pianist of today who has avoided the temptation to undue haste is Grigory Sokolov. His 2013 live recording of the work emphasises the measured unfolding of its complexities and the importance of the detail of the score. The inspiration of Sokolov’s approach is in the way that the “Hammerklavier” thus transcends any attempt to perceive it as a mere virtuoso showpiece, and appears anew as a revolutionary and deeply personal statement. Even closer to the ideal is the great British Beethovenian John Lill, whose “Hammerklavier” is deeply thought-out and conveys in full the huge emotional impact of the score. Lastly, I should also reference the interpretations over the years by Daniel Barenboim, who brings a conductor’s symphonic understanding to the work and who never fails to impress upon the listener the greatness and scale of this sonata.

Rather than think in terms of tempo, I find it more helpful to think in terms of line. In the slow movement in particular, the music finds its natural pace because of the interplay between melodic and harmonic material. Too fast, and the effect becomes garbled and facile. Too slow, and the line fragments. What is needed is a naturalness of approach that presents the music honestly and with the utmost expression, and that allows it to speak for itself. The slow movement’s immense emotional import demands that it work itself out extremely gradually, so that its material, when repeated and varied, has a cumulative and narrative effect, almost as if time itself is being stretched out. Such a grand concept is at odds with our soundbite times, but it reminds us that Beethoven was never interested in conventionality of expression. The “Hammerklavier” will always demand to be taken on its own terms, as an unparallelled journey into the deepest expression possible within the piano repertoire.