Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Maurizio Pollini completes his cycle of Beethoven Piano Sonatas

It was in 1975 that Maurizio Pollini recorded his first Beethoven piano sonatas, with Gramophone Award-winning accounts of op. 109 and op. 110. Over the years he has gradually recorded more of them, and almost forty years later he has finally completed the cycle with a new disc out today of the op. 31 and op. 49 sonatas. To mark this milestone, Deutsche Grammophon has also released an 8-CD set of the complete sonatas.

Maurizio Pollini
Maurizio Pollini

Pollini is without a doubt one of the pianists I love listening to the most, as he combines a fearsomely formidable technique with unfailingly intelligent interpretations. His impressive technical mastery can often lead to some rather fast tempos, and this is certainly in evidence on the new disc: the last movement of op. 31 no. 3, often known as The Hunt, goes at quite a pace, but it never comes across as being flashily virtuosic just for the sake of it.

Similarly, the last movement of perhaps Beethoven’s most famous sonata, op. 27 no. 2 (commonly referred to as the Moonlight) is despatched at a breakneck pace, but always with the utmost clarity. One of the things that for me puts Pollini at the top of the heap is his always thoughtful use of the pedal; he often uses it surprisingly sparingly, which ensures that textures don’t get smudgy and thereby allows you to hear with pristine precision every single one of the quickfire semiquavers. This is also the case in, for example, the op. 79 sonata, where there is a refreshing crispness to Pollini’s playing, with extremely clear textures and flawless passagework.

It’s not all about how quickly Pollini can play all the fast bits, though. He excels in Beethoven’s slow movements too, with the most beautiful tone in, for instance, the slow movements of the Hammerklavier and the Pathétique, or with the gentle way he shapes the opening phrases of the last movement of the Waldstein. The range of sounds and colours that Pollini can draw from the piano is really quite extraordinary. Listen to the Appassionata to hear how he can move with ease from the softest touch in the second movement to a furiously stormy third movement, or the way he seems almost to stop time at the beginning of op. 81a (Les Adieux), and you’ll see just what I mean.

It was Pollini’s accounts of the three late sonatas that first introduced me to his recordings several years ago, and it’s always a pleasure to return to them, particularly a most impressive performance of the final sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is a set of nine variations on a theme, and is a test of any pianist’s ability to maintain interest over such a long structure (performances of this movement alone frequently last upwards of seventeen minutes). The celebrated third variation (a jaunty, up-beat variation which has led several commentators to point out that Beethoven has here seemingly invented boogie-woogie music!) is an absolute joy in Pollini’s hands.

I’ve included links below to both the new disc of the op. 31 and op. 49 sonatas, as well as the 8-CD set of the complete sonatas. Of course there are so many sets of Beethoven piano sonatas out there, and everyone will have their own favourites from amongst the many fine interpretations available, but now that Pollini has plugged the remaining gaps in his Beethoven sonata discography, for me personally there’s no contest, and I can’t recommend this set highly enough. Buy it!

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 16-20 (opp. 31 & 49)

Maurizio Pollini (piano) (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-32 (Complete)

Maurizio Pollini (piano) (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC