Wigmore Mondays: Aleksandar Madžar plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

Aleksander Madžar (piano, above)

Beethoven Piano Sonata no.29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) (2:35-48:14 on the broadcast link)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 February 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Is there a more complete work for piano than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata? Few pieces are bigger in scope, and yet at the same time few speak as intimately as this piece does, especially in the slow movement.

It therefore takes a special performance to communicate the strengths of the piece in full to an audience, but Aleksander Madžar went some way to doing that at the Wigmore Hall.

The name Hammerklavier comes from the German word, specifying the piece should be played on the more modern fortepiano and not the harpsichord. It also phonetically describes the opening phrase in the first movement (from 2:35-14:14 on the broadcast, marked Allegro) where it really feels like the piano is being used as a forceful rhythm instrument rather than for its melodic beauty. Madžar took a much more relaxed view of the opening statement, communicating the onset of the drama but bringing it in much more gradually. He did at times have a shrill ring to the top of his range, especially when the right hands were playing in octaves.

That said, it was clear how he wanted this performance to go, and the structure of the movement made sense under his hands, with the repeat of the first part of the first movement (the exposition) included.

The second movement Scherzo (14:15) had a considerable breadth of colour, and subtly pointed out Beethoven’s harmonic deviations, not least in the ‘trio’ passage where Beethoven briefly visits the minor key (15:18). Here the sound was uncommonly hollow, and try as I might I could not dismiss the notion of empty bottles or bones rattling in a cage. Very macabre!

The slow movement (from 18:05, marked Adagio sostenuto) surely holds the key to a successful performance of the Hammerklavier. It is one of those moments in late Beethoven where time seems immaterial, where each phrase has a great meaning and where the right hand, although slow, is purely melodic. It anticipates music that has been written more than a century since – Mahler and Schoenberg, to name just two – but is still recognisably of Beethoven’s time. We were hanging on each of Madžar’s notes here, as he slowly traversed each section to set himself up for the mighty fugue. The unhurried phrases unfurled with natural ease, and the thoughtfulness and deep seated feeling could be sensed just from watching his movements.

The last movement Introduzione (35:32) began with a strong sense of anticipation, leading up to the big fugue (38:14). This took a little while to straighten itself out – to be fair it must be an incredibly difficult switch in the mind to go from a period of such stillness to rapid movement – but once Madžar had settled on a tempo it gathered considerable momentum. The end, when it came, was fulsome and thrilling.

An encore in this context was risky but the choice was ideal – the Allemande from Bach’s Partita no.1 in B flat major (from 49:30-53:02). Carefully chosen in the same key, it shows to some extent the Hammerklavier’s past.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert in a powerhouse of a recording from Emil Gilels, paired below with what is commonly regarded as the first of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas, the A major work published as Op.101.