The last time I heard American pianist Nicholas Angelich playing Beethoven was in a superb performance of the Diabelli Variations, in which his assertive temperament went in tandem with a powerful overview of the work. This seriousness of purpose was again evident in the first of his two contributions to BBC Radio 3’s increasingly involving Beethoven Sonata cycle.
The C minor Sonata may not be as expansive as Beethoven’s two other sonatas in the same key, but it is no less dramatic. Angelich fired off the spiky broken chords of the opening with explosive precision, and the restless atmosphere didn’t subside in the finger-twisting finale. In between, he treated the elaborate decorations of the Adagio with a fine awareness of their accumulative expressiveness. The emotional range of the Sonata is pretty uncomplicated, and it was well served by Angelich’s incisive, clearly imagined performance.
On a rather larger scale is Opus 26, the only one of the 32 sonatas to open with a variation movement, and with a funeral march honouring the death of an unspecified hero. Again, Angelich had a fine appreciation of the tact with which the first four variations expand and contract, then open out into the fifth, final, commentary, the first instance of Beethoven’s piano-writing piling on resonating textures, to be explored to such transcendent effect in the late piano works, and played here with masterly refinement. Angelich kept the dynamic level on a short leash, with a light foot on the pedal, and the mood was spacious. There’s a temptation to treat the scherzo ‘molto explosivo’ as well as molto allegro. Angelich was impressively fast, but otherwise saw it as an interlude to the eloquent monotony of the funeral march, which he played with a discreetly romantic gravitas
, an orchestral colour range (some grandly sonorous drum rolls) and an impressive sonic visualisation of the funeral cortege’s approach and disappearance. You half expect the moto perpetuo
finale to fulfil the same sort of haunting brief as the finale to Chopin’s ‘funeral march’ Sonata, but Angelich lightened up considerably to make it some of Beethoven’s most carefree music.
The first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ held no surprises in terms of tempo or unusual emphases, and its mournful elements were finely veiled and impressionistic; Angelich took full advantage of the urgency and grandeur of the finale in some overtly virtuoso playing. Angelich’s style may seem rather dour, but that was not borne out by what you heard. His playing was full of colour and expression, and he had a clear idea of the identities of these three very different sonatas.