Magnificent Landscapes: Beethoven's Last Piano Sonatas

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BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 30; No. 31; No. 32 • Penelope Crawford (fp) • MUSICA OMNIA 0308 (64:30) Although Ann Arbor-based Penelope Crawford is widely...

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 30; No. 31; No. 32 Penelope Crawford (fp) MUSICA OMNIA 0308 (64:30)

Although Ann Arbor-based Penelope Crawford is widely regarded as one of the leading American fortepianists, she has made relatively few recordings for an artist of her stature. Blame it on the vicissitudes and dog-eat-dog nature of the record business, I guess. Her reputation is built largely upon live concerts, both solo and chamber music, also as a result of her many years of teaching at the University of Michigan and at the summer Baroque Performance Institute in Oberlin, Ohio. Rare as the concerts are, they are eagerly awaited events attended by her many friends, fans, and former students.

Aside from Crawford’s chamber-music recordings, I know of only two solo discs on the Titanic and Loft labels, and these appeared as long ago as the early ’90s. Since 2002, Boston-based Musica Omnia and its director, Peter Watchorn, have been quietly rectifying that situation by recording Crawford and the Atlantis Ensemble—Jaap Schroeder is the violinist of this group—in performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. The present CD is the first newly recorded solo disc from Crawford to be issued on Musica Omnia, and it’s a winner.

I don’t normally take notice of cover art, but in this case the painting reproduced on the booklet cover ( Der Watzmann by Caspar David Friedrich) is worth mentioning. In the spirit of Friedrich’s fanciful Alpine landscape, the title Magnificent Landscapes has been appended to the CD, and this is an apt description of both the music and the playing. Beethoven’s three final sonatas are some of the densest, thorniest music around; they require a pianist with flawless technique and consummate interpretative skills. Penelope Crawford has these qualities in spades, as we shall see.

The instrument used in this recording has a fascinating story. The six-and-a-half-octave grand piano was built by Conrad Graf of Vienna around 1835, presumably for a noble Swedish family. That’s where it turned up at auction in 1940; a retired schoolteacher was motivated to outbid another family when she heard that the instrument was going to be converted into a dining room table! Eventually the piano made its way to the United States, where it was acquired by Edward Swenson, who restored it to playing condition. Crawford purchased the instrument in 1994.

The instrument has a wonderfully warm, well-balanced sound, with nary a trace of action noise—at first, you might not recognize it as a fortepiano. The upper treble is voiced down ever so slightly, which shifts the tonal balance toward the middle and lower registers. The characteristic crisp dampening and treble woodiness of a Viennese fortepiano are there; some find these qualities objectionable. I prefer to think of it as furnishing the ideal tonal characteristics for late Beethoven. Just as the brilliance of a Steinway is ideal for Ravel, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff, the subtle richness of a Graf is the exact quality needed for Beethoven (and Schubert and Schumann).

Just for fun, I compared Crawford’s rendition of the three last sonatas with that of Ronald Brautigam on BIS, not yet reviewed by Fanfare as of this writing. Usually one associates American pianists with fire and brilliance, European pianists with warmth and Innigkeit— to make a sweeping generalization for which there are many, many exceptions. But in this case the tables are tuned: Brautigam’s characteristically fast tempos and brighter-sounding fortepiano gloss over the deeper aspects of the music at times, whereas Crawford achieves the kind of depth of expression that one expects from a Wilhelm Kempff or Artur Schnabel. A perfect example is the final movement to op. 109, marked by the composer Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung . You know that when Beethoven demands “the most heartfelt expression,” the pianist must deliver, and Crawford achieves some of the most deeply considered, soulful fortepianism that you’re likely to hear. Using subtle modifications of dynamics and articulation, plus the Moderator stop at one point, she provides a finely shaded example of how late Beethoven should be played. The amiable A?-Major sonata and the dramatic C Minor benefit in equal measure—simply stunning.

The piano is recorded fairly close up but quite believably. Handsome packaging, including an excellent essay on the music, completes the picture. If you haven’t guessed by now, this is my preferred version by a country mile.

FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 10, 2010

  • UPC: 801890030821

  • Catalog Number: MO0308

  • Label: Musica Omnia

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Performer: Penelope Crawford