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Fanfare Magazine

Huntley Dent

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 27, op. 90; No. 28, op. 101; No. 29, op. 106,
“Hammerklavier”; No. 30, op. 109; No. 31, op. 110; No. 32, op. 111 •Niklas Sivelöv (pn)
•AMC 002 (2 CDs: 141:21)

Beethoven: Late Sonatas
MP3 Music
AMC Amchara Classical

In his 50th year the widely praised Swedish pianist Niklas Sivelöv has arrived at the right
time to interpret Beethoven’s last six piano sonatas. When musicians are fortunate enough to
reach a depth of maturity (many don’t), one hears poise, understanding, restraint, and a kind
of humility before the score that are hallmarks of the playing on these two discs. In the early
1820s, the period when Beethoven composed op. 109, 110, and 111, he struggled to finish the
Missa solemnis, and one wonders what his inner life had become. None of those pieces
displays a moment of conformity, musically speaking, and given Beethoven’s
insurmountable physical ailments, isolation, deafness, and growing irascibility, perhaps we
honor him by not being able to penetrate the music’s eccentricities.

Pianists must contend not only with the strangeness of the late sonatas and their sometimes
immense technical difficulties, but also with an emotional range that extends from innocent,
almost childlike lyricism (the opening of op. 101), thunderous defiance (the first movement
of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata), and a yearning for transcendence (the finales of every late
sonata after op. 90). The feeling, shared by many commentators and performers, is that this is
music that wants to reach beyond the bounds of mortal existence. How personal anguish
yielded up sublime transcendence is the ultimate secret of these scores.

If I risk straining for eloquence, Sivelöv achieves it with apparent ease, another gift of
maturity. In the gliding lyricism of the finale of op. 90, for example, he lifts the melody in a
gentle soaring, incorporating Beethoven’s tremolos and accents smoothly so as not to
interrupt the mood. Because his handling of op. 90 and op. 101, which begins the program, is
moderate, I was a bit apprehensive that the qualities I shy away from in Kempff and Brendel
(detachment, understatement, a hesitancy to absorb the turbulent and heroic side of
Beethoven) might resurface here. But a better comparison would be Solomon and Clifford
Curzon, or more recently Paul Lewis, where a reluctance to push forward the pianist’s
personality sits comfortably with instinctive understanding of what the music wants to say.

Anyone experienced in the recorded legacy of these works will be impressed, I think, by how
masterfully Sivelöv manages the treacherous first movement of the “Hammerklavier.”
There’s no sign of disjointedness thanks to his subtle feeling for rubato and phrase-making.
Fierce declamations are delivered with powerful, rounded tone that never turns to banging
or hectoring. The pianist finds a satisfying through-line amid all the severe juxtapositions
that are typical of late Beethoven. That Sivelöv melds these disparate abilities so seamlessly
speaks to a very high level of musicianship.
Everything one wants in an outstanding Beethoven interpreter is here: a resolute rhythmic
pulse, vibrant momentum in the scherzos, a feeling for the dignity of the slow movements,
and the ability to sustain the line in those timeless finales. Sivelöv is also fortunate to be
playing a very full, vivid-sounding piano, captured with lifelike fidelity in the Royal
Academy of Music in Copenhagen; the recordings were made from 2014 to 2016 but sound
completely consistent. My only small complaint is that the close miking, which puts us inside
the piano, feels a touch dry.

It’s moving to hear a pianist who can play so convincingly from inside the music. The
program notes to this release quote a line from the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was born
the same year as Beethoven but outlined him by a decade and a half: “… no one can wipe
from my brow, no one, the sorrowful dream in which I must wander.” The words seem to
speak for Beethoven between 1814 and 1822, the pain of the late piano sonatas. His sorrowful
dream at times veered into delusion, as in his obsessive clinging to his nephew Karl and his
lover’s fantasies, usually centered on unattainable women who were aristocratic or much
younger. But biography barely suggests what was unfolding in the primary dream of his life,
which was musical.

I’ll return to these performances many times, I suspect. That Sivelöv has no lack of virtuoso
technique was exhibited in his recording of Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphony
No. 1 and the “Eroica” (Naxos) and the finale of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, which can
be heard on the pianist’s personal website (sivelov.com). He is also a composer and notable
improviser, and at his website is a short delicate improvisation on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano
Concerto. Huntley Dent

This article originally appeared in Issue 42:2 (Nov/Dec 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.
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