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Album of the Week: Maurizio Pollini, 'Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas'

York Christoph Riccius
Deutsche Grammophon

What is maturity? Is it merely a function of age?

Mauricio Pollini, who just turned 81, invites us to consider the full dimensions of that question in Beethoven: The Late Sonatas Opp. 101 & 106, his assured and insightful new album on Deutsche Grammophon.

Beethoven wrote these sonatas, respectively, at 46 and 48 years of age. They show a depth of maturity that baffled his contemporaries. In fact, the Op. 106, known as the “Hammerklavier,” was initially thought to be unplayable. It wasn’t until virtuoso Franz Liszt performed it publicly 14 years later in Paris that the full scope of this work was known, prompting Hector Berlioz to write that Liszt “had made comprehensible a work not yet comprehended.”

Beethoven’s deafness made the composition of the deeply complicated “Hammerklavier” less of a performance piece for him and more of a mental exercise, bringing the composer to express new depths of feeling and truly breaking away from most of what he had written before. There’s a story about piano manufacturer John Broadwood sending Beethoven his latest and best instrument, and Beethoven, understanding the possibilities of this new piano, being inspired to write the “Hammerklavier.” In fact, the name by which the piece is known today comes from the instructions the composer wrote on the manuscript: “Grosse Sonata fur das Hammerklavier” — for the hammer-keyboard or fortepiano, rather than harpsichord.

Pollini first tackled these late Beethoven works in his late 1970s recordings, when he was in his 30s, younger than the composer was when he wrote them. “Every Beethoven piano sonata is a different world,” attests Pollini today, having recorded all of them over the course of his career. “He finds a different character in each one, from the first to the last.”

In a press statement for Deutsche Grammophon, Pollini further reflects: “Op. 101 is very free. Every movement is incredibly different to anything Beethoven had written before, and it’s a great challenge to understand and play it. It’s a surprise for the listener and for the player. The opening is one of the moments where Beethoven is free in this sonata. And the fugue is very strange and absolutely new for his writing.”

It’s always fascinating when a performer revisits a work after so many years, and the ensuing 40 or so years have given Pollini’s interpretation of these late sonatas a more contemplative approach. Interestingly, he plays them a little faster, but no less accurately. He seems to take risks that he may not have taken before. The album was recorded in the Herkulessaal in Munich over the past two years. The acoustics are impressive, with a crisp, warm sound.

Pollini, who has suffered health problems in the last decade, has been inconsistent in his live performances. But his recordings, which some say can be overly analytical and even cold, hark back to his top performances of the 1970s. This album in particular shows the depth of his musicality and the maturity of not only his 81 years, but of his willingness to take a few chances, not unlike those of the composer who brought us these startling sonatas over 200 years ago.

Mauricio Pollini's Beethoven: The Late Sonatas Opp. 101 & 106 is now available on Deutsche Grammophon; buy it here.

A veteran broadcaster, Kevin garnered a wealth of experience in radio before taking the weekday classical host position from 2 to 6 PM at WRTI, where he was on the air until his retirement in March 2023.