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Ludwig van Beethoven
Complete Piano Sonatas
Gerard Willems, Piano
Stuart & Sons Piano

Review By Phil Gold
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Ludwig van Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas

CD Label: ABC 465 077-2

 

  This is a three-volume set of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas by the Dutch-born Australian pianist Gerard Willems. The recordings were made between July 1997 and February 2000 in the Auditorium of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music.

The name Gerard Willems may not be familiar to you. He is a senior lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium at Sidney University and a highly respected Beethoven scholar. In 1968 he won the prestigious Queen Victoria piano competition before completing advanced keyboard studies in Munich under Greville Rothon. He made his international debut in London in 1974 before performing throughout Europe as both soloist and lieder accompanist. His recordings include the complete Mozart piano trios, and he gives frequent master classes.

According to Producer Brendan Ward, it took him six months to convince Willems to record the entire Beethoven sonata cycle. "His one condition when succumbing to my persistence, that he would only record the sonatas on the Stuart & Sons piano, was a masterstroke. Like Beethoven, the Stuart piano is revolutionary. For a challenging project like this, the unity between artist and instrument is paramount". Willems himself adds "Of course we'll never know whether the symphonic sound of the Stuart piano approximates the sounds Beethoven developed in his inner ear once he became deaf. I believe the extra dimension of sound produced by the Stuart could represent the tones and colors Beethoven imagined."

What is a Stuart piano?

"Stuart & Sons pianos are designed and individually hand-crafted in Australia. They have been praised by music experts throughout the world for their sustaining qualities, tonal clarity and dynamic range. Wayne Stuart studied his craft with leading manufacturers in Europe and Japan and has spent half a lifetime developing his concept for a new direction in piano making. His principal achievement is the bridge agraffe, a sophisticated string coupling device designed to maintain the vertical mode of vibration produced when the hammer strikes the string."

"Compared to standard piano tone, these new instruments demonstrate a dramatic improvement in tuning and internal damping of the string's decay transient. Stuart & Sons pianos take advantage of modern materials such as zirconia, ceramics and stainless steel, as well as Australian timbers including King William pine, hoop pine and red cedar. The cabinet of the piano featured on the cover (Stuart & Sons 100) is veneered in rare Birdseye Huon pine, cut from an ancient log salvaged from a creek bed in rugged south-west Tasmania."

"Stuart & Sons pianos are an important research and development initiative of the University of Newcastle's Faculty of Music. The instruments have eight octaves (F21.8268 to f5587.6517 hertz) and four pedals: sostenuto, sostenuto a scelta, dolce muto and dolce (which reduces striking distance and key depth)." For more detail see Stuart And Sons.

You may be wondering why I'm telling you this. A piano is just a piano, isn't it? Sure, there are differences between Faziolis and Steinways, or between Bechsteins and Yamahas. There are significant differences between different Steinways, and even a single Steinway can be set to sound distinct by piano technicians. The most convincing demonstration in my experience came from Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who rebuilt his own Steinway to sound far more beautiful and clear than any other piano I've heard in live performance.

But the Stuart piano has a completely different sound, and is capable of a range of color and dynamics far beyond normal experience. A Steinway seems positively monochromatic by comparison. The Stuart has a ringing treble and a thunderous bass coupled with an outstanding clarity of texture. I revel in the sound of this glorious instrument. There is not the wonderful evenness of tone the best Steinways are capable of through long runs. The color of the instrument changes through the octaves, but this, together with the four pedals and enormous dynamic range, makes the Stuart better able to convey the symphonic aspirations of many of Beethoven's sonatas.

The recorded sound is very clean, dynamic and natural, but I have two reservations. First I find too much separation between the left and right channel. Second the left and right channels have been reversed, with the bass notes coming from the right speaker, the treble from the left. A final reservation concerns the instrument itself. There are some jangling resonances on certain high notes when attacked at maximum ferocity, especially on Stuart 100. Three Stuart pianos are used on this recording. Stuart & Sons 100 is the first Stuart piano, and a very grand dynamic instrument it is. Stuart & Sons 101 is a smaller-scale instrument and is featured on some of the early sonatas, while Stuart's fourth piano, the Stuart & Sons 103 is featured on the Pathétique and the Hammerklavier sonatas.

Now to the performances themselves. I have steeped myself in this set for a period of months. I deferred any note taking until my ears had a chance to adjust to the vivid colorful soundscape and superior articulation and clarity of the instruments. I have extensive notes on each sonata now, many accompanied by blow-by-blow comparisons with versions by Rubinstein, Gilels, Richer, Brendel, Perahia and Kuerti. I might have divided my review into three, one for each three-disc album. But having lived with these recordings long enough to be over the shock of the new, I am now convinced that Gerard Willems does not rank with the other pianists in my collections, and it would be unfair to detail the reasons why at length. While a most capable technician, Willems doesn't have the basic pulse of Beethoven; the fundamental beat against which to introduce the subtlest rubato that brings poetry to the score. This pulse is also what separates a great actor from his peers, enabling Kenneth Branagh to breath new life into Shakespeare's Henry V. It's hard to define it, but you know it when you see (and hear) it.

There is a strange inconsistency to the playing. Willems can be masterful in one sonata and fail to persuade in the next sonata Beethoven wrote. One movement of a sonata can be superb, and the next dull. Let's examine two of the most deeply satisfying of all the sonatas, Opus 106 and Opus 111. Willems does very well with Opus 106, the Hammerklavier. The first movement begins well, taken at an ideal tempo. His intellectual grasp is superb, and he revels in the spiky nature of the writing. The second movement is excellent too, and the Stuart piano is a great boon to the recording since its symphonic tonal palette can paint a very broad and varied canvass of color and dynamics. The third movement is sonorous and well proportioned, but it misses the grandeur of Gilels and the poetry and spark of Brendel. Some of the rhythmic shape is lost here, and the pianist seems to lose his way around the ten-minute mark, although he recovers momentum a few minutes later. The fourth movement opens well with the improvisatory bridge into the fugal passage, but then the temperature drops and the trills, terrifying from Gilels, hold no danger here. He builds the tension as the movement proceeds, but his playing lacks that quicksilver quality so necessary here, and the climax is powerful but not overwhelming. Opus 111 should therefore be good fodder for Willems. But his violent first movement lacks an overall shape. The playing is full of fine details, contrasts, colors, but it doesn't cohere into a persuasive performance. Contrast this to Brendel in any of his three recordings. Brendel does so much more with less apparent effort. The music has poetry, majesty, surprise, humor, momentum, tension—then, finally, resolution. When you can play like this you are a great virtuoso. That word again: pulse. Brendel has it, Willems does not.

But there are glorious peaks to this Willems cycle, and you should know about them. At his best, with this magnificent piano, the result is irresistible. The first movement of the Pathétique is strong, bold, fast and exciting with fine voicing, the four-note motif sustained boldly against a vigorous treble run. The next two movements disappoint as Willems dissipates the tension he has set up. He needs to introduce more variation in weight and emphasis rather than constantly varying the speed. The finale needs a lighter touch and better phrasing to break up the foursquare nature of the playing. The Sonata Opus 54 shows Willems at his best throughout, although curiously the Stuart Piano does not shine here as in other sonatas. Instead we have sunny, direct playing, well shaped and poetic at last. If he played this well throughout I could recommend the complete set.

The Moonlight Sonata is beautifully played, showcasing the instrument's singing tone and robust bass. The long heavenly line is sustained throughout the first movement. The second movement is lacking in grace and momentum, while more breathing space would improve the finale, as would greater freedom of dynamics. Opus 109 is a joy throughout. The first movement is clear and spacious with biting right hand shards. The piano is extraordinary—high-note power without clipping, and sparkling with life. The second movement shows of the superb bass, and the rhythms are well sprung. The finale sustains a good momentum, and Willems' phrasing is at its best here. The piano has the power to shock. The syncopated playing around 4m15s is delightful, and Willems offers a fine range of touch and color. He copes well with the fugal writing. Each part emerges clearly, and the last variation is particularly successful, with the bell sounds emerging clearly above the fray.

If you are a Beethoven aficionado, this set cannot be recommended over the many cycles already on the market. Arrau, Kempff, Schnabel, Brendel and Barenboim are simply in another class. I would also strongly recommend Rubinstein, Pollini, Gilels, Solomon and Perahia for single discs or collections. But the Stuart & Sons pianos are an experience you shouldn't miss, and I recommend that you pick up at least one of these volumes if you want to experience what all the fuss is about. Volume Three would be my first choice, since you can hear the Stuart & Sons 103 piano and the Hammerklavier sonata.

Now if we can only persuade one of the world's great virtuosi to try his or her hand with a Stuart & Sons piano, we will all be the richer for it. I'm sure designers at the other major piano manufacturers must be sitting up and taking notice.

 

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