I recall buying Beethoven’s late sonatas with Paul Badura Skoda on vinyl way back in 1980/81.The recordings were made between 1978 and 1989, Alas, the original Astree LPs/CDs were always hard to find, and never around for very long; blink and you’d missed them! But let me digress...
In 1976/7, Maurizio Pollini recorded Beethoven’s late sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon – a release that set fresh standards, both musically and sonically. Pollini offered Olympian interpretations, with amazingly clear fingerwork. Aided by DG’s bright detailed sound, his set was something to marvel at.
While Badura-Skoda’s technique was never comparable to a virtuoso like Pollini, his playing of the late Beethoven sonatas (Pollini notwithstanding) made a deep impression on me – not least because of the deliciously-luminous translucent sound of his 1824 Conrad Graf fortepiano.
This instrument was used for the five late sonatas (Op 101 to Op 111) recorded between 1978 and 1980. Sonatas Op 78 and Op 90 (recorded in 1980) were played on a Viennese fortepiano made by Georg Hasska (c1815), and that was it for a while.
The next set of sessions took place in 1985, and the cycle was finally completed in 1989. A total of 7 different fortepianos (from six makers) were used, and each instrument sounded very individual and highly characterful. Badura-Skoda’s playing was likewise characterful, and always interesting.
These early pianos do not sound as refined and sonorous as a modern concert grand, but that’s the point! There’s something bracingly-authentic about the silvery tonality (and occasional roughness) of these period instruments that brings you closer to Beethoven’s sound-world.
Listening, you better-sense the struggle that went into the composition of each sonata. Highlights include extremely good performances of the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas. It sounds as though Badura-Skoda had played these works many times; he really has them in his fingers.
Although the cycle covered an eleven year period, the recorded sound is very consistent in terms of technical quality. The late sonatas (recorded first) are definitely analogue. But whether the later recordings from 1985-9 were analogue or digital isn’t stated.
Where there seem to be variations in sound quality, much of the time this can be put down to sonic differences between the individual instruments themselves. The chosen venue was the Baumgartner Casino in Vienna, and the balance presents each piano fairly close-up and immediate.
This closeness means you sometimes hear a few rattles and buzzes. But the lighter sharper tone of these period pianos really clarifies Beethoven’s densest writing. The tangy resonant low notes never blur the sound. Beethoven’s scrumptious boogie-woogie bass parts are revealed in all their glory!
Of course, it’s fanciful to state that this is what Beethoven must’ve wanted, or even how his own playing might’ve sounded. Yet listening to Badura-Skoda, it’s easy imagine yourself in a dimly-lit room eavesdropping on LvB himself - as he manfully grapples with these often knotty sonatas.
Of the various instruments, the Conrad Graff and John Broadwood instruments sound really good, while the Georg Hasska (disc 6) seems a touch more flawed – less luminous in tone and a bit ‘noisy’ in terms of the action. The sonatas on each disc are played with a single instrument.
All come from Badura-Skoda’s own personal collection of period pianos. Makers range from Beethoven’s own favourite John Broadwood (London), to Conrad Graf, Johann Schantz, Georg Hasska, and Anton Walther (Vienna), and Caspar Schmidt (Prague)
The booklet that comes with the set is unusually comprehensive. 68 pages in English-only, with detailed notes on each sonata by the distinguished Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich. There are colour photographs of each instrument, and the soloist.
Today, the market for complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas is an immensely crowded one; considerably more-so since Badura-Skoda started this recording over 40 years ago. Back then, his accounts of the late sonatas really stood apart, and they still do today. Not bad!
Despite many others having trodden the same path, these performances remain hugely enjoyable. Hopefully this set will be around for years to come, but – with CD rapidly becoming an endangered species – don’t bank on it. It will probably disappear for good once the original print run sells out...