The 32: part 12, the Hammerklavier.

…actually, it is a great painting

Like a lot of other students, mostly male, I read Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider. In some ways it’s a remarkable achievement, written in the mid 1950;s, it’s a self-educated ramble through literature, plays, music, philosophy and religion. There’s a lot of slightly self conscious quoting from the likes of Herman Hesse, TE Lawrence, Albert Camus etc, all revolving around the theme of the alienated brainy existentialist, no doubt partly autobiographical. It was all the rage then, and probably still is in a certain set, judging by the Amazon reviews.

To be honest, rereading parts of it, while it’s still a good pointer to books worth reading, such as Dostoevsky, a lot of it is a bit arch and cringing. One short paragraph caught my imagination though, back in 1984, and had a lasting impact on me:

There is a premonition of such a faculty in Van Gogh’s Green Cornfield and Road with Cypresses; there is a premonition in the last movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, as well as certain canvasses of Gaugin, and page after page of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Outsider believes that he can establish such a way of seeing permanently in himself. But how?

Hmm…yes, sort of I suppose…well, gobbledegook actually. But one thing stuck: what on earth was Beethoven’s fantastically named Hammerklavier sonata?

I had already been switched on to the extraordinary nature of Beethoven’s music by an eye opening chance encounter with a box set of the Nine Symphonies, conducted by the less well known Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt. I’d had a taste of the piano sonatas courtesy of a budget disc (this was all in the LP days, kids) of Wilhelm Kempff playing the three hits: Moonlight, Pathetique and Appassionata sonatas, so I was prepared, sort of.

So, back in 1984 I was standing in a branch of John Menzies – now defunct – and handed over a ridiculously expensive £5.99, for a copy of Emil Gilels playing the Hammerklavier, piano sonata in B flat, op 106.  Forty five minutes of pure piano music. I played it once: rousing opening chords, then a lurching aggressive opening movement, a spiky short scherzo, a totally inaccessible mysterious slow movement, a weird little transition then the most demented, monstrous and overwhelming final fugue. To this day I’ve never heard anything remotely like it, other than other Beethoven.

The trouble was, I didn’t like it that much. It wasn’t bland, in fact it was the least bland thing that I’d ever heard, and it wasn’t boring. It was just

.

difficult to get into: too long, too challenging, not enough tunes. However, I resolved to play it, again and again, until I got it. The more I read of the piano literature, the more I realised that this was the big one, in every way.

I now must have about 40 different recordings of it. I get it all, and can anticipate every note. The fugue is still a mighty runaway juggernaut, but the adagio, that’s still elusive. I’ve yet to hear it when I can follow the thread all the way through, no wandering off, no switching off, but one day I will. The word that sums it up is an unappealing one in some ways: struggle. It’s tough on the pianist and the listener, it’s hard to encompass it all, and in these days of technical piano wizardry, it has to sound like the pianist is fighting all through it in some way, although not with the notes. A sense of battle and exhaustion. And you have to be technically superb to play it.

So, recommendations apart from Gilels? Well, Glenn Gouldrecorded it twice, but despite the Gouldisms, which I normally like, it’s not quite there.

Last month, a new face, HJ Lim got a few rave reviews.  The best all rounder of them all, Richter, is always reliable. The Guardian, a few years ago, offered their own take.

However, for me the palm goes to the finest living member of the old guard, although recorded when he was only 35.  Maurizio Pollini in a classic set on Deutsche Grammophon. Pollini is still the pianist everyone wants to see, but it’s getting  harder to do so. He cancelled this month’s US tour for health reasons, and he’s now 70. But he plays everything, 20th century unlistenables all the way back to Bach. He’s also a very interesting individual on any number of levels, and a chain smoker.

If you’ve never tried it, then don’t expect to like it straight away. But it is utterly brilliant, the highest point of classical piano.

***Telegraph Blogs editor Damian Thompson, by an amazing coincidence, offers similar thoughts here, and he’s absolutely right.

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