No. 8, the Pathetique, Op. 13
No. 17, the Tempest, Op. 31, No. 2
No. 31, Op. 110
Virginia Black Piano
This is an intelligent survey of the three main periods of Beethoven’s style, ranging from 1798 to 1821, but more importantly looking at how Romanticism developed out of the classical period.
It is always something of a surprise that the Pathetique is the earliest of them. Despite its care-worn elements of melancholy Beethoven was actually doing rather well in his career at this point so it is unwise to overlay too much biographical commentary. It is, however, a revolutionary work: out with elegance, in with rage and passion. In comparison, his contribution to the ‘sturm und drang’ fashion from four years later, the Tempest, is relatively mild – a minor whirlwind.
It is good to have Virginia Black on record again. Her career was interrupted by injury for a time but she is clearly back to her best. In many ways she is one of those unfussy but profound players to be thought of in the same bracket as Imogen Cooper, Mitsuko Uchido, Elizabeth Leonskaja and Angela Hewitt. There’s plenty of power when she needs it – the album has the title Power, Passion and Ecstasy – but nothing is forced. At no point does she try to make Beethoven sound like Prokofiev, which befits a performer who is just at home playing the harpsichord.
In her notes, she asks the listener ‘to be swept along by the emotion, to share in Beethoven’s passion, and to be consumed by it’. This she manages superbly in the first movement of the Pathetique and then achieves a true cantabile in the second movement, always moving forward, almost hummable. She resists the temptation to stop the music in its tracks and dwell too much. In her hands the sonata may have pathos but it avoids self-pity.
The most succesful interpretation is surely that of Op. 110. Black anchors its structure superbly, ensuring that the musical energy is always at the service of the overall shape – particularly important in the long final movement where the adagio is interrupted by repeated chords leading to the intricate fugue which might even have scared Bach.