An Unusual Approach to the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata by Aleksandar Madžar

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Aleksandar Madžar (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 26.2.2018. (CC)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in B flat, Op. 106, ‘Hammerklavier’

One might not naturally think of Beethoven’s mighty ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata as lunchtime fare; perhaps the Wigmore Hall season programmers had that in mind when they selected Aleksandar Madžar as their pianist for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital. If there is an axis for Beethoven’s infamous sonata, on one end would sit Pollini and Gilels, granitic and unbending; at the other would sit Madžar who, certainly in the first two movements, took the piece to remarkable places.

A member of the faculty at the Royal Flemish Conservatoire in Brussels, Belgrade-born Aleksandar Madžar offers thoughtful interpretations, on the strength of this performance. The perilous opening leap of the first movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’ was taken by the left-hand only (so many pianists split it between the hands, an easy way out that takes away the tension) but was remarkably careful. One might want to describe most of the first movement as ‘beautiful’, with a simply lovely sound from the Steinway, but with tension at a real low. No doubting that counterpoint was on Madžar’s mind, as lines came through with great clarity, but the rigorous counterpoint so characteristic of late Beethoven only appeared, briefly, in the development section. One listened enrapt at the excellence of the even internal trills (another late Beethoven trait); but whether one was in any way gripped by any sense of dynamism was another matter entirely. The slow tempo for the Scherzo only acted as a prolongation of what, at this point, threatened to be a most somnambulistic ‘Hammerklavier’. Again, one revelled in the clarity of some sections and in the wateriness of others: bass triplets sounded with a wonderful clarity as well as atmosphere, before Madžar descended once more into musical navel-gazing.

Things improved from then on, but the Adagio sostenuto could not function now as contrast. Instead, we moved from soft to softer. Madžar’s imagination here bore fruit in the wonderful bass staccatos and a low-pedal approach that seemed to emphasise the daring writing; unsurprisingly, bass melodies had a proper cantabile. The finale’s Fugue had a subject given with a beautifully even touch; one did wish for more grit to some of the more daringly sparse textures, but nevertheless it was the final two movements that provided the value of this interpretation.

How many pianists encore after ‘Hammerklavier’? Madžar did, with the ‘Allemande’ from Bach’s B flat Partita (No.1), apparently in no arrangement but so drenched in pedal it could have been a piece of proto-Impressionism.

Colin Clarke

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days from the date of transmission.

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