Ludwig Van Beethoven: The Last Six Piano Sonatas
William, Meredith, The Beethoven Journal
"Ludwig van Beethoven: The Last Six Piano Sonatas" (and the Rondos, Opus 51 ). Peter Serkin, "play[ing] on a Graf fortepiano." Musical Concepts MC 122. Originally recorded for ProArte Digital in 1984-1985 (Opuses 109-111 originally on ProArte CDD 362; Opuses 51, 90, 101 on ProArte LP PAD 111 ; Opus 106 on ProArte LP PAD 181). Two discs. Opus 51, no. 1: 5:24; Opus 51, no. 2: 10:33; Opus 90: 12:00; Opus 101: 20:28; Opus 106: 42:08; Opus 109: 19:48; Opus 110: 20:32; Opus 111: 27:53. Recorded at St. Mary's Chapel, St. Paul Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Liner notes by Harris Goldsmith. ©2007. $14.99.
This remarkable set of the late sonatas performed on fortepiano more than warrants reissue on compact discs, especially as the price is unbeatable. Unfortunately, the liner notes are somewhat cavalier about the "Graf" fortepiano used for the recording, besides noting that it belongs to the Schubert Club of Minneapolis. And the Schubert Club's website (though hosting a fascinating short sound file of their copy of a 1726 fortepiano by Bartolomeo Cristofori commissioned by The Schubert Club Museum from David Sutherland of Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1997) does not contain information on the instrument recorded here. Via phone to the Schubert Club, I discovered that, while the instrument is officially listed as "attributed to Graf," has a name plate with Conrad Grafs name, and has been dated to 1824/25, its authenticity as a Graf fbrtepiano has been questioned because of some aspects of the construction of the case and other matters.
For those unfamiliar with this famous builder, a biographical introduction is in order. Graf was born in Württemberg in 1782, founded his own fbrtepiano building business in 1804 in a Viennese suburb, moved it to the cityproper in 1811, and was given the honorary tide "Imperial Royal Court Fbrtepiano Maker" in 1824 in recognition of the quality of his instruments. Indeed, as !Deborah Wyrhe, author of an important dissertation on Graf, concludes, "Grafs instruments represent the culmination of the Viennese classical era of piano building in the style of J A Stein and Anton Walther" (Grove Online). Graf, a remarkably prosperous property owner, businessman, and art collector, sold his business in 1840 to Carl Stein, grandson of the famous builder JA Stein, and died in Vienna in 1851. Graf s instruments were justly praised and highly appraised in the first half of the nineteenth century; it was not uncommon for instruments to be intentionally mislabeled. (Indeed, if you compare the label on the Schubert Club Graf to the label on Beethoven's "loaner" Grafwhich can be viewed on the Beethoven-Haus's admirable website-the Schubert Club label is suspiciously unadorned.) Whoever the builder, however, the instrument has a gorgeous 182Os sound, particularly regarding both the typically Viennese differences between bass, middle, and treble registers (a point to which I return below) and the clarity of the sound.
Listening to Beethoven's music on a Graf (or Graf-like) instrument makes sense because, as is well known, the composer had a quadruplestrung Graf fbrtepiano on loan from the builder from sometime in 1825 (possibly September) until his death. (Graf hastily retrieved the instrument after Beethoven died, no doubt because so many of Beethoven possessions were being "claimed.") It used to be thought that the quadruple stringing was an experiment to help the deaf composer hear the instrument, but we now know that Graf built other quadruple-strung fbrtepianos as he experimented with ways to increase the volume of his instruments.
But, we should ask, is the Graf the best fbrtepiano of the time for the realization of the late sonatas? Was it the instrument Beethoven had in mind or in his inner ear? To answer these questions, it's worth reminding ourselves of the late sonatas' dates of composition: the Sonata in E Minor/Major, Opus 90, was composed in 1814; the Sonata in A Major, Opus 101, in 1816; the Sonata in B-flat Major, Opus 106, in 1817-18; the Sonata in E Major, Opus 109, in 1820; and the Sonatas in A-flat Major, Opus 110, and C Minor/Major, Opus 111, in 1821-22. …