Interview in Fanfare Magazine:
BEETHOVEN Late Piano Sonatas: op. 90–111 Niklas Sivelöv (pn) AMC/AMCHARA Classical 002 (2 CDs 141:21)
In his fiftieth year the widely praised Swedish pianist Niklas Sivelöv has arrived at the right time to interpret Beethoven’s last six piano sonatas. When musicians are fortunate enough to reach a depth of maturity (many don’t), one hears poise, understanding, restraint, and a kind of humility before the score that are hallmarks of the playing on these two discs. In the early 1820s, the period when Beethoven composed op. 109, 110, and 111, he struggled to finish the Missa solemnis, and one wonders what his inner life had become. None of those pieces displays a moment of conformity, musically speaking, and given Beethoven’s insurmountable physical ailments, isolation, deafness, and growing irascibility, perhaps we honor him by not being able to penetrate the music’s eccentricities.
Pianists must contend not only with the strangeness of the late sonatas and their sometimes immense technical difficulties, but also with an emotional range that extends from innocent, almost childlike lyricism (the opening of op. 101), thunderous defiance (the first movement of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata), and a yearning for transcendence (the finales of every late sonata after op. 90). The feeling, shared by many commentators and performers, is that this is music that wants to reach beyond the bounds of mortal existence. How personal anguish yielded up sublime transcendence is the ultimate secret of these scores.
If I risk straining for eloquence, Sivelöv achieves it with apparent ease, another gift of maturity. In the gliding lyricism of the finale of op. 90, for example, he lifts the melody in a gentle soaring, incorporating Beethoven’s tremolos and accents smoothly so as not to interrupt the mood. Because his handling of op. 90 and op. 101, which begins the program, is moderate, I was a bit apprehensive that the qualities I shy away from in Kempff and Brendel (detachment, understatement, a hesitancy to absorb the turbulent and heroic side of Beethoven) might resurface here. But a better comparison would be Solomon and Clifford Curzon, or more recently Paul Lewis, where a reluctance to push forward the pianist’s personality sits comfortably with instinctive understanding of what the music wants to say.
Anyone experienced in the recorded legacy of these works will be impressed, I think, by how masterfully Sivelöv manages the treacherous first movement of the “Hammerklavier.” There’s no sign of disjointedness thanks to his subtle feeling for rubato and phrase-making. Fierce declamations are delivered with powerful, rounded tone that never turns to banging or hectoring. The pianist finds a satisfying through-line amid all the severe juxtapositions that are typical of late Beethoven. That Sivelöv melds these disparate abilities so seamlessly speaks to a very high level of musicianship.
Everything one wants in an outstanding Beethoven interpreter is here: a resolute rhythmic pulse, vibrant momentum in the Scherzos, a feeling for the dignity of the slow movements, and the ability to sustain the line in those timeless finales. Sivelöv is also fortunate to be playing a very full, vivid-sounding piano, captured with lifelike fidelity in the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen; the recordings were made from 2014 to 2016 but sound completely consistent. My only small complaint is that the close miking, which puts us inside the piano, feels a touch dry.
It’s moving to hear a pianist who can play so convincingly from inside the music. The program notes to this release quote a line from the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, who was born the same year as Beethoven but outlined him by a decade and a half: “… no one can wipe from my brow, no one, the sorrowful dream in which I must wander.” The words seem to speak for Beethoven between 1814 and 1822, the pan of the late piano sonatas. His sorrowful dream at times veered into delusion, as in his obsessive clinging to his nephew Karl and his lover’s fantasies, usually centered on unattainable women who were aristocratic or much younger. But biography barely suggests what was unfolding in the primary dream of his life, which was musical.
I’ll return to these performances many times, I suspect. That Sivelöv has no lack of virtuoso technique was exhibited in his recording of Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and the “Eroica” (Naxos) and the finale of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, which can be heard on the pianist’s personal website (www.sivelov.com). He is also a composer and notable improviser, and at his website is a short delicate improvisation on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.