It is not a bad time to like Beethoven's piano sonatas. András Schiff is in the middle of his cycle, Paul Lewis has put out a couple sets, and now Mitsuko Uchida has joined the game. Her 2006 set of the last three sonatas, opp. 109, 110, and 111, was pretty darned good. Her new disc, opp. 101 and 106, continues the cycle. I'll say this now, I really hope that she isn't backing in to a complete set. Frankly, starting at the end doesn't do much justice to the stylistic and technical changes that Beethoven made. It is nice to see a progression from the Pathetique to the Waldstein to the Hammerklavier to op.111. That's a minor gripe, and I suppose you don't have to listen to the discs in order of recording.
Uchida's Hammerklavier is very nice indeed, though I think that she approaches the sonata in a fairly traditional way. Indeed, of the recordings I have and listen to, she puts me in mind (mind you, for the first few notes) of no one more than Glenn Gould. That might seem like high praise until you remember that Gould wasn't fond of the Hammerklavier and dithered around before finally doing a radio performance. I don't want to call the style awkward, but there is a mannered reticence to Uchida's (and Gould's) approach. It mostly centers around the low A right before the B-flat major chords. Gilels, among others, didn't see the need to articulate it terribly clearly. They seem to want to maintain fidelity to the score and a precise articulation, which slows that down a little bit. François-Frédéric Guy, on Naïve, by contrast slams through that opening passage.
Uchida, too, is consonant with Gould in the timing of the Adagio. There are, necessarily, some differences in style, but - broadly speaking - they approach the piece broadly. I think that one must be careful, especially with a piece like the Hammerklavier, to avoid falling into echt-Romantic schmaltz. Drawing the Adagio out, to my mind, does sort of bring us close to that sort of showy, candelabra Beethoven: that is, not a conclusion earnestly to be desired. Uchida and Gould both shine, with their senses of counterpoint and vocal/rhythmic articulation, though Gould was the unquestioned master, in the great fugue of the fourth section. Coming out of the Adagio, the fugue is all the more interesting and brilliant. Indeed, I might assert that the Hammerklavier becomes Beethoven's greatest piano sonata based on the fourth movement. I am, though, often partial to the Waldstein sonata.
This is a valuable contribution to the recorded literature, so to speak, on the Hammerklavier. I am still partial to Paul Lewis' set on Harmonia Mundi, but Uchida makes a nice case for her interpretation. Her style is relatively agreeable, even if I find myself wishing Glenn Gould had liked this sonata more, or that the Decca set of Wilhelm Backhaus' complete Beethoven sonatas were more readily available. This is not a first choice: for that Gilels is the best option, but it should make it into the buying rotation sooner or later. It will be, then, all the better if Uchida completes her cycle. She doesn't always get it perfect, but she makes a case all the same.