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Alberto Portugheis plays Beethoven
at London's Foundling Museum,
reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER


There was an enthusiastic audience for the recital by Alberto Portugheis at London's Foundling Museum [6 November 2008] as part of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe series Beethoven and Youth. It was the second of two concerts devoted to Beethoven's Bonn works. The stimulating programme included all the early Bonn sonatas and so called Viennese sonatinas which date from Beethoven's youth -- yet also demonstrate the tremendous advance in style and expression which the composer underwent during his years of apprenticeship. The Bonn sonatas, usually referred to as the Kurfürsten sonatas, on account of their dedication to the Elector of Cologne, are included in the new edition of thirty-five sonatas produced by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and edited by Barry Cooper. They certainly show seeds of genius, in that both in general stylistic features and in specific strategies, Beethoven the eleven-year-old was experimenting with ideas that recur later in the mature works.

The influence of Mozart is always evident, as in the eloquent slow movement of the first sonata in E flat, projected with expressive nuance in Portugheis' resonant touch. Yet even here Beethoven the mature artist is anticipated, in the exploration of thematic unity -- the slow movement theme is a hidden variant of the first movement's bristling first subject. Here it was propelled with lively energy by Portugheis, leading to a driving development section which, while simple in design, showed an impressive grasp of sonata principle even at Beethoven's tender age. The final movement's horn-call rondo theme flowed delicately to round off this early masterwork.

The F minor sonata, the second of the set, has clearer descendants -- the use of a slow introduction that contrasts chords and gentler phrases, and then a fiery contrast to the rising first subject that strives upwards over a steady bass. There are clear echoes in the 'Pathetique' Sonata Op 13. Here Portugheis gave just the right dramatic tone, and his purposeful impetus also brought to mind the drama of the 'Appassionata', the sonata in the same key (which was itself anticipated in Op 2 No 1). The finale is an almost operatic rondo based on the driving unison theme which was given theatrical emphasis, while the lyrical slow movement also spoke in operatic vocal elegance through its myriad ornamental flourishes.

The final D major sonata is at once the brightest, yet most demanding technically, with its wide arpeggiated textures and counterpoints, all delivered with graceful classical ebullience. After the gravitas of the F minor sonata, the lyrical tenderness of the slow movement was heightened all the more, followed by its jaunty finale. The C major Sonatina Woo51 was composed only seven years later, when Beethoven was twenty, yet the difference shows the remarkable distance travelled during those years. The style is far more assured, and the sonority more imaginative and subtle. Here we have a clear forerunner of the Op 2 sonatas, especially in the arpeggiated textures of the slow movement andante, the second and final movement of this work. The first movement moreover has a sonata design that is also more carefully integrated than the early works. Portugheis rendered this and the two remaining sonatas with plenty of panache. The Sonata in G Anh No 1 is well known to piano pupils with it delicate rondo, while the final F major sonata Anh 5 No 2 bristled with aplomb and brought the recital to a cheerful and effervescent climax. All in all, a fascinating and stimulating lunchtime recital of lesser played works that offered a window into the early style of genius in the making.

Copyright © 26 November 2008 Malcolm Miller, London UK


The next concert in the BPSE's series at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1, UK, is on Thursday 4 December 2008, featuring Malcolm Miller, piano, Ian Judson, flute and Francesca Carpos, bassoon. From Beethoven's Bonn works, they'll play the 'Dressler' Variations WoO 67 (1781) and the Trio for piano, flute and bassoon, WoO 37 (1786-8).

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