The ABC’s decision to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with Australia’s foremost specialist Gerard Willems was launched in the late 1990s and hailed as a first for the country. The three-year project was given an added frisson by Willems’s decision to use pianos built by Aussie Wayne Stuart rather than the ubiquitous Steinway.
Wayne Stuart’s skills as a piano maker were first tested when as a young man he played dance music published by J. Albert and Son at village halls around the country. The upright pianos were in varying states of disrepair and he often had to fix and tune them before the gig. Years later when his piano company in Melbourne wasn’t going anywhere Robert Albert, head of the publishing company, asked Stuart if they could come in on a joint venture. “I was hoping for ages that you would ask me that,” Stuart replied.
A couple of ARIAs later and with burgeoning sales, the next logical step – the five piano concertos – was announced with Willems being joined by Antony Walker conducting Sinfonia Australis, drawn from the cream of our orchestras. In 2010 Willems was back in the Ultimo studio tackling the mighty Diabelli Variations. Now, with the sonata set remastered, ABC Classics has released a handsome box set, which adds four extra sonatas, including a 1792 sketch for a fantasia reconstructed by Dutch musicologist Cees Nieuwenhuizen. The so-called ‘Electoral’ sonatas were composed when Beethoven was in his teens, before he left for Vienna. They were recorded at Sydney Conservatorium earlier this year.
The 14 CDs come with a DVD performance of the Emperor Concerto, commentary by Willems and some fascinating features including one on the delightfully ‘nutty’ piano maker. The remastered set is in chronological order so you can plot Beethoven’s musical evolution. Sydney musicologist Peter McCallum’s essay and liner notes are an invaluable guide. Alfred Brendel’s 1970 recordings, Daniel Barenboim’s 1990s set and Claudio Arrau’s 1960s survey have all been rereleased recently and there have been some outstanding new recordings, notably those of Paul Lewis. So how does the Willems sonata set stack up? The answer is very well indeed.  The Stuart piano sound is perfect for this music – brilliant and with great depth and sustain but more earthy than the silk-smooth Steinway tone we’re so familiar with. Sinfonia Australis play with a refreshing verve under Walker’s hands (he never uses a baton for Beethoven, he tells us). At around the hundred dollar mark this is great value.


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