Stephen Manes' current traversal of Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonata cycle is a brave and noteworthy task that demands much from the listener and even more from the performer.
It isn't as if the composer churned out a bunch of lightweight hack work tailor made for the parlor; he created thought pieces, art that combined heart and mind at the highest level, especially in his later years.
Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata (op. 106 in B flat major) was the giant masterwork on Monday evening's program, and the last half of Manes' concert was devoted to it. It certainly would be hard to imagine anything else coming after it, since this lengthy (45 minutes, more or less) piece requires a certain amount of physical stamina and mental discipline to hit all the notes in the score and make them mean something.
While the fugue at the heart of the "Hammerklavier's" final section is generally considered one of the composer's finest accomplishments for the keyboard, it is the movement just prior to Beethoven's masterful exhibition of counterpoint that unveils his sentimental heart, and it was there, in Manes' moving performance of the Adagio sostenuto, that the pianist's art was revealed in full flower.
It was playing of grace, power and conviction that ranks among the finest outings I've ever heard from Manes. This was the kind of thing that "live" music should be, bringing insights to the fore with an immediacy that beguiles and informs at the same time.
Everything else that the pianist played during the entire evening, the brief two-movement exercise in delight that is the op. 78 sonata in F sharp major (no. 24 in the cycle if you're keeping count) and the earlier B flat major sonata (op. 22), all had their charms, but they were like place holders leading up to the mighty "Hammerklavier."
As he has throughout this current rendition of the Beethoven piano sonata cycle, Manes performed the scores from memory, an impressive feat in and of itself, given the difficulty of the works under his fingers. If you haven't attended any of his performances this season, take heart that there is more to come. Manes' next program is Feb. 19 and includes sonatas 5, 20 and 28. Another sterling performance can be expected.
"The Complete Beethoven Sonatas: Hammerklavier" on Monday night in University at Buffalo Baird Recital Hall.