Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas dominate his repertoire for solo keyboard. A little over a decade ago, English pianist Paul Lewis added his name to the canon of great pianists to record the entire cycle, with his Harmonia Mundi set rightly attracting rave reviews upon release. I count myself extremely lucky to have witnessed his performance of the legendary op. 111 sonata at Melbourne’s Recital Centre a few years ago, a breathtaking study in control, nuance, pacing and gut-wrenching emotion. So, when a Beethoven interpreter of Lewis’s stature turns his attention to a considerably less-lauded form of piano piece, one is advised to pay attention.

Although the literal definition of bagatelle (or trifle) seems to convey a sense of triviality, it can simply refer to something small, a minor thing (as opposed to a sonata, for instance) without being pejorative. Indeed, it seems that Beethoven took a degree of delight in writing in this compressed, single-movement form, and recordings of them are plentiful. The first of Beethoven’s three sets is the Seven Bagatelles (Op. 33), published in 1803. All are in major keys with an average length of two to three minutes and are beautifully formed expressions of single ideas, quite like pop songs and similarly lyrical. On the surface these works seem jaunty salon pieces, but there are always undercurrents of emotionality and drama – in Nos 4, 6 and 7 particularly.

A marked difference in temperament is immediately apparent in Beethoven’s next set, the Eleven Bagatelles (Op. 119) written two decades later and published in 1822. The same elegance of form is present but the pieces comprising this group are noticeably shorter, on average around a minute and a half – the No 10 Allegramente a mere twelve seconds! Compressed even further, these pieces have an explosive quality, fleeting snapshots that bristle with tension. Significantly, the Op. 119 Bagatelles date from the same year that Beethoven was writing his last three piano sonatas (1822, Opp. 109-111) and the astute listener will note similarities in intensity, motif and emotionality. A striking example of this is Beethoven’s repeated forays into the unhinged trill territory of the aforementioned op. 111, observable particularly in No 7 in C.

The resigned, aching lyricism of Op.111 is also omnipresent in the Six Bagatelles Op. 126 of 1824, the last works Beethoven wrote for solo piano before his death in 1827. Completely deaf by this point, the increasingly abstract sound world of the late sonatas and string quartets is present right here in these extraordinary, multifaceted miniatures. And even though it doesn’t belong chronologically here at all (smack in the middle of Opp. 33 and 119), it is a delight when the most famous of them all turns up, Für Elise, written as a standalone piece in 1810 for, it seems, Therese Malfatti, young, beautiful, very musical and well and truly out of Beethoven’s league.

Countless clambering renditions by amateurs (including myself) had cured me of the need to hear it ever again, but in the hands of Lewis, one is struck afresh by its mysterious, elusive quality, dismissed (like the Moonlight Sonata) for its initial simplicity, obvious romanticism and popular accessibility. As usual, Lewis is painstakingly precise, technically brilliant and unfussily intense.

His restraint and attention to detail ensures that each little vignette is performed with the same care afforded a monumental sonata, and his clarity of tone is complemented by a spacious, warm recording that eschews clutter and excess reverb. 

Composers: Beethoven
Compositions: Für Elis, Bagatelles Opp. 33, 119 & 126
Performers: Paul Lewis p
Catalogue Number: HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902416

Paul Lewis’ Beethoven album Für Elise and Bagatelles Opp. 33, 119 & 126 is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in August. 

Read our interview with Paul Lewis