She’s the greatest living pianist! A dazzling virtuoso for the ages! I suppose I could begin my review of my first Joyce Hatto recording with such hagiographic dross, but I won’t. I’ve seen some opinions written about her playing that veer toward such hyperbole (though never quite reaching it), and I’ve read much praise of her pianism, most recently Jeremy Nicholas’ glowing review of a number of discs in Gramophone. Ms Hatto must be quite good if she garners such praise so consistently. Given her huge repertoire and recorded output, it seemed only natural that I should investigate her playing at some point. Since she has recorded the much-beloved LvB cycle, it seemed that would be the best place to start for me. The question then became: Which disc? Since I so value the Op 31 sonatas, and since Volume 5 is given over to said works, that seemed appropriate.

She’s the real deal. At the same time, she doesn’t really set any standards. Rather, she joins the elite or near elite in Beethoven interpretation. That’s not necessarily evident in the first few bars of the first of these three crucial sonatas. The Allegro vivace opens sensibly enough, with a fine, rounded tone, a comfortable overall tempo, and an upbeat feel. Hatto just sort of cruises along like this until she has to play a bit faster when she then plays nimbly but without overdoing anything, and she never sounds strained or unpleasant. Her playing is definitely soft-grained, and she doesn’t play up the dynamic contrasts like some pianists do, but it’s still uncommonly appealing. I think that because, like Kempff and Haskil, Hatto sounds at her best playing at the quieter, more delicate end of the spectrum. That’s not to say she sounds like either Kempff or Haskil – she doesn’t – but that she’s more compelling playing diminuendo than crescendo. The Adagio grazioso, as one might expect given her strengths, succeeds wonderfully. The trills actually sound a bit cloudier than I usually prefer, but they are light and attractive. Thereafter, her playing is a model of taste and decorum supported by a supple yet rhythmically solid bass. The middle section is faster and more energetic, though not remarkably so. Indeed, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one or two or three things Hatto does extremely well or in an especially noteworthy fashion; what is truly remarkable is how little she draws attention to any specific aspect of the music, rather letting it flow along. Equally impressive is how she maintains a taut musical presentation throughput the ten-minute span of the movement without resorting to anything flashy. My only complaint is that the bass trills are a bit on the light side. The concluding Rondo opens with and maintains a relaxed overall feel, but it still manages to sound crisp, fun, and spry. It also demonstrates one of Ms Hatto’s greatest strengths: her superb part playing. Each hand sounds utterly divorced from the other as she plays different parts with an overall clarity (if not a meticulous note-by-note clarity) that rivals Barenboim’s, though Ms Hatto’s is more fluid. So, if Hatto’s reading of this piece lacks the snap or excitement of some other recordings, it’s still superb.

The Tempest is more problematic. Slightly. The Largo sounds attractive and rounded, but it’s not dark and foreboding. Rather, it just is. The Allegro section is clear and pointed and quicker, though, and Hatto’s separation of hands is superb. She plays the different parts at different volumes, which accentuates the contrasts inherent in the material without resorting to more standard, stark contrasts in volume only. Even if this music isn’t as stormy as some others, it’s appealing. It’s never more appealing than when she slows and quiets down to the point of silence, which she does relatively quickly while making it sound as though it’s taking some time. This touch is unique and captivating. It’s here where Hatto’s style really hits home; she plays Beethoven in a decidedly classical manner as opposed to a dynamic, fiery, romantic one. She’s Apollonian. If that’s not what you’re after, listen elsewhere. The Adagio, as befits her approach, is a thing of beauty, though it never sounds lush or gorgeous; taste is what Ms Hatto is all about. Her playing is smooth, effortless, graceful, and natural. If you want just one word for it, then it must surely be refined. To the concluding Allegretto, well, it, too, is attractive, coming across as a veritable stream of attractive music. If perhaps the playing lacks bite or intensity, it nonetheless possesses enough weight and personality and manages to evoke a (subdued) sense of confused anger and sadness. More important, it possesses an inevitability that makes everything sound unforced and wonderfully musical.

The final sonata is as successful as the first two, but again sounds a bit softer than seems to be the norm. The opening Allegro is charming and sunny, and her clear part playing is a wonder to behold: Her left hand seems to be playing everything faster and more intensely than the right hand, and seems to threaten to make the work sound discombobulated, but she blends it all together perfectly. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. She also plays with a broader dynamic range that in the preceding works; she lets loose, though she’s never over the top. The Scherzo is definitely on the soft side, and it even sounds sweet and bubbly, with the humorous outbursts contained. The Menuetto, also soft-grained, is most decidedly moderate in temperament and most gracious. To end the work, Ms Hatto plays the Presto con fuoco in a rolling yet smooth and only mildly boisterous fashion. Again, those wanting more bite or raunchy humor and playing should listen elsewhere.

Ms Hatto’s Op 31 sonatas are a bit unusual. They lack the attack, the intensity, the emotion, the humor, or the <insert what you want here> that some other pianists may bring. They do sound eminently tasteful, quite lovely, and they do have enough energy and unique insights to keep one listening intently, and they never, ever sound ugly or remotely unpleasant. As a sign of how good her playing is, when the disc was done I was disappointed that I didn’t buy more of her Beethoven recordings. I can’t proclaim that her Op 31 sonatas rise to the very top of the heap, what with Friedrich Gulda and Annie Fischer and Claude Frank and Wilhelm Backhaus out there (to mention just four). But I can say that of the six new sets of the Op 31 sonatas I’ve heard this year, Hatto rates right up there with Barenboim. Her playing is informed by innate musicianship and dislike for unnecessary flash that I like. As an added bonus, the recorded sound is warm and pleasant, if a bit left-channel heavy at times. Had I not known Ms Hatto’s age, I wouldn’t have guessed she was in her late 60s when she recorded these works; her playing has an effortless, timeless quality that defies age. While I cannot jump on the Hatto-Is-Unbelievable bandwagon, I can say that her playing in these three sonatas has made me keen to hear the rest of her cycle.

But wait: There’s more! As part of my order, I received a 77 minute Joyce Hatto sampler including excerpts and complete pieces from Brahms, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Balakirev, and some –Liszt works. The excerpt from the Brahms Second Concerto opens the sampler, and it sounds a bit too soft grained for me, and the orchestra – one National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra – as recorded here don’t sound like world-beaters. The Bach-Liszt is not my cup of tea, so someone else would have to comment on it, but then comes some Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin. All three have been short-listed. Her Mozart is graceful, her Schubert (Wanderer Fantasy and the F minor Impromptu from D935) surprisingly fiery and beautiful, and the three Chopin Etudes and one Waltz all display clarity and musical virtuosity. Even Brahms’ Paganini Variations sound promising. Her Debussy is not as immediately impressive, and I skipped over the Balakirev and Verdi-Liszt. Anyway, this small sampler leads me to believe that I must investigate more than just her Beethoven. Time to get the credit card out . . .