The red cloth-bound three-volume edition of Beethoven’s complete Piano Sonatas spent nearly 20 years squirelled away in a storage box – not unlike my relationship with the piano which waned, and nearly died, when I left home to go to university. My father sold the early twentieth-century Challen upright on which I had studied so seriously for my grade exams, and I found other interests and diversions in my life.
What lit the spark and renewed my interest in the piano in my late 30s? I’m not entirely sure, only that as a parent of a young-ish child I was experiencing something common to many mothers: I felt invisible, no longer an individual in my own right, but a woman defined only by her ability to push another human being into this world.
My mum, an artist, recognised an urge to create within me and bought me a digital piano, quietly hinting that I might like to start playing again. The dusty box of music was tentatively opened and out came volumes of Bach and Chopin, Schubert and and Debussy, and of course those three volumes of Beethoven. It was hard at first: however willing the spirit, the body was less than compliant, fingers clumsy and tentative, but the spark was reignited, and there was no going back….. Now the Beethoven volumes sit proudly on my bookcase. I don’t work from these volumes – they are too cumbersome and their commentaries and editorial notes are somewhat outdated – but they are significant because they connect me to my first encounters with LvB’s piano music.
I think I probably first heard Beethoven’s music on the record player in my grandparents’ front room (a room reserved for Sundays and special occasions). My grandfather, a staunch Labour man and leader of one of the UK’s largest trade unions in the 1960s, adored Beethoven for his music and his radical, indomitable spirit. The sixth and seventh symphonies were my grandfather’s favourites. In the front room was a piano on which my grandfather liked to play Methodist hymns and snippets of Haydn and Beethoven, and I loved sitting next to him while he played or exploring the treasure trove of sheet music in the piano stool, old volumes of the sonatas and bagatelles, their pages friable and crumbly as oatmeal, with that special musty antique smell redolent of churches and second-hand bookshops. When I started learning the piano, I liked to take these volumes from the piano stool and set them on the music rack, rambling and stumbling through those thickets of notes, my grandfather applauding me from his armchair. It was great sight-reading practice, but probably didn’t do much justice to the music!
Like most young piano students, my first proper contact with Beethoven was through his short works, initially little marches and minuets; then the Sonatinas, which contain in microcosm so much of his distinctive writing for piano and provide a wonderful stepping stone to the ‘easier’ piano sonatas. I learnt the pair of Op 49 piano sonatas when I was about 10, and then, in my early teens, in preparation for my Grade 8 exam, the pre-cursor to the Pathétique, the sonata No 5 in C minor. I think it was this work, along with the Archduke Trio (Op 97), which I studied for music A-level, which really drew me into Beethoven’s world and fostered a deep fascination for his music, specifically his writing for piano, which remains to this day. Alongside this, I had discovered the piano concertos and for a while the fifth concerto – the mighty Emperor with that extraordinary oasis of calm in its middle movement – became my absolute favourite piece of music (as I’ve matured, the fourth concerto, in G major, has since become my favourite!).
So what is it about Beethoven which appealed to this rather precocious young piano student? I think I, like my grandfather, admired Beethoven’s spirit, his energy and directness, his stubborn refusal to give up, the sense of him at once shaking his fist and railing at the world while also thoroughly embracing it with a humanity to which we can all relate, and also the sheer beauty of much of his writing, especially his transcendent slow movements. During my teens, I was obsessed with his piano music and asked for, and received, the complete piano sonatas for my 18th birthday (that red clothbound edition), a rather pretentious, esoteric gift for a teenager (but I did also receive a beautiful pair of electric blue suede stilettos!). But at the same time I was discovering and learning some of Schubert’s piano music and obsessing about that too, and long before I had a proper understanding of the distinctive musical landscape of these two composers, I found the similarities, contrasts and differences between them fascinating. Beethoven wore his heart on his sleeve while Schubert seemed introspective, intimate and solitary. Even as a teenager, I never regarded Schubert as the ‘poor relation’ to Beethoven; these were two composers whose music sat side by side on the lid of my piano, and in my musical sensibilities.
When I returned to the piano seriously in my late 30s after some 20 years absence, it was to Beethoven (and Schubert) that I first turned. But not the piano sonatas, curiously, given my teenage obsession with them; instead, I learnt, in preparation for my first piano lesson in 25 years, the delightful Rondo in C, Op 51, no. 1.
For the pianist, Beethoven’s writing for the instrument is truly superb because of his deep understanding of the capabilities of the piano, and its ability, through dynamics, harmony, articulation, timbre and expression to transform into any texture, instrument or ensemble he wishes it to be – string quartet, lyrical songlines, triumphant brass, haunting woodwind or orchestral tuttis; it’s all here in Beethoven’s piano writing and one continually senses his sheer delight in what the piano offered him. Because of this, the pianist needs a vivid imagination to bring these myriad textures and voices to life; technique alone is not sufficient.
He’s also incredibly precise in his writing – think of the articulation in the opening measures of the Tempest sonata (op 31, no. 2), a frantic cascade of drop slurs which must be perfectly articulated to create an unsettling sense of urgency and worry – and woe betide the pianist who does not observe his carefully-placed directions, for every marking must to be understood in its context. He demands so much of us – a crescendo on a single note, for example, a physical impossibility for the pianist, yet a perfect example of “psychological dynamics”, and when one understands this notion, the direction makes perfect sense (Schubert does this too). Yet despite his precision and clarity, he also leaves much open to one’s own interpretation and personal vision: there is no “right way” in Beethoven (though certain critics, commentators, players, teachers, and others may insist otherwise!).
In the course of some 35 years of piano playing and concert-going, I have learnt a mere handful of his piano sonatas, but heard all of them live in concert, either singly or in sonata cycles, performed by some of the greatest pianists of our time – John Lill, Maurizio Pollini, Daniel Barenboim, François-Frédéric Guy, Mitsuko Uchida, Stephen Hough, and most recently Igor Levit, each pianist bringing their own vision and personality to this great music. But there is one sonata which has eluded me as a player, the middle of the final triptych, the Opus 110 in A♭ major. It is my favourite piano sonata by Beethoven, or indeed anyone else, and this favouritism has undoubtedly affected my ability to learn this work, even though it is within my capabilities. It is too easy to place Beethoven and his music on a pedestal and this veneration can obscure one’s ability to simply face the music as an equal in order to settle to learning it. This has been my problem with Opus 110. “One day you’ll play it” a concert pianist friend assured me, and I’m certain he is right….
Meanwhile, here is Igor Levit, whose performance of this incredible sonata I was privileged to hear in his final concert of his Wigmore Hall Beethoven cycle in 2017.