There are many series, suites and cycles of pieces which can be considered “up there” in the pianist’s standard repertoire: Bach’s ’48’, Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux, Schuman’s Carnaval and Kreisleriana, Chopin’s Etudes and Preludes, Liszt’s Annèes or the Transcendental Studies, but none can quite come close to Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas, usually referred to as the ‘New Testament’ of piano music (the WTC is the ‘Old Testament’!). Perhaps the primary appeal of these pieces, aside from the sheer Herculean effort of learning and absorbing them, is that they offer both a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style and a glimpse into the inner workings of his compositional life and personality. Urban legend has it that Beethoven was a rough, irascible, grumpy and unapproachable sod, but this does not tell us much about his music. Living with his music, spending time with it to understand what makes it special, allows a more honest, rounded view of him, and, perhaps of all his music, the piano sonatas offer a really candid autobiography.

 

As pianists, whether amateur or professional, advanced or intermediate, or even just beginning on the great journey of exploration, we have all come across Beethoven’s piano music, and many of us have played at least one of his sonatas during our years of study. As an early student, a taster of a proper sonata in the form of one of his Sonatinas (something my father is grappling with at the moment – and refusing any helpful advice from me!). Later on, we might encounter one of the “easier” piano sonatas, such as the pair of two-movement sonatas that form the Opus 49 (nos. 19 and 20), which are roughly Grade 5-6 standard (but don’t be fooled by the comparatively “easy” notes!). As part of my Grade 8 repertoire, I learnt the No. 5 (Opus 10, No. 1, in C minor), which prefigures the far more well-known and well-loved Pathétique in the flourish of its opening measures, the “beautiful melody” of its slow movement, and its febrile final movement. A quick glance through the Diploma repertoire lists for any of the exam boards (Trinity, ABRSM, RAM etc) and there is a generous handful of sonatas to choose from, from well-known to less popular, to suit each level of Diploma right up to Fellow.

It is generally accepted pianistic wisdom that Beethoven composed the piano sonatas during three distinct periods of his life, and as such, like the Duo Sonatas for Piano and ‘Cello (read my earlier post here), offer a fascinating overview of his compositional development. Setting aside the three “Electoral” sonatas, which are not usually included in the traditional cycle of 32 (though Beethoven authority, Professor Barry Cooper, who has edited new the ABRSM edition of the sonatas, argues that there is a case for including the three sonatas that Beethoven wrote when he was 12 in a complete edition), the early sonatas are, like the early duo sonatas (for violin and for ‘cello), virtuosic works, reminding us that Beethoven was a fine pianist. While the faster movements may nod back to his teacher, Haydn (though Beethoven would strenuously deny any influence!), it is the slow movements which demonstrate Beethoven’s deep understanding of the capabilities of the piano, and its ability, through textures and colours, moods and contrasts, to transform into any instrument he wishes it to be. Some of the writing could be for string quartet (Op. 2 No. 2). In the early sonatas, Beethoven’s mastery of the form is already clear, and many look forward to the greater, more complex, and more revolutionary sonatas of his ‘middle’ period. His distinctive musical personality is already stamped very firmly on these early works.

The sonatas from the middle period are some of the most famous:

The ‘Tempest’ and ‘La Chasse’ (Op. 31, Nos. 2 and 3). The first with its stormy, passionate opening movement, the second of the opus rollicking and somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

The ‘Moonlight’ (Op. 27, No. 2): the first of his piano sonatas to open with a slow movement. Too often the subject of clichéd, lugubriously romantic renderings, this twilight first movement shimmers and shifts. An amazing gesture, created by a composer poised on the threshold of change.

The ‘Waldstein’ (Op. 53). Throbbing quavers signal the opening of one of the greatest of all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, while the final movement begins with a sweetly consoling melody which quickly transforms into daring octave scales in the left hand and a continuous trill in the right hand. This is Beethoven at his most heroic.

‘Les Adieux’ (Op. 81a). Suggested to be early ‘programme’ music in its telling of a story (Napoleon’s attack on the city of Vienna which forced Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, to leave the city, though this remains the subject of some discussion still). It is true that Beethoven himself named the three movements “Lebewohl,” “Abwesenheit,” and “Wiedersehen”. One of the most challenging sonatas because of its mature emotions and technical difficulties, it bridges the gap between Beethoven’s middle and late periods.

Late period:

The ‘Hammerklavier’ (Op. 106), with its infamous and perilously daring grand leap of an octave and a half at the opening (which, of course, should be played with one hand!); its slow movement of infinite sadness and great suffering; its finale, a finger-twisting fugue, the cumulative effect of which is overwhelming: an expression of huge power and logic.

The Last Sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, 111). I have written about these sonatas previously. They are considered to be some of the most profoundly philosophical music, music which “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis), which speaks of shared values, and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being. From the memorable, lyrical opening of the Op. 109 to the final fugue, that most life-affirming and solid of musical devices, of the Op 110, that peaen of praise, to the “ethereal halo” that is contained in some of the writing of the Arietta of the Op 111, the message and intent of this music is clear. And this is Beethoven’s great skill throughout the entire cycle of his piano sonatas.

So, what is the perennial attraction of performing a Beethoven Sonata Cycle? Glance through concert programmes around the world and it is clear that these sonatas continue to fascinate performers and audiences alike, and no sooner has one series ended than another begins, or overlaps with another. Playing the Sonatas in a cycle is the pianistic equivalent of reading Shakespeare, Plato, or Dante, and for the performer, it offers the chance to get right to the heart of the music, peeling back the layers on a continuous journey of discovery, always finding something new behind the familiar. One does not have favourites; just as when one has children, one should never have favourites, though certain sonatas will have a special resonance. The sonatas are like a family, they all belong together – and they are needed, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation. You can play the sonatas for over a quarter of a century, half a century, and yet there are still many things in these wonderful works to be explored and understood, things which still have the power to surprise and fascinate.

Every pianist worth his or her salt knows that presenting a Beethoven sonata cycle represents a pinnacle in one’s artistic career (ditto the five Piano Concertos) and an important stepping stone to other great cycles (Schubert’s sonatas, for example, which are, perhaps, less satisfying to play than Beethoven’s because of problems such as incomplete or different versions of the same work), but once a cycle is complete, one cannot truly say one has conquered the highest Himalayan peak. And that is what is so special about this music: you can never truly say you have “arrived” with it, while its endless scope continues to reward, inspire and fulfil.

I have never heard a complete Beethoven cycle performed by a single performer, but I have heard plenty of concerts which form part of the whole: in the 1980s, it was John Lill, now one of the “elder statesmen” of British pianism; before him, my parents would have heard Brendel and Barenboim. Following in their footsteps, I heard some of Barenboim’s concerts when he played a complete cycle at the Festival Hall three year’s ago. At the same time, Paul Lewis was just finishing his own cycle at the Wigmore Hall (and beyond). I heard him play Nos. 15-18, some of the early sonatas, and the Last Sonatas. Then there was Till Fellner, a young Austrian with a clean, fresh approach, whose cycle began in 2008. On LP, I had Lill’s complete cycle, released the same year as I heard him at RFH. On CD I have Arrau, whose account is hard to match. But I also have recordings of favourites, such as the Opus 10’s, played by Angela Hewitt, or the Opus 110 (my absolute favourite), played by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida (whose Mozart playing I adore).

In concert, the sonatas are presented in halls large and small, famous and lesser known. The size of the hall can affect one’s appreciation and understanding of the works. For example, sometimes the earlier sonatas, which were written for the salon, can be lost in a venue as big as the Royal Festival Hall. One’s connection to the music is also affected, of course, by the performer. Lill, I remember, brought an extraordinary closeness and intimacy, something I have never forgotten, a sense that it was an entirely shared experience; while with Barenboim it felt as if an invisible barrier had been erected between us, the audience, and him the performer (I suspect he neither intended nor engineered this; rather, the over-awed audience brought it upon themselves!).

Further reading

Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas – Robert Taub. “Offers the insights of a passionate musician who performs all 32 of Beethoven’s well-loved piano sonatas in concert worldwide. This book presents his intimate understanding of these works with listeners and players alike.” (Amazon)

The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience – Kenneth Drake. “Drake groups the Beethoven piano sonatas according to their musical qualities, rather than their chronology. He explores the interpretive implications of rhythm, dynamics, slurs, harmonic effects, and melodic development and identifies specific measures where Beethoven skillfully employs these compositional devices.” (Amazon)

Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion – Charles Rosen. A very readable analysis of all 32 sonatas by respected pianist and writer.

New York Times article about Professor Barry Cooper’s study of all 35 sonatas

When I was a student in the mid-80s, we all had “cassette players” (the word “ghetto blaster” was fairly new vernacular at the time), and we all made compilation tapes for each other. One of my friends, who was ‘studying’ (hollow laugh) Sociology, seemed to spend most of his time closetted in his room in a cloud of stale, fetid air, creating compilation tapes for the rest of us. Party mixes, mostly, for those “corridor parties” in “halls”, or, when “living out” (i.e. not in a hall of residence), the all-nighters we enjoyed in our scruffy rented accommodation, where the walls were adorned with blue-tacked posters of trendy Steven Berkoff plays, photographs of Jim Morrison, Pre-Raphaelite prints and the ubiquitous Che Guevara picture purchased from Athena. We drank Exmoor and Wadworth 6X, and stuck candles in old wine bottles, wore black jeans and black roll-necks like French intellectuals from the 1960s, and thought we were oh so cool. We were wild in the old days! We had a lot to learn……

A friend (and lover, as it turned out) of my mother, who fancied himself as a unreconstructed hippie and who used to smoke hand-rolled joints in the back garden of our house in the leafy commuter town of Rickmansworth, gave me a new compilation tape every birthday during the years that he and my mother enjoyed an association. For my 18th birthday, it was a collection of songs from the year of my birth, 1966, which was quite inventive. I used to play it a lot, and it included tracks like ‘Paint it Black’  and ’19th Nervous Breakdown’ (The Rolling Stones), ‘Summer in the City’ (The Lovin’ Spoonful), ‘Shapes of Things’ (The Yardbirds), and ‘Sunshine Superman’ (Donovan). At the time, I was deeply into late 60s bands like The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, and female protest singers such as Joan Baez, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell. The compilation tape, made for a friend, or, more significantly, a boyfriend, became a vehicle for unexpressed or inexpressible emotions and barely-concealed longing.

On a radio programme I caught the other day, one of the guests was lamenting the demise of the compilation tape, now that we don’t have cassette players any longer. But with the advent of iTunes and similar music programmes, it is possible to create compilations and “mixes” once again – and it’s a whole lot easier these days because you simply “drag and drop” the tracks into the new playlist. Newer versions of iTunes have a neat function called ‘Genius’ which will create compilations for you, based on a highlighted track. It looks clever, as if the artificial intelligence of iTunes is able to match certain tracks with others to create a coherent playlist, but in reality all it is doing is using some kind of techie ju-ju and searching by genre and tempo. It copes less well with classical music, for example, pairing a Bach Cantata with a Chopin Prelude.

I still make my own mixes, mostly for listening in the car. I do not have a CD player in the house any longer: when it finally gave up the ghost last year, I didn’t bother to replace it. Instead, all my music is stored on the main house computer and is streamed to a high-quality sound system in the sitting room via the magical gadget that is Apple TV. I also have a very old, now very collectible first generation iPod, on which almost my entire music library is stored. The iPod is so old (barely 10 years!) that its battery no longer charges, but it works off the mains and can be plugged into the hi-fi. So I make ‘mixes’ for long car journeys, a trio of CDs especially for the campervan (when I had it), or for 8-hour drives down the autoroute to the Alps when you need stuff you can sing along to to keep you awake (‘Hallejulah’ by K D Lang was popular at Christmas!). I also keep a CD of my current repertoire for listening to when I’m driving. Then there’s ‘Chopin Favourites’, ‘Schubert Favourites’, ‘Shorter Beethoven’ and ‘Oddments’, a collection of mostly piano music ranging from Bach to John Adams which just seems to fit together nicely. and is enjoyable and stimulating to listen to.

One of the best features of iTunes is that you can purchase a single track, rather than a whole album. So I bought Sheila Chandra’s ‘Ever So Lonely’, hit the Genius button, and hey presto! there was an hour of mostly ‘ambient’ music which seems to suit the late evening when everyone’s had one too many glasses of wine and wants to chill on the sofa. Brian Eno’s ‘An Ascent’ (from the ‘Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks’ album) threw up an even more laid back mix via the power of Genius.

So, maybe the compilation is not really dead; its format may have changed with the times, but its purpose and intent remain the same. And still, perhaps, a vehicle for unexpressed emotions……

Apple TV

“Maestro Pollini”, as the interviewer in the programme rather sycophantically calls him, is presenting a five-concert series at the Royal Festival Hall entitled ‘The Pollini Project’, intended, as the Italian pianist says in the interview, to offer “an overall flavour of the keyboard repertoire, from the Baroque to that great master of the 20th century, Stockhausen” to a London audience he describes as “almost unique………so enthusiastic, attentive……..with lots of young people”. The five concerts offer a fairly broad brush of piano music from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, to Pierre Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (a composer with whom Pollini claims a particular affinity), Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, Debussy’s Etudes, and the last sonatas of both Beethoven and Schubert. The final concert in the series features music by Stockhausen, Schumann and Chopin.

Pollini is a fairly regular visitor to the RFH, and I was very sorry to miss his Chopin birthday recital last year, as I have heard he is good with Chopin. I have not heard him before, neither live nor on disc. Last night, the second concert of the series, he played the last three sonatas of Beethoven, which are a somewhat different kettle of pianistic fish from Chopin, being profoundly emotional, with universal values, and in possession of “philosophy in music”, if you will (that is not to say that Chopin does not posses these attributes in his music, because he does, in different ways….). The last sonatas combine sublimity and a certain roughness, and a skilled performer, who understands these pieces intimately, both metaphorically and physically, should be able to combine both elements convincingly.

The Opus 109 begins with that memorable, lyrical opening melody. It was pleasantly played, if a little choppy in places (what my teacher calls “notey” playing). The second movement variations did not grab me, but I have no criticism of his playing per se which was pristine and technically flawless. There was a sense of Pollini settling in to his programme.

Readers of this blog and my musical friends will know already that I am very devoted to the middle sonata of the three, the Opus 110. It is my Desert Island Disc, and I am very fussy about it. Piers Lane failed to move with it a couple of weeks ago at Wigmore Hall in a rather workmanlike performance. To me, Pollini hurried through it, not allowing us enough time to enjoy the beautiful, serene first movement, while the final fugue, in its second incarnation, was rushed and muddy in places so that its wonderful “paean of praise” was lost. There were some nice parts in the Arioso, but his fortissimos were sometimes too much and verged on Hammer Horror soundtrack in places. Some of the quieter passages were also marred by an unidentifiable buzzing in the auditorium (someone trying to tweet by Morse code, perhaps?), a good deal of coughing in the audience (well, I suppose it is the time of year for coughs and colds), and the pianist’s own huffing and snuffling.

Pollini’s playing style is quite uncomfortable to watch too, though it is unlikely that anyone will ever replicate Glenn Gould’s bizarre, crouched posture. He sits close up to the keyboard, almost hunched over it (though he’s not tall – I know this because he walked right past us when we were having a post-concert drink), with his elbows jammed to his sides. He looked awkward, and it was often a surprise to see his arms go out to the highest or lowest registers of the keyboard.

Having said all that, the Opus 111 was fantastic. He brought an appropriate roughness and “bump and grind” to the opening movement, while the second movement variations were full of lyricism, sublime and meditative, while in the more up-tempo variations, Pollini demonstrated he could more than cope with Beethoven’s sheer weirdness and nuttiness (a feature common to the late works in general). Some of the trills in the highest registers fluttered as if carried on a fragile breath, and in other places we heard bells ringing, and repeated notes which seemed to nod forward to the minimalist music of  John Adams and Philip Glass (and I’ve never felt that about Beethoven before!).

He received five curtain calls at the end, and many members of the audience were on their feet by the third call. Behind us, a group of Pollini tifosi whooped and cheered, much to the irritation of my companion who grumbled “I can’t stand that stuff!”. Since he played the three sonatas straight through without an interval, there was still time after the concert to enjoy a leisurely drink in the bar. Maestro Pollini came down to the foyer of the RFH to receive plaudits and sign copies of his Beethoven CD.

The next concert is in the series, Schubert’s last three sonatas, is on Saturday 26th February.

The Pollini Project

With six weeks to go until my teacher’s advanced piano course, I am beginning to put together the repertoire to take with me. The course takes place over a long weekend, and is three days of intensive masterclasses, culminating in a students’ concert on the Sunday afternoon. Last year, I went with a degree of trepidation as I had never done a piano course before. I came away from it inspired – so much so that I decided I would start working for a performance Diploma, which I hope to take this winter. It was wonderful to wallow in piano music for three whole days, and to “talk piano” with like-minded and very committed people. Because of my teacher’s style and her expert tuition (she is quietly precise, and firm, with a reputation for guiding and encouraging each student to reach their full potential, both musically and technically), everyone feels very supported and encouraged, and there is a very friendly atmosphere on the course.

Liszt – ‘Sonetto 123 del Petrarca’ from Années de pèlerinage, 2eme annee, Italie: This beautiful, dreamy, meditative piece is inspired by Petrach’s Sonnet I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (“I beheld on earth angelic grace” – read the full text here). An understanding of the text of the Sonnet is essential to a proper understanding of this music, and I have spent the last few days listening and watching YouTube clips of this work in its song form, as well as singing the melodic lines to myself, both at the piano and away from it. This is very romantic music, in the truest sense of the word, and one must be careful not to make it sound saccharine, self-indulgent and schmaltzy. The notes themselves are not so hard – there are some awkward chord progressions which can be achieved with the right fingering – but conveying the mood and emotional depth of the piece is more tricky. Coming after a month’s work on Bach’s Toccata from the Sixth Partita, this piece provides a wonderful foil to Bach’s Baroque arabesques.

J S Bach – Toccata from Partita, BWV 830 in E minor: I have really enjoyed getting my fingers, and head, around Bach after a long absence from his music (I used to play a lot of Bach when I was at school, both as a soloist and in a chamber group where I played continuo). On one level, I have proved to myself – and my teacher, who has not heard me play Bach before – that I can still do it. I thought it would be a long learning process, so I was surprised that I had learnt the entire piece in just three weeks. The intellectual and technical demands of this kind of music have been immensely satisfying and rewarding, and with the music now well “in the fingers”, I am enjoying the ‘finessing’ work on colour, contrast, shape and mood. This piece is very nearly concert-ready, and I may choose to include it in the end of course concert.

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande: I love the way this music links to the Bach, but I also feel in the first piece, the Prelude, Debussy’s ‘take’ on his Baroque antecedents is more humorous, and my recent work on this piece had been to concentrate on keeping the fingers nimble and playful, and experimenting with various hand and finger techniques and movements to achieve different effects. The piece is very much a “toccata” in that it is a test of the pianist’s touch, but there are also moments of great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, grandeur too (again a nod back to a Baroque model), for example in mm. 42-55. These big chords are potentially dangerous for me with my unstable right hand: I am practising them quietly, no louder than mezzo-forte, while concentrating on keeping my wrists light and bouncy to avoid straining my hands.

The Sarabande provides a complete contrast, and I love the way the cadenza of the Prelude, in particular the big, fortissimo chords in the final six bars, sets up a silence for the sublime opening of the Sarabande. This elegant, stately dance requires an angled, caressing attack and very smooth movements between the chords. My notes at the top of the score include some quotes about Debussy’s own playing of this piece: his hands are described as “floating over the keys”, that they never left the keys, and that it sounded as if his hands were “sinking into velvet”. Trying to achieve all this, while also highlighting the interior “voices” within the melodic lines, is not easy! And again, I need to be careful with the big hand stretches. I have not yet played this for my teacher, and I look forward to working on it with her at my next lesson. This and the Prelude will definitely be going on the course!

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor, K511: I have really enjoyed revisiting this piece over the past month or so, with a view to putting it into my Diploma programme. I took a long break from it, after learning it initially, and this has definitely helped as I’ve returned to it fresh, with some new thoughts about it. A difficult piece, with all its contrasting strands of melody and texture, it requires great clarity of playing and technique. This also makes it an excellent Diploma piece as it showcases a number of different styles and techniques, with its nods forward to Chopin and back to Bach.

Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor: I’ve learnt half of this, and have really enjoyed it, but it’s on the back burner now as I must concentrate on my Diploma repertoire. I will go back to it and learn the rest of it, but it’s a long haul and I want to have the time to devote to it. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from knowing that I can play a “great” of the piano repertoire, if only half of it at present!

Messiaen – Regard de la Vierge (“Gaze of the Virgin”) from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: I did quite a lot of work on this away from the keyboard when I was on holiday at Christmas, but since then I have done no more. This is a very difficult piece – not so much the notes, but the profoundly emotional content and subject matter. When the Debussy pieces are more advanced, I will return to this.

I am posting three YouTube videos which a colleague and fellow-blogger, Notesfromapianist, flagged up in her Twitter feed yesterday. For anyone studying the three ‘Sonnetti del Petrarca’ from Liszt’s Années, these video clips provide some invaluable food for thought, study and practising: hearing the original song versions has really informed my practising today. The piano pieces included in the second year of the Années de pèlerinage are Liszt’s resettings of his own song transcriptions (composed ca. 1839–1846 and published 1846). I am learning the Sonetto 123 at the moment….