Guest post by Lisa Davies

Having set up the office to be able to work from home, and been successfully working from home for a week or so, I receive a phone call to say that I have been furloughed with immediate effect. So what should an amateur pianist do to fill all these spare hours?

The answer is a no-brainer – PRACTICE!   So in line with Government restrictions, a routine soon built up: two hours in the morning followed by a walk (weather permitting) at lunchtime, another couple of hours in the afternoon, and then watch the ‘Rocky Horror Show’ from Downing Street at 5pm.

I am very lucky in as much as I have a brilliant piano teacher who foresaw exactly what was going to happen and helpfully suggested that perhaps it would be a good thing to abandon what I was currently looking at and learn a Beethoven piano sonata instead; he suggested Op 110 as it was a wonderful piece and had enough to keep me occupied and on the straight and narrow (if only he knew!) for the time being.  So I immediately ordered the Urtext edition, which duly arrived on my doorstep within 48 hours – and so the fun and games began.

After the initial read-through to get the overall feel for the piece and see how it was to be tackled, it was down to the nitty-gritty.  Out came the notes from the various piano courses I had attended with a view to putting all these different learning techniques in place – break it down, isolate the actual problem and get out the metronome, etc.,  and soon recognisable strains of Beethoven were emanating from the house.

So the ambitious plan was set – try and get through the whole sonata by the time I have my next lesson, whenever that would be.  The main reason I had avoided this piece like the plague was that it had a fugue or two in the last movement; however, with enough graft it should EVENTUALLY start to take shape and I was told that I couldn’t use the excuse that my hands were on the small side – so just get on with it.

Beethoven-Piano-Sonata-No.31-in-Ab-major-Op.110-Analysis-1
The opening bars of Beethoven’s piano sonata in A flat, Op 110

Now, having a practice regime is great but my husband and neighbours are not used to the constant aural bombardment.  So far they have been very polite about it and one has even provided my husband with a man-cave to retreat to.  I am sure they are all looking forward to me going back to work, whenever that might be, but in the meantime, I need to be considerate about the length of time that they have to put up with the noise and also the time of day it is inflicted on them.

As well as a superb grand piano, I am very lucky to own a Roland keyboard and this has really influenced the way in which I practice.  With a set of decent headphones, the sound is great but it also has a secret weapon – an internal electronic metronome which can’t be thrown at the wall when it doesn’t keep time with your constant internal clock!  So I can practice day or night without disturbing anyone (although I believe you know when I am playing as you can hear the noise of the keys being depressed over the top of the TV downstairs!)

Many hours of fun and bad language followed (particularly when tackling the fugues in the last movement) and then to prepare for a piano lesson with a difference – via Skype!  So a date was set and software tested with a neighbour, and come the day we couldn’t get a connection on the laptop.  But where there is a will, there’s a way. Abandon the laptop by the grand piano and use the keyboard with the mobile strapped to the top of the handle of the hoover!  I was more worried about our stack of towels by the keyboard being visible than Op 110….

Several weeks on and Skype has been mastered and the laptop is now behaving – shame about the pupil.  I am getting used to playing to a laptop balanced on a bar stool – shame there’s no bar! – and having my lesson at home with all the distractions that brings with it.  If anyone thinks piano lessons by Skype are a doddle – think again.  They work in a totally different way and are very productive, although I have yet to be convinced that pedalling is totally covered.  I still wonder if there is any possibility of rigging up YouTube and using a professional recording one week instead of me….nice thought!!!!!!

In the meantime, the horrendous disease that has been incarcerating us all seems to be receding and so, if all goes to plan, I will be attending piano masterclasses in France in late August.  Usually, I spend months preparing and memorising what I am going to take, but this year is different: the choice has been made for me – a certain Beethoven sonata.  Can I prepare it in time? Only time will tell, but due to an enforced lockdown routine, the notes are learned and it is now being memorised (slowly!).

So what have I learned over the lockdown?  On the surface the answer is very easy – Beethoven’s Op 110.

However, there is a deeper answer to that question. We have all been housebound for several months and there are people I know who have really found this period very difficult.  But at a time when the arts are suffering through lost performances, music is being cut from schools and rumours that it could be cut from curricula in the short term to make up for the loss in the Three Rs, music is a subject or way of life that gives you a code for living.

Music demands dedication – you have to practice. In order to practice you need patience, thoughtfulness and tolerance.  In the society in which we live, we need all of these in spades – particularly now.  Surely people must realise that music teaches you about life and not just the pieces for your next exam or performance?


Lisa started learning the piano at 10 and, having decided that riding professionally was not for her (or rather her parents!), she auditioned for a place on the GR Course at the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied the piano with Peter Uppard and Margaret Macdonald. On leaving the RAM, she did a short part-time stint at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama before going to work as a Director of Music at a prep school. However, the lure of the bright lights of the big city and her family relocating to the UK were too much of a draw and Lisa ended up moving back to London and working in the City for many years. She married and moved to the South West, competed in Endurance Horse Riding at the highest level both at home and abroad, and worked for a number of blue chip companies in various roles. She has recently come back to playing the piano after a gap of 30 years. Lisa is now making up for lost time and tackling all the repertoire she should have looked at years ago!  

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

I’m 17 years old, starting my first year of university, and I have strong opinions about music. I embrace the music of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Liszt—revelling in the tumultuous emotions, lyrical lines, and flashy virtuosity. I love the mysticism of Scriabin, the drama of Prokofiev, and the accessibility of Gershwin. I walk into my college professor’s studio and inform him (with all the arrogance of an outspoken 17-year-old) that I don’t like the Classical era. He councils me to withhold judgment, and then assigns me Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31, no. 2, commonly known as the Tempest Sonata. He reads me perfectly. I rush headlong into the sonata with all the passion I brought to the Romantics. The mercurial shifts match my dramatic mood swings, the sudden changes keep me from “zoning out” in the development, and the sheer masculine energy of it assures me that it doesn’t sound easy. With this one piece, Beethoven becomes “mine”—music where all the drama of college romance, artistic dreams, and growing up find an auditory home. And through Beethoven, I learn to love an era of piano music I’d ignorantly dismissed as “boring.”

I’m 23 years old and am sitting in my apartment watching Leonard Bernstein conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony a month and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A child of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had felt as permanent as the Great Wall of China until it wasn’t, and when the unbelievable happened, the world got a little smaller and a little more hopeful. In this televised concert, Bernstein, the orchestra, the choir, and most importantly, Beethoven embodies an irrepressible joy and optimism that sweeps me—an American—into a celebration that transcends borders. It’s a party—one that by being a member of humanity I’m invited to join. The music and the celebration goes on and on, as if the joy can’t be contained to a few minutes in time and must erupt over and over again before the Symphony reaches its rousing conclusion and the crowd erupts. I weep through the final notes.

I’m 28 years old, standing backstage, waiting to perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra is playing Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture. As the piece progresses, so do my pre-performance jitters. A woman I don’t know stands beside me and wants to massage my hands in preparation for my performance. Both my nerves and the bizarre hand massage imprint themselves on Beethoven’s Overture, guaranteeing that listening to that piece gives me anxiety for the rest of my life.

I’m 35 years old and working as a piano instructor. At certain stages of their development, most students wants to learn Für Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and the Pathetique. I shepherd them through the inevitable problem spots and I commiserate with colleagues about how fatigued we all get teaching these chestnuts. Through my students I find new things to appreciate in music I know well—subtle nuances that reflect the interests and enthusiasms of each performer. Through my students’ ears, I learn to hear Beethoven anew.

I’m 39 years old and have been asked to perform Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with a small chamber orchestra. A conductor-less chamber orchestra. A chamber orchestra who’s concertmaster/artistic director assures me he will conduct from his position in the orchestra. Everything goes well until dress rehearsal when the 2nd movement falls apart because the strings are in one place and the winds are in another. I go home in a panic, am awake half the night with worry, and then call a friend the next day for advice. She tells me to play with the score, color code the orchestra’s parts so I can cue entrances with my head as I perform. I do so vigorously—my concert up-do tossing curls around with every emphatic nod. The orchestra and I make it through the concerto intact. Afterward, many audience members tell me that they enjoyed how passionate my performance was—an assessment made solely on the basis of my head movements and not from the panicked notes that accompanied the unintended theatrics.

I’m 53 years old, looking back over a lifetime’s relationship with Beethoven’s music. I specialize in playing the music of living composers and as such, it has been years since I’ve performed any Beethoven. But I see traces of him everywhere—in the bass lines of some pieces, the melodies of another. Most of all, I find him in my own struggles, personal and musical. Beethoven is so completely and utterly human. Like the old Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, Beethoven struggled. He worked for every note he wrote. He wrestled with infirmity and loss. Yet somehow, he emerged from these battles and his late compositions transcend notes, form, and perhaps time itself. In Beethoven I find a snapshot of life, purified in the crucible of art, offering a glimpse of the best of humanity.


4200DC39-5E3C-4868-8678-4E894B0C1D9F_1_201_aRhonda Rizzo is a performing and recording pianist and author. She has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It, numerous articles, and a novel, The Waco Variations. She’s devoted to playing (and writing about) the music of living composers on her blog, http://www.nodeadguys.comnodeadguys.com.

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.

intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching

Jonathan Biss, pianist

It’s the single most humane music imaginable

Igor Levit, pianist

Somewhere in the world right now, as I write, a pianist is performing or recording the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, maybe just a select handful of them, maybe all 32 in a crazy, Herculean marathon of music and emotion. At London’s Wigmore Hall alone, the past three years have seen cycles by Igor Levit, Llyr Williams and Jonathan Biss (currently). In autumn 2019, Igor Levit released his recording of the complete sonatas; Jonathan Biss’s boxset of was released this month, his personal vision of  these sonatas. These are just a few of the many pianists who feel compelled to perform and record “the 32″, the most comprehensive single body of Beethoven’s output.

Each generation brings a fresh crop of pianists willing to rise to the challenge of this music, from the pre-war recordings by Arthur Schnabel, with their fistfuls of wrong notes, which can give comfort to the keen amateur, to those of Wilhelm Kempff, Friedrich Gulda, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, Steven Kovacevich, Andras Schiff, Ronald Brautigam (on period instruments), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Paul Lewis, François-Frédéric Guy, Igor Levit…. the list of illustrious names goes on and on. (As a teenager, my prized possessions, along with a three-volume crimson clothbound edition of the complete sonatas, were my LPs of British pianist John Lill playing these sonatas.)

The compulsion to play and record this music, combined with, more often than not, a fair degree of reverence, is very much alive and well. Yet today it seems a curious, almost anachronistic act, which harks back to the sort of enforced serious music appreciation of the latter part of the nineteenth century, and something which would have probably amused and surprised Beethoven, since hardly a single movement of one his sonatas was performed to a paying audience in the concert format as we understand it today. Felix Mendelssohn performed the entire ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in a public concert in the 1830s, and Franz Liszt, the greatest pianist of his age, played the supposedly unplayable ‘Hammerklavier’ for an invited audience in Paris, but he only played two of the sonata’s four movements when he next performed it, perhaps concluding that the audience did not wish to sit through the entire work!

The pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to perform Beethoven’s piano sonatas in a single concert (the last five in 1878), declaring that “Berlin must have sunk very low if it cannot listen to my reading of Beethoven’s complete testament”. It was von Bülow who called the 32 Piano Sonatas the “New Testament” of the piano repertoire, thereby setting works, which were originally mostly composed for private study and domestic performance, on a high pedestal of veneration. Von Bülow often used religious rhetoric in relation to music, and his concerts were serious, didactic affairs, proclamations of “musical gospel” to the “congregation” of the audience. This created a quasi-religious veneration of Beethoven’s music, and specifically the 32, and this aura of reverence around the piano sonatas remains today.

Initially hard to sell, by the late 1880s von Bülow had launched and was touring with a four-concert Beethoven cycle. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Artur Schnabel was performing sonata cycles in Europe and the US, and in 1932 HMV launched the Beethoven Sonata Society through which subscribers could purchase Artur Schnabel’s recordings of the piano sonatas. He was the first pianist to record the complete sonatas, a monumental feat in itself given the limitations of the technology at the time. Schnabel was one of the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreters on record, and his performances remain highly prized for their simplicity of approach and his anti-virtuoso nature, which reveal the essence of this music. The American music critic Harold Schonberg called Schnabel “The Man Who Invented Beethoven”, and his recordings and performances brought the piano sonatas to a wider audience at a time when they were not that well-known or admired. It was Schnabel who also described this music as “better than can be played”, thus contributing to the cult, almost mythic status of the 32.

Today, this music continues to enjoy an elevated stature which goes far beyond the notes on the score, and despite some relaxation in the rituals and etiquette of classical concerts, the 32 are still regularly presented in an atmosphere of awed reverence. Any pianist who takes on this colossal challenge enjoys special respect: not only is this music physically and psychologically demanding, but the hand of history, tradition and expectation weighs heavily upon their shoulder.

There’s something seductive about this process of really going to your limit with this music

Jonathan Biss

For the completist – both performer and listener –  the 32 provide a satisfyingly significant opportunity to explore their composer’s output across three distinct periods of his career and to be immersed in repertoire on a grand scale (the complete cycle comes in at around 11 hours of music – a few pianists have performed all 32 sonatas in a single day, a crazy feat of stamina and perhaps a performance stunt too…. it’s more usual to hear a complete cycle over the course of 8 concerts). For any pianist embarking on this great journey, the experience is fascinating, frustrating, uplifting, intense and absorbing. This is music which places one face to face not only with Beethoven’s genius but also the sheer force of his personality. He’s stubborn, explosive, intimate, witty, rhetorical, angry, forbidding, despairing, anxious, joyful, his humanity evident in every phrase, his innermost feelings expressed with a startling lucidity. It is this, amongst other things, which makes his music so remarkable, inspiring and shocking. It is this too which allows so many pianists to bring their personality to this music, presenting his emotions through the prism of their own life experience and throwing a fresh perspective on this music every time it is performed or recorded.

He’s also incredibly precise in his writing and every marking and direction must be understood in its context: why, for example, does he differentiate between different kinds of staccato, or place a crescendo over a single note (a physical impossibility for the pianist!)? Yet he also leaves plenty open to one’s own interpretation and personal vision. In this respect, his music embodies the maxim “through discipline comes freedom”: it demands both a laser-like focus and also total abandon.

Beethoven never wants us to be in any doubt about what he is saying. Even when he asks the pianist to create an illusion……….the intention behind the sound, and the message it conveys, remains clear.

Paul Lewis, pianist

Playing the 32, your ego is constantly being tested because this is music which is bigger than you are. To meet a Beethoven sonata head-on, it stops being about you, how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. It is about getting beyond yourself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, trying to get so far under the composer’s skin that Beethoven’s ideas became your own. As one layer is uncovered, so another presents itself; the summit of this music is always just out of reach. There is no sense of a final arrival, an end to the journey with this music, and this is what makes it so endlessly fascinating for players and audiences alike.

These sonatas speak of fundamentals: the meaning of life and shared values. And so when sharing the music with others, you are debating, with the audience, what it means to be alive, to be human – those basic philosophical questions of Beethoven’s time which remain with us today.

With Beethoven there is always a life beyond the mundane – the whole universe could be contained in a single sonata.

whatever your connection with these works, their infinite scope will never fail to reward, overwhelm and inspire

Paul Lewis

 


For American pianist Jonathan Biss, Beethoven has been a near-constant companion for almost his entire life. He has been playing and writing about the 32 Piano Sonatas, has spent nearly ten years recording Beethoven’s sonatas and has embarked on a cycle of concerts performing all the sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall and in the US (and let us hope this wonderful series will be able to resume….).

the intensity of my current immersion with his music has become one of the most profound experiences of my life.

Jonathan Biss

This handsomely-produced boxset of the complete Piano Sonatas (Orchid Classics) presents the sonatas not in chronological order, as many sets do, but rather with a cross-section of sonatas on each disc, to demonstrate Biss’s conviction that each one stands as a brilliant masterpiece in its own right. This approach – one which he is also taking in his concert cycle – allows the listener to appreciate the individual qualities and distinct structures of each sonata, and the extraordinary development in Beethoven’s piano writing. Thus, the final sonatas, usually presented as a trilogy, in concert and on disc, are placed on separate discs within the context of sonatas from different periods of Beethoven’s compositional life. Biss refutes the notion that Beethoven had three distinct compositional periods as an over-simplification and instead urges the listener to view Beethoven’s compositional style in “a perpetual state of evolution”; even the final sonatas still betray some of his gruffness and a desire to shock, while the slow movements of the early sonatas look forward to later ones in their heart-stopping beauty and eloquence.

As individual works, each is endlessly compelling on its own merits; as a cycle, it moves from transcendence to transcendence, the basic concerns always the same, but the language impossibly varied

Jonathan Biss

As mentioned in my review of his most recent Beethoven sonatas concert at the Wigmore, Biss is a “thinking pianist”, with an acute intellectual curiosity and an ability to articulate the exigencies of learning, maintaining and performing this music, its challenges and its joys, offering remarkable insights, “behind the notes”, as it were, from the point of view of the performer. “Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.”

So does Biss achieve a similar spontaneity, vitality and expressivity in the recording? I think so – and the set gets off to an energetic start with the Sonata in C minor, No 5, Op 10/1, its first movement dramatic and commanding, the finale a throbbing, quickfire rondo bookending a slow movement of immense elegance.

Biss also appreciates Beethoven’s humour and wit, and selects pacing, particularly in the up-tempo movements, to highlight this. He often finds the humour in the music which others often gloss over: quirky ritardandos and accelerandos, which may irritate purists, and laugh-out-loud fermatas. 

Purists may also baulk at shifts in pace which are not always marked in the score, but I like the often dizzying, sometimes unruly tempi, as if Beethoven couldn’t get his ideas down fast enough. There’s a strong sense of storytelling here too, with dramatic bursts of narrative presented with a gripping immediacy – the finale of ‘Les Adieux’, for example, overflows with heartfelt joy. Slow movements, meanwhile, become transcendent poetic interludes infused with grace, tenderness and warmth; and these often reveal the true depths of Beethoven’s imagination.

The famous opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata (too often the subject of rather lugubriously clichéd readings) is hushed and haunting, just teetering on the edge of tragedy, but always eloquent. Biss’s sound is luminous (“moonlit”?!) and liquid, his pace a gently rippling moderato. This is contrasted by a finale of almost unrelenting restlessness, occasionally bordering on a comic hysteria. It’s this kind of playing, combined with airy passagework, dramatic tempi, crisp articulation, and a vivid aural imagination that can harness the breadth of the piano’s sonorities (listen to his pedalling in the finale of the Waldstein and the kaleidoscopic sound effects he achieves), that had me on the edge of my seat for much of Biss’s recent Wigmore concert.

But it’s not all about fleet fingers. Biss gives us thoughtful long-spun melodic lines, well-balanced harmonies, taut, driving rhythms, rumbling tremolandos, dramatic fermatas, carefully-considered voicing, subito dynamic swerves, and colourful orchestration – all devices Beethoven employs to express an amazing range of emotions from joy to despair, wit and uproarious humour, stubbornness and rage, passionate ardour and transcendent serenity. The sheer force of Beethoven’s personality, his capriciousness and inventiveness, is illustrated by Biss with clarity and proportion, beauty and commitment. His Beethoven is direct, lively and spontaneous, ever alert to Beethoven’s shifting moods. And while he undoubtedly respects the composer and his music, Biss does not allow reverence to get in the way of telling an entertaining story (certain other Beethoven pianists would have us believe that because this is “great music”, it must also be Very Serious). Instead, Biss’s approach is delightfully optimistic – one senses his constant curiosity and open-mindedness about this music – and refreshingly liberated from more mainstream interpretative choices. One also has the sense of a pianist with a profound affection for this music which comes from a long association with it, but also an ongoing fascination; for Jonathan Biss, the journey is far from over.

This is, in short, beautiful, thoughtful and incredibly vivid playing, and because of the organisation of the sonatas, each disc feels complete and satisfying in its own right, like a recital. An invigorating addition to the catalogue of Beethoven piano sonatas.

Recommended


Jonathan Biss | Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas is available on the Orchid Classics label.

beethovenpianoimage1smallTo Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, at the invitation of music publisher Barenreiter, to celebrate the recent publication of a new three-volume edition of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, edited by renowned Beethoven expert Jonathan del Mar.

Prior to the pre-concert talk, I had lunch with an old pal from university. We hadn’t seen each other for about 30 years, and had only recently reconnected thanks to Facebook. Our lunch conversation was a mixture of catching up and reminiscing about a very happy (and, to be honest, fairly well-behaved) three years at Exeter University in the mid-1980s, a time when there were no tuition fees, when gaining a degree still held a fair amount of cachet, and when it was relatively easy to find a job on graduation. Talking about music, we recalled the songs and bands which had been so meaningful to us at that time – Talking Heads, The Communards, The Smiths, Prefab Sprout, The Beastie Boys….. I almost had to “reset” when I walked through the gilded doors into the plush crimson-and-gold foyer of the Wigmore Hall.

2020 is Beethoven’s year, and however you may rail against it, protest that he’s getting far too much attention, demand more diversity in concerts programmes etc etc, you can’t escape the Old Radical and his music (and maybe there’s an undergraduate thesis to be written on whether Beethoven was the original Beastie Boy!). There’s a good reason for this, in my opinion, and that’s because in addition to this being the 250th anniversary of his birth, his music is absolutely bloody marvellous! He is “great” – and that was amply demonstrated in Jonathan Biss’ performance, the third concert in his odyssey through the complete Beethoven piano sonatas at London’s Wigmore Hall.

The compulsion to play and record this music, combined with, more often than not, a fair degree of reverence, is very much alive and well – and each generation brings a fresh crop of pianists willing to rise to the challenge; Biss’ cycle at the Wigmore comes hot on the heels of those of Igor Levit and Llyr Williams – and all three pianists have released recordings of the complete sonatas (Biss’ final instalment is due soon from Orchid Classics). This music enjoys an elevated stature which goes far beyond the notes on the score, and despite some relaxation in the rituals and etiquette of classical concerts, the 32 piano sonatas are still regularly presented in an atmosphere of awed reverence. This was palpable when I and my concert companion entered the sacred shoebox of the Wigmore auditorium (as my companion commented, hearing Beethoven is like an anticipating a grand meal, with steak as the main component!). Any pianist who takes on the colossal challenge of the piano sonatas enjoys special respect: not only is this music physically and psychologically demanding, but the hand of history, tradition and expectation weighs heavily upon their shoulders.

intense, immersive, impassioned, hugely demanding and hugely enriching

Jonathan Biss, pianist

Friday’s concert was prefaced by a special event hosted by Barenreiter in which Jonathan del Mar talked engagingly about the process of producing another edition of the complete piano sonatas when so many already exist. He outlined the obvious prerequisites for the “ideal” edition:

  • It consults all surviving sources, to ensure “all the right notes” are included
  • It provides a commentary for musicians which is open and transparent
  • It delights the musician’s eye in its clear design and spacious layout, with “as good as possible” page turns.

Del Mar’s research revealed some interesting and entertaining “mishaps” in previous editions; for example, a hole in the paper being mistaken for a staccato marking or essential details being lost in the conservation and cleaning up of manuscripts. His interesting commentary was illuminated by musical demonstrations on the piano.

Jonathan Biss is a “thinking pianist” with an acute intellectual curiosity, as evidenced by his writings on Beethoven, and other composers, and his online course on the Sonatas. It was therefore a surprise to encounter a performer who appeared anything but a stuffy academic. Here was vivid expression, vitality and flamboyance; no standing back from the music as if in modest reverence but rather a deep dive into its every nook and cranny to winkle out and reveal details afresh.

The programme offered an overview of Beethoven’s creative life, with sonatas from all three periods of his compositional output (No. 1 in F , No. 10 in G, No. 18 in E-flat, No. 24 in F-sharp and No. 30 in E), and the first half in particular suggested an exuberant lust for life on the part of the composer, the performer reflecting this with sparkly, febrile runs and dizzying tempi. A tiny memory lapse in the first sonata was handled with bravura (and gave hope to aspirational amateurs, a reminder that this pianist is also human!). The final sonata in the triptych, nicknamed ‘The Hunt’, was a rollicking romp, its barely-reined-in energy given only a brief respite in the elegant Menuetto. In the finale, horses and hounds were fully unleashed and galloped around the keyboard in a vigorous, earthy tarantella. Edge-of-the-seat playing for audience, Biss electrified his performance with the sense that this music could run out of control at any moment (except that it wasn’t going to because this pianist clearly understands the paradox “through discipline comes freedom”) lending a special frisson to the performance. I turned to my companion at the end of the first half and found he was equally open-jawed at what we had just experienced.

There’s something seductive about this process of really going to your limit with this music

– Jonathan Biss

And here’s the thing: live music, done this way, truly is an experience. Not a polite recreation of what’s exactly on the page, a solemn ceremony of reverence, of fidelity and and “authenticity” (whatever the f*ck that actually means!) and honouring the composer’s “intentions”, but a thrillingly personal, witty, eccentric, captivating and unpredictable account of music which this pianist clearly adores. It’s not to everyone’s taste and it’s the kind of playing that will probably irritate the keepers of the sacred flame, but I loved it because it made me feel energised, fully alive.

The second half further confirmed this (and any performer who causes me to spontaneously cry during the Op 109 is clearly “doin’ it right”). A sensitive, but never saccharine Op 78, dedicated to Therese, and then the transcendence that is the Op 109, No false sentiment here – from the lyrical opening movement through the rambunctious middle movement, and finally the gorgeous, seductive theme and variations which open and close with a prayer, this was beautiful, thoughtful and vivid playing.

Companion and I retired to a noisy pub down the road from the Wigmore for post-concert conversation and more wine, neither of us truly able to put into words what we had just experienced. My only comment then was that this is music which can “take anything a performer throws at it”. And therein, for me at least, lies its greatness.

Really, Music is above all other things a language, and since no one used that language more daringly than Beethoven the more of it you speak, the more of it you feel, the more you will find in his Music.
– Jonathan Biss


Jonathan Biss’ Beethoven cycle continues at Wigmore Hall on 20 April (with a talk by Biss on 19 April). Further details.

My concert companion writes: Biss at Wigmore

Meet the Artist interview with Jonathan Biss