Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

Beethoven is unlikely to have collected too much water in his ear, for his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent. I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the loss of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when he was completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.


This article originally appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s Manuscript Notes site.


Nick Hely-Hutchinson worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children and is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist.

Guest post by Beth Levin, concert pianist

Dear Bill,

The thing about this last concert was the pre-concert depression. I sunk really low and felt so incredibly sad. I don’t really know what that was about. I tend to get down beforehand but this felt suicidal. I was staying with friends in Baltimore and the night before the concert all of the mistakes of my life seemed to surround me and grip me. Everything felt wrong. So wrong! At home I would normally lie on the couch in invalid mode but I was with friends and had to come out of myself and act at least halfway normal. Haha – it all feels slightly ludicrous in retrospect. My friends (of the delicious crab cake recipe – I was told that crab cake on a Saltine was the way they grew up eating it) had a beautiful Steinway at their home and I got in some excellent practicing before the concert. Their piano was vintage and had a certain sweetness to the tone. The piano at the hall was “state of the art” – almost murmuring, “I dare you!”. No sweetness there, but power and one certainly could make music on it. Just so new, shining black and devoid of quirks. In ten years it will be a gem. The hall was beautiful – I remember that much. I don’t remember much about the recital itself. I take that as a good sign – not being haunted by it, but having it flow, happen and come to an end.

The people stood at the end – that was lovely for me. I made a mistake right at the beginning in a scale going up in the Handel – but after that I think I played with more mastery.

The Hammerklavier felt like playing a great role like King Lear. The piece really demanded everything – deepest emotion, color, reaction, assertiveness, richness, tenderness, extreme contrast in mood, the limit of technique – just to describe some of what that work asks from the performer. I played the first movement on the slow side but I think it worked – you could really hear what Beethoven was doing – and the phrasing is so gorgeous that way. The final movement may be the biggest challenge, at least technically – it verges on being unplayable I think. I know the singers felt that about his Missa Solemnis – not singable. I took the Adagio faster, and I think that worked well too. The Adagio feel was still there, but you could hear the long line and things held together… like a good crab cake! A good title: “The Hammerklavier on a Saltine!” The piece grabs you and puts you through your paces as they say from the opening chords – which had always cowed me in practicing – you have to truly Live that piece and portray it at the same time – which is why it feels like a dramatic role I think.

I honestly felt in the last few pages that I was almost home and feeling a slight relief at that – and then at the true end of the concert the audience reaction overtook me for several minutes – I ran backstage and ripped off my rather fancy dress in such a hurry and got into plain clothes. I don’t know why I did that. It is a week later now and I still feel a bit “off”. All of the depression is gone, but is there such a thing as post-Hammerklavier stress syndrome? Kidding, but you don’t play that work and stay the same.

It leaves you very tired and kind of nostalgic for the music and for everything in your life – lived and unlived. And it forces you to explore everything you’re made of at the piano – pure and simple. I’ve been practicing chamber music for a rehearsal next week – and my heart hasn’t been in it fully. I think the word “force” is so relevant to the Hammerklavier. The piece is a force of nature – like Beethoven – and it forces things from the performer – like a tough fight, one that you can’t exactly win, but can see end in a draw.

~Beth xxx

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Beth Levin at Earl & Darielle Linehan Concert Hall, Baltimore

Beethoven – Hammerklavier Sonata | programme note by Max Derrickson

Crab Cake Recipe

Meet the Artist – Beth Levin

Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall, 13 June 2017

Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Opp 109, 110 and 111

I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.

He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.

Read my full review here

 

 

 

(photo ©Igor Levit)

Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the more romantic virtuoso repertoire.

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is a Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.

On Wednesday night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall, bringing his intelligent and distinctive approach to these great works. 

Read my full review here 




(Photo © Igor Levit)

Quietude

Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Arvo Pärt

0e9a4e9b60bf60fa96f5a0a69bf97e1dWhy pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music in between.

Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4′ 33″) – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying, single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret it – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self-examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))

Q is also for Quakers, of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring qualities (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.

– TS Eliot: Little Gidding (Four Quartets)

Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.

Stephen Ward, Writer in Residence for the Orchestra of the Swan, and blogger at The Bard of Tysoe

Quasi – As if…..

Perhaps the most famous work for piano which utilises the word “Quasi” is Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight”. The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title the work shares with its companion piece, Opus 27, No. 1.

This is extraordinary music, this “Sonata like a fantasy”, with its first movement of delicately veiled sounds, hushed melodic fragments, those peaceful, certain triplets, the slight hesitancy in the dotted figure in the right hand, the suggestion throughout of improvisation, the pedal markings, senza sordini, indicating that the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old. A twilight first movement, shimmering, shifting, hinting at the tension between the forward pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision, and the solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, the use of thematic material and texture beautifully demonstrated in the construction of the initial melody. A prophetic theme built on a single note, G-sharp, this the composer’s core idea. A single note, repeated six times, proceeds to A, then returns. A single note, reharmonized on its return, not by the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with luminous E-major. A single note forms a single theme; there is no second subject in the first movement, only that the triplet accompaniment assumes a more melodic role, only that tension rises as new harmonies are initiated. A single note, a single theme, now heard for the first time in the left hand in the coda. A single note, foreshadowed in the opening measures, recollected at the close. A single note, a simple triplet accompaniment, a crescendo and decrescendo first in the right hand, then in the left. The movement ends as quietly as it began…..

Frances Wilson

(Picture © Guy Vivien)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?

I heard my father playing Chopin, Grieg and Schumann at home almost every evening on our small upright piano. Then I tried to imitate him! As I was gifted, he decided to do everything necessary to help me in my development: courses with great teachers, day to day work. He believed in my musical career from the very beginning and that was probably the most important.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

Arthur and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel (with whom I really learned my Beethoven), then Leon Fleisher, who was for me a kind of Mentor, and Christian Ivaldi, who opened my brain to the world of Wagner and Strauss, which radically influenced radically repertoire and the texture of my personal sound.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing the 32 Beethoven sonatas in 10 days.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Playing a concerto with orchestra is the utmost gift a pianist can receive! The piano concerto repertoire is just fabulous and I always feel like it’s an achievement in a solo career. The main problem is to build a relationship with a conductor in a very short rehearsal time. You can feel a kind of frustration sometimes. It is why my relationship with Philippe Jordan is very special, as we have recorded and played so many concertos since 2007! The complete Beethovens on CD and in concert as well as Mozart, Brahms and Saint-Saens. The musical result is amazing because we feel like chamber music partners.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

My Brahms 2nd concerto with LPO and Paavo Berglund, the Beethoven Fifth Concerto with O.P. Radio-France and Philippe Jordan, and my last live recording of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata recently released.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

This is a tough question. For recital, I would say Wigmore hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Köln Philharmonie and Metz Arsenal.

With orchestra, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Salle Pleyel in Paris and Royal Festival Hall in London. Next season I will make my debut in two great European hall: Tonhalle in  Zürich and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam!

Who are your favourite musicians?

Among others – Furtwangler, Celibidache, Barenboim, Boulez, Brendel, Pollini and Sokolov. I rediscovered Arrau recently: a genius.

Regarding the conductors I’ve played with I would mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, Daniel Harding, and of course Philippe Jordan. Recently I played with the young conductor Edward Gardner: he was astonishing.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Philippe Jordan conducting Parsifal in Bayreuth.

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?

Beethoven always to play and listen, I listen more than ever Wagner’s Ring..and all the others.. Then Bruckner 4/5/7/8/9, the complete Mahler

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

Do not only work solely at your instrument, although it is crucial to spend hours on practising. The main thing is to have an exhaustive knowledge of orchestral and operatic repertoire in order to make the piano like a real orchestra

What are you working on at the moment?

The 5 Beethoven Concertos and the 32 Sonatas, as well as some Wagner paraphrases to celebrate this genius!

I also have some modern music as usual, new studies from Georges Benjamin and a Piano Concerto by Tristan Murail.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time

Any place where I could perform Beethoven’s music.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My wife’s love forever and music everywhere.

What is your most treasured possession?

Patou, my dear cat!!!!!

What is your present state of mind?

Promethean!

Interview date: November 2013

François-Frédéric Guy is regarded as one of the most fascinating pianists of his generation since his career was launched by his debut with Orchestre de Paris and Wolfgang Sawallisch in 2000.

Guy is an artist of immense interpretative authority and superlative technique. He has spent much of his career performing the works of Beethoven, recently completing recordings of the five concertos with Philippe Jordan, and the 32 Sonatas.  Guy has performed worldwide with orchestras such as the Berlin Symphony, Hallé, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and San Francisco Symphony and conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Neeme Järvi and Michael Tilson Thomas.

www.ffguy.net