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

FFGuy for F&AGuest interview by Michael Johnson

François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2200-seat outdoor amphitheatre was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven – playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After the interval, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and shook up the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. Monsieur Guy joined me and a colleague after his concert for a question-and-answer session about his playing, the role of the piano in his life, and his future as a conductor of Beethoven symphonies.

Question: Can you describe your technique for creating such a stormy opening for Hammerklavier? The audience was thrilled.

Answer: I try to achieve several things at once with those opening bars – signaling immediately the dimension of the complete work, its conquering majesty, and the vital energy that begins to build from those enormous, outsized chords. I try to give it weight and pace, as Beethoven wanted. It is as if Beethoven was saying, “Let’s go conquer the universe!”

Q. And your surprising low-key encore? What were you thinking?

A. I enjoy the idea behind this little piece which is probably the best-known and simplest work of Beethoven. I chose it to come immediately after the most dense and complex of Beethoven’s work, one that is relatively little known to the general public. But “Elise” is also Beethoven and can, as you say, touch people to the point of tears.

Q. What does music mean to you, as a career pianist. Since we have known each other – nearly 25 years – you have dedicated yourself entirely to music.

A. Music fills my life, my existence. Even when I am not at the instrument, even when I am speaking of other things…. Through music, one can express things that words cannot.

Q. I see you are busy – 50 concerts and recitals per year.

A. Yes, now it’s closer to 60, apportioned among concertos, chamber music and solo recitals. I try to maintain a balance of about one-third for each format.

Q. Your new career seems to be taking off – now you are an orchestral conductor …

A. Yes, I am doing some conducting. I started by conducting from the keyboard, the so-called “play and conduct” format. Seven or eight years ago I started doing the Beethoven piano concertos that way, and it’s becoming more a part of my life. Now I have booked about ten play-and-conduct engagements in which I add a performance on the podium, conducting the full orchestra.

Q. Alone on the podium? What drove you to undertake this new challenge?

A. Actually it’s an old dream dating back to adolescence. I started conducting from the keyboard, and gravitated to the podium. My conducting has been well-received so I am continuing. For the moment, I conduct only Beethoven.

Q. Only the symphonies?

A. Yes, I have already done the Fourth and Fifth at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and will conduct the Seventh in October at the Opéra de Limoges, with its very good orchestra that I have worked with frequently. I enjoy it very much, and will conduct Beethoven’s “Fidélio” there in 2022.

Q. Will you do what Rudolf Buchbiner did in Aix recently, all five piano concertos in one day?

A. Yes, I am scheduled to do just that in January, again at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. We will start at 7 p.m. with Nos. 1 and 3, then a break, returning for Nos. 2 and 4, and finally at 10 p.m. the Fifth.

Q. This sounds like a major exploit!

A. That’s not at all why I am doing it. I merely want to take the public on a journey with me to better understand the evolution of these concertos. I find this idea very exciting and I think the public will as well. In addition, these concertos are all works of genius and so individual – each one has its own character. They do not encroach on each other. It’s like a great crossing of seas on an ocean liner. I will be taking the public with me.

Q. I was also thinking of it as a physical marathon.

A. Yes, both musically and intellectually. It’s even more true in a play-and-conduct format because I have to control what’s going on around the piano. We must remember, though, that in Beethoven’s time all concertos were performed like this. There were no conductors. Same goes for Mozart.

Q. So you are putting yourself in Beethoven’s and Mozart’s shoes, so to speak?

A. Well yes, somewhat, a bit. It’s a return to the concertos as they were intended. The piano is not king – it’s there for a dialogue with the instrumentalists, like a big family.

Q. Do you like the feeling of disappearing into the orchestra when you play-and-conduct?

A. Yes indeed. The pianist turns his or her back on the audience and is encircled by the other players. So there is a sort of fraternity – no rivalry – but it’s not easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, there is a kind of unity, and that’s what is so interesting.

Q. You have said that keyboard conducting gives you a new understanding of the music. What do you mean? Does it really change your perspective?

A. Absolutely. When you play traditionally with a conductor, one must be familiar with the orchestral parts while concentrating essentially on the piano part – that’s our role. But when the pianist and the conductor are the same person, it becomes clear how completely the piano is integrated into Beethoven’s concept, and Mozart too, and then later Brahms and Schumann.

Q. How did you go about studying for your role as a conductor?

A. Well I am largely self-taught, an autodidact. But I have been counseled by some eminent conductors, notably Philippe Jordan, conductor of the Bastille Opera and soon to direct the Vienna Staatsoper, when he leaves the Bastille next year. He is a fabulous conductor, an extraordinary talent. He has helped me tremendously. And another one is Pascal Rophé, conductor of the Orchestre des Pays de Loire – Nantes and Angers. He has been a big help with the Beethoven symphonies. But I am essentially self-taught and I have no ambitions to become a full-time conductor.

Q. Ah no? That was my question – isn’t there a temptation to leave the piano behind? Solti, Bernstein and many others abandoned the piano to conduct.

A. No, no, that’s not my plan. Conducting is an extension of my interests in music. For example, I have played practically all of Beethoven’s piano music, all his chamber music, all his important piano works. And it seemed natural to try conducting. I could not imagine NOT conducting one of the symphonies. So I had to learn how to do it.

Q. Contemporary music in one of your big interests. You have collaborated with the composer Tristan Murail, I believe, and others?

A. Yes, I am currently on a concerto Tristan Murail is composing for me. What matters for me is new ideas in composition that still retain traditional structures. I want innovation, ideas that change the piano and the orchestra. Sounds we have never heard before. That’s what interests me with Tristan Murail.

Q. Are you spending your life focused solely on the piano to the exclusion of all other activities? Some pianists wear blinkers.

A. I am not wrapped up in a bubble. Nothing stops me from following important events, such as Korea, or the relations between the two Koreas.

Q. You are in touch with people outside the world of music?

A. Yes, I am very involved in astronomy, for example. I study mushrooms!

Q. Mushrooms?

A. Yes. The other day I found ten kilos of cepes on my property in the Dordogne. I have always had a passion for mushrooms of all types.

Q. John Cage was also a mushroom enthusiast. He wrote books about them. He even created the New York Mycological Society for the study of mushrooms.

A. I am a specialist too. I know all the names of different species in Latin.

Q. Tell us about your tenth Beethoven cycle planned for Tokyo. What does it consist of?

A. What it means is that I will play all of the 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory over a ten-day period, about three weekends, for the tenth time. Almost twelve hours of music.

Q. Do you have a loyal fan base in Japan?

A. Yes, yes. I usually play in a very beautiful hall in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Two years ago I played there with the Dresden orchestra conducted by Michael Sanderling. And last year I played all the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas there.

Q. If you give 60 recitals and concerts a year, as you said at the start of this interview, can you still find time to develop new repertoire?

A. Yes, I try to master one or two important works every year. I recently accepted to learn and play a concerto by Enescu. I always try to put aside time for new works.

Q. But at your age, don’t you find you learn more slowly?

A. Yes, I am 50 years old. But I have many things I want to do in music. I am not stopping.

 

Artist portrait by Michael Johnson


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

(This article first appeared on the Facts & Arts site. Illustrations by the author.)

 

 

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