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.

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.

St Martin-in-the-Fields welcomes the Piccadilly Sinfonia for five concerts that celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Featuring British concert pianist, Warren Mailley-Smith, acclaimed by Classic FM as “stunning”, the concert series will take audiences through a journey of all five of Beethoven’s masterful piano concertos, alongside selections of Beethoven’s famous symphonic works and music of composers who influenced and were influenced by Beethoven.

The concert series will be conducted by British conductor, Tom Fetherstonhaugh, who has been described as “a spark to watch” by BBC Radio 3. Explore the fate of a man who composed for princes and kings, who ushered in a new era in classical music becoming its hero, and is remembered today as an emperor among men, one of the greatest composers of all time.

Born in 1770, a point in history wrought by tumult and great change, Beethoven composed music that began a new era. The first concert in the series, Fate, features Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and his Fifth Symphony, a work known worldwide by only four simple notes. Prince and King explore the works composed for and associated with royalty. Showing the intensity of Beethoven’s earlier works, Hero begins with his First Piano Concerto, a work composed when Beethoven was only 25, paired with his Eroica Symphony. The series concludes in a complete celebration of Beethoven’s life with Emperor, commemorating Haydn’s influence on a young Beethoven and ending with Beethoven’s final piano concerto, the Emperor Concerto.

TICKETS PRICES £29/£25/£18/£13/£9

Save 25% and see all 5 concerts

CONCERT 1
Fate: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Third Piano Concerto
Tuesday, 28 January, 2020 7.30pm

CONCERT 2
​Prince: Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto
Tuesday, 17 March, 2020 7:30pm

CONCERT 3
​King
: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Second Piano Concerto
Tuesday, 28 April, 2020 7:30pm

CONCERT 4
​Hero
: Beethoven’s Third Symphony and First Piano Concerto
Tuesday, 30 June, 2020 7.30pm

CONCERT 5
​Emperor
: Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony and Fifth Piano Concerto
Tuesday, 29 September, 2020 7:30pm

To buy tickets/further information please visit or learn more about our season, visit www.piccadillysinfonia.com/beethoven250, or call St Martin-in-the-Fields’s Box Office Services at 020 7766 1100


Launched under the artistic direction of British concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith, the Piccadilly Sinfonia is formed from some the UK’s leading young professional talent, with notable guest soloists so far having included violinists Zoey Beyers, Fenella Humphreys, Martyn Jackson, and Harriet Mackenzie. Their repertoire draws largely from a wide range of baroque and classical works for chamber orchestra including a number of virtuoso concerti.

Warren Mailley-Smith recently became the first British pianist to perform Chopin’s complete works for solo piano from memory in a series of 11 recitals at St John’s Smith Square. Hailed by the critics as an “epic achievement”, Mailley-Smith will repeat the series at several venues in 2020. He has given acclaimed solo recitals at Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and has performed for the British Royal Family on numerous occasions. One of the busiest concert pianists of his generation, he regularly gives over 100 solo performances a year. His career has taken him all over the world, with solo performances in Australia, Europe and most recently solo tours in China and the USA. He has 30 piano concertos in his repertoire, having made his concerto debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tom Fetherstonhaugh is a British conductor. Described as ‘a spark to watch’ by BBC Radio 3, his recent projects include a concert for peace in the Korean Demilitarised Zone, the development of a new piano concerto with players from the Ulster Orchestra and assisting Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Academy of Music. Tom made his debut in Asia in 2019, performing in the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) with the Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra. Entitled ‘One Harmony’, the festival promotes peace between the Koreas through music, and the performance included a collaboration with the National Children’s Chorus of America. As well as the Fantasia Orchestra, Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra, Oxford University Sinfonietta and the orchestra of the Oxford Chamber Music Festival, Tom has conducted players from the Ulster Orchestra, the Southbank Sinfonia, Leicester Symphony Orchestra, Hereford Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, the Junior Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia, Senior Orchestra and Main Choir, the orchestra of the Pro Corda Senior Course, the choir of Merton College, Oxford, and, aged 13, the choristers of Westminster Abbey on their tour to Russia. Tom is also active as an organist and pianist; he was organ scholar at Merton College, Oxford, and is a prizewinning Associate of the Royal College of Organists. He has played for live BBC Radio 3 broadcasts, and in 2017 played for the first Anglican Evensong at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. He has appeared as soloist in the UK, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore, including the Oxford Chamber Music and Oxford Lieder Festivals. On the piano, Tom has recently performed the complete Beethoven Violin Sonatas with violinist Athena Hawksley-Walker in the Holywell Music Room; the duo played live on Radio3’s In Tune as part of the project.


source: press release