The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works

Edward Said, ‘On Late Style’

What is ‘Late Style’? It’s a question that has preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno, who coined the term in relation to Beethoven’s late music, to Edward Said, whose book ‘On Late Style’ explores the output of artists, writers and composers whose late work is often intransigent and contradictory.

Although not always concerned with valedictory thoughts, late style is also associated with an aesthetic mastery and a distillation of what matters most, as if an awareness that the end may be near has the effect of really concentrating the artistic focus. Beethoven, for example, reveals in his late piano sonatas an intense otherworldliness and non-conformity. For Adorno, Beethoven’s last works are an emphatic and triumphant assertion of his refusal to resolve life’s exigencies peacefully, a view which Edward Said endorses, regarding it as a strength in its own right, rather than a negative factor in Beethoven’s late music.

In a more long-lived composer such as Brahms, the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is limited produces music which is impeccably wrought and introspective, yet emotionally unleashed. Meanwhile, for Schubert and Schumann, who both died young (by today’s standards), lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. The “late” works of these composers demonstrate that lateness is not just about physical maturity but also an attitude of mind. In their music there is the sense of a life lived with intensity, that time is finite, and this seems to have focused composers’ imaginations in a very specific way.

In Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn), composed in November 1853, just a few months before Robert Schumann’s irretrievable mental breakdown, we find a composer who has turned desperately inward, the “Eusebius” (sensitive, introverted) side of his personality very much to the fore. The music is poignantly pared down, starkly revealing the composer’s devastating emotional state.

The late piano works which form Brahms’ Opp 118 and 119 contain serenity and vulnerability, and an acceptance that the end is near, yet these works are not valedictory. In these late piano works, there is greater spaciousness, more freedom of expression, and the sense of a composer who no longer has anything to prove.

Schubert’s last works, in contrast, suggest an “incompleteness”, as if he still had much more to say. The final year of Schubert’s life was one of extraordinary productivity, marked by increasing public acclaim and declining health, and the wealth of music produced in the final year of his life, including the two sets of Impromptus and the final three piano sonatas, displays a very high level of artistic maturity. Freed from the shadow of Beethoven, who died in 1827 and whom Schubert revered, the last three piano sonatas in particular reveal a remarkable assuredness in Schubert’s writing, in their structural organization and expansiveness, and the use of cyclic motifs to create a sense of “belonging” between the individual movements and across the three sonatas as a whole.

If ‘Winterreise’ is heartbreak, a study in unrelieved sorrow, the final three sonatas reveal, and revel in all of life: while the C minor Sonata D958 is the most serious of the triptych, its companions are never unremittingly melancholy nor heavy, but rather intoxicatingly bittersweet, nostalgic, and life-affirming.

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When the concert is perfect, does that make the reviewer redundant?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I enjoy writing about the concerts I attend but I also struggle with the purpose and value of concert reviews. At the most fundamental level, a review is a record of the event, setting it in context and as a moment in history. A review should also offer readers a flavour of the event and the thoughts and opinion of the reviewer about that event. When I left Milton Court last night I told my concert companion I could not write about the concert we’d just attended because it was so perfect that to write about it could not possibly do justice to the quality of the performance…..

Last night I attended American pianist Jeremy Denk’s concert at Milton Court, one of London’s newest concert venues and, in my opinion, the finest for piano music because of the clarity of its acoustic. Add a pianist whose musical insight and intellectual clarity, magical touch and sense of pacing bring the music to life so that you want to hear him “no matter what he performs” (NY Times), and we have the makings for an evening of exceptionally fine pianism.

It was a typically piquant programme, changed from the published version to include just three works – two magisterial, transcendent late sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert and Prokofiev’s Vision Fugitives, twenty fleeting miniatures, by turns quirky, ethereal, rambunctious, grotesque, poetic, delicate, fragmentary….. Denk revealed their individual characters so carefully, so delightfully that each tiny gem felt like a stand alone piece in its own right.

Beethoven’s piano sonata in E, op 109, the first of his triptych of last sonatas, also opens with a fragment – a tiny arabesque of just two notes in the right hand to which the left hand replies with a similar figure. It’s not a melody, yet that opening is immediately memorable. In Denk’s hands the music unfolded before us, its narrative flow so naturally paced. A muscular middle movement which dissolved into a theme and six variations, surely some of the most transcendent Beethoven ever wrote and handled with a delicacy and robustness, when required, by Denk which pulled one into this otherwordly soundworld so completely that one was transported, fully engaged and utterly overwhelmed. It was akin to meditating.

It felt almost wrong to leave the auditorium for the interval and face the noisy crush around the bar, but we knew the second half would take us to another special place, the unique world of late Schubert, his final sonata completed just a few months before his death.

Is the Sonata in B flat, D960 Schubert’s “final word”? A valediction for his departure from this world? I’ve always been suspicious of this view of this great sonata, whose expansive opening movement is like a great river charting is final course before the ocean, and whose finale is a joyful outpouring of hope, a reminder perhaps that Schubert had more, much more to say, had he lived longer. This was certainly Denk’s take on Schubert’s last sonata. The opening movement’s first theme had the serenity of a hymn, the second theme more unsettled, but the overall sense of repose remained, occasionally interrupted by dark, but never ominous, rumbling bass trills.

The meditative quality of the Beethoven variations was felt again in the slow movement of the D960. In some pianist’s hands, this movement can sound funereal, but Denk gave it a mystical grace and a sense of forward movement, so that the warmth of the A major middle section when it came infused rather than surprised the ear. The Scherzo poured forth with the agile freshness of a sparkling mountain stream, but the Trio reminded us that melancholy is never fair away in Schubert’s world, the bass accents (too often overlooked in other performances/recordings) here perfectly highlighting the change of mood….

The finale opens with a bare G, potentially as cold as the opening of the first Impromptu, but a dancing sprightly rondo quickly ensures, rising to a joyous conclusion, all masterfully and imaginatively presented by Denk. The overall pacing of this Sonata, like the Beethoven, was so elegantly managed: it is a long work (around 40 minutes) yet Denk’s clear sense of a through narrative and overall architecture of the music ensured there were no longueurs, not a moment when the mind wandered to other realms.

The encore was Brahms’ ever popular Intermezzo in A, from the Op 118. Tender and poignant, it was a lovely conclusion to an exceptionally fine evening of pianism.

when I have felt in the moment of the performance I have brought the notes on the page to life in a weird way which is outside of me – that is the kind of success that I am after

– Jeremy Denk (interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist)


Meet the Artist – Jeremy Denk

Mozart, Piano Sonata in B flat major, K570

Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 31 in A flat major, Op.110

Haydn, Piano Sonata in D major, Hob XVI:51

Schubert, Piano Sonata no. 20 in A major, D.959

Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th April 2016

Sir András Schiff is traversing the final three piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in concerts across America and Europe. Twelve sonatas in total are spread across three concerts which celebrate the sonata form, “one of the greatest inventions in Western music” (Schiff), a structure central to the oeuvres of all four composers and a means by which we can observe their development at key stages in their creative lives.

andras-schiff

The triptych of concerts also explores the notion of “late style”. In considering Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. Haydn and Beethoven were long-lived (by the standards of their day), while Mozart and Schubert died young. But it is the intensity of their lives and creativity that matters here: for example, in the last year of his life, Schubert’s output was astonishing – the string quartets and Symphony in C major, the ‘Schwanengesang’ song cycle and many other works in addition to the three final piano sonatas.

Read my full review here

A visit to the Austrian Cultural Forum last night for a short recital and presentation by pianist Alisdair Kitchen to mark the launch of a new interactive online project Haydn on Flipboard.

I first met Alisdair on Twitter last July when he launched his TwitterGoldbergs project, in which he released a single Goldberg Variation every day for a month. The project was supported by Norman Lebrecht via his Slipped Disc blog. Soon after, Alisdair and I met in Real Life, and we made a podcast in which Alisdair discusses his fascination with Bach’s Goldbergs, the value of recording and sharing music in the 21st century and a general conversation about his musical influences and career to date. What I particularly liked about the TwitterGoldbergs project was its immediacy and accessibility: one could listen whenever one wanted to, and catch up on missed installments via Alisdair’s Twitter feed or on YouTube (where the recordings were hosted). It also allowed one to really enjoy each individual variation and appreciate the artistry of Bach’s writing.

Keen to explore the piano music of Haydn, which Alisdair feels is sadly underrated (and somewhat under-represented in concert programmes), and in an attempt to create an interactive project redolent of the Viennese coffee house culture, which Haydn would have known well, Alisdair’s Haydn on Flipboard uses an application, Flipboard, which allows the user to create an online scrapbook of links which can be shared, and he is inviting readers to contribute items for future issues (you may see something from this blog amongst the pages of the first issue). While perusing the articles, one can enjoy Alisdair playing Haydn via SoundCloud. This aspect of the application works best on tablets and smart phones: if viewing the Flipboard on a PC or Mac, you can listen to Alisdair via his YouTube channel. Thus, Alisdair hopes to create a community of listeners, readers and contributors – a kind of “virtual coffee house”, if you will. You can in fact enjoy a cup of coffee while reading Alisdair’s Flipboard.

For his recital, Alisdair chose to play what is generally considered to be Haydn’s last piano sonata, the great E flat, No. 52. This is well-known and widely performed, sometimes in a programme featuring the last piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert (as here). Before this, he played the Andante and Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII: 6, a work with an interesting “double variation” device, which Haydn pioneered, of two themes, in minor and major respectively. Played with commitment and a very obvious affection for this music, there were moments of great poignancy and melancholy which seemed to look forward, beyond Beethoven, to Schubert. The E-flat Sonata was performed with equal commitment, Alisdair enjoying the full range of sonorities available from the magnificent Bosendorfer piano which resides at the ACF.

Haydn on Flipboard

Twitter Goldbergs Podcasts