Monday, April 14, 2008

Concluding the First Half of the Beethoven Cycle

Last week I referred to Thayer's citation of "the glorious series of sonatas," which Ludwig van Beethoven composed in the years 1798 and 1799. Last night András Schiff concluded the first half of his cycle of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas with an equally "glorious series," all completed in 1801 and sporting consecutive opus numbers, a "run" that would only be duplicated at the end of the cycle. The three opus numbers in this case are 26 (sometimes called the "Funeral March" after its third movement), 27 (the two compositions called "Sonata quasi una Fantasia"), and 28 (sometimes labeled "Pastoral"). By way of historical context, by 1801 Beethoven had completed his first three piano concertos, his six Opus 18 string quartets, and his first symphony. We are still a year away from his "Heiligenstadt Testament" and his confrontation with, in the words of that Testament, "the prospect of a lasting malady" of deafness. He has not yet reached the level of Richard Wagner's heroic epithet describing him as a Titan wrestling with the Gods; but he is commanding the full use of his faculties to "push the envelope" of convention in his compositions.

Schiff's recital took an approach to time-scale similar to last week's, saving Opus 28, in many ways the most conventionally structured, as the only work after the intermission. This meant that before the intermission we heard eleven movements (four in Opus 26, four in Opus 27, Number 1, and three in Opus 27, Number 2), only one of which, the last, conformed to what theorists now call "sonata form." I should point out here that I am in at least slight disagreement with Schiff over this claim. In his interview for the program notes, he described the first movement of Opus 27, Number 2 (the movement that earned it the "Moonlight" nickname) as "a highly disguised sonata form;" but the only grounds I can see for this is the sense of a recapitulation over the final ten measures. I am more inclined to follow Donald Francis Tovey and view sonata form as less a matter of recapitulation and more a matter of an elaboration of ternary form; and, if that ternary form is "highly disguised" in this movement, then it is so disguised as to be barely recognizable. I agree more with Schiff's later remark that one should think of this movement more in terms of a Bach prelude. Also, the experience of hearing these sonatas played in chronological order left me feeling a parallel with the Adagio con molto espressione movement from Opus 22, which Schiff played last week and which I cited as one of Beethoven's first steps towards exploring a sense of calm sustained over an extended duration of time. So I shall hold to my primary point: Throughout the first half of this recital, we experienced Beethoven experimenting with a variety of departures from the form traditionally associated with a sonata, only to return to that tradition just before the intermission.

This raises another interesting point about Beethoven's "quasi una Fantasia" approach to both Opus 27 sonatas: all the transitions between movements are marked "Attacca subito" except for the transition to that "traditional" final movement of Opus 27, Number 2. There is thus a strong sense of seamlessness in Beethoven's approach to the "Fantasia." The tempo markings change (with unconventional frequency in Opus 27, Number 1); but it seems as if Beethoven wanted to treat each of these works as "all of a piece," which itself was another way to push the envelope that had been set by tradition. In this respect it was interested to see that, while Schiff allowed for applause at the end of Opus 26, he took very little pause time before beginning Opus 27; so, even with the "migrations" of tonality, there was a strong sense of unity across the entire first half of the recital.

Finally, there is the question of how to approach a single movement that is so well known that it is in danger of sounding clichéd (that, of course, being the "Moonlight" movement itself). As Schiff pointed out in his interview, Beethoven specified that this movement is to be played "senza sordini," which means without dampers. He thus kept his foot on the damper pedal for the entirety of the movement. As Malcolm Bilson pointed out in a lecture-demonstration he once gave about period instruments, this poses an interesting acoustic problem, which is that the decay time for any instrument Beethoven played is much shorter than that on a modern piano.

Bilson did not demonstrate this with the "Moonlight" movement. Rather, he argued that, in Beethoven's time, a fermata indicated that a note be sustained until it could no longer be heard. He then provided some examples of how, if one were to take this approach with a modern Steinway, it would take all night to finish the performance!

Schiff's approach provided a marked contrast to the clear articulations that had distinguished all of his previous performances, but it was also an interesting example of what it meant to take that stare decisis approach to Beethoven. The "senza sordini" requirement is preceded by "sempre pianissimo," meaning that every note has to be played so softly that its decay time will be consistent with the acoustics of the lifted dampers. I would guess that Schiff had to put a lot of effort into determining just the right level of pianissimo to produce the "senza sordini" effect properly on a modern piano; and, as far as I am concerned, he succeeded admirably. If, as I have suggested, a satisfying listening experience is an informative one, then Schiff certainly informed us with a new way to listen to one of the most familiar works in the repertoire; and the audience response was definitely a positive one.

Given all the experimentation that took place before the intermission and the more conventional formal framework for Opus 28, there was the danger that the second half might feel a bit less satisfying. However, as I initially observed, Beethoven's confrontation with the impending tragedy of deafness was still a year in the future; so that sense of wit that carried us through the first three concerts of the cycle was still very much intact and evident. This was particularly the case in the playful middle section of the ternary Andante (which then resurfaces as a coda), the false triviality of a theme in descending octaves in the Scherzo, and the concluding Rondo, which begins with a comfortable rocking motif but ends with one of those "quasi presto" flourished that Beethoven could pull off so well.

Thus, the only real "bow to convention" came with Schiff again turning to Johann Sebastian Bach for his encore, this time the G Major French Suite (BWV 816). The French Suites are far more conventional than, for example, the keyboard Partitas. They are more four-square in structure and less inclined to what I previously called Bach's gift for saying "and another thing" before bringing a movement to closure. On the other hand this particular set of four Beethoven sonatas had made for a pretty full evening, so Schiff may have wanted to give us a bit of relaxation in his encore selection! The alternative would have been to look to the future rather than the past, which Schiff did with the Schubert encore he took in his very first recital. There were certainly plenty of episodes in the Beethoven that Schiff played that were likely inspirations for Schubert; but that would have taken us into an area of music theory that probably would not have suited the "wrapping up" of the first half of this sonata cycle.

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