Monday, April 7, 2008

Resuming the Beethoven Cycle

When András Schiff bid au revoir to San Francisco last October after the first two recitals in his cycle of the all of Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonatas, I bemoaned (as I seem to do) the fact that he had left us in the middle of what Thayer had called "the glorious series of sonatas," composed in the years 1798 and 1799. He left us hanging by concluding with the Opus 13 "Pathétique," meaning that we would have to wait until April for the two Opus 14 sonatas. April has now come; and Schiff took an interesting approach to "phasing in" our orientation towards Opus 14. He did this by beginning last night's performance at Davies Symphony Hall with the two Opus 49 sonatas (often called "sonatinas," because each has only two movements) and then reminding us (through the program notes) that Beethoven's opus numbers can be misleading where chronology is concerned. All we know about these two sonatas is that they were composed between 1795 and 1798, which means that we are not sure if they are in "the glorious series" or it they actually precede it. In either case they definitely helped orient the listener before Schiff resumed the sequence-by-opus-number.

With a little stretch of the imagination, one could think of Opus 49 as a single four-movement composition. One could begin with Opus 49, Number 2 in G Major, with its Allegro ma no troppo and Tempo di Menuetto and then follow with the G minor movements of Number 1, Andante and an Allegro Rondo. One could even interchange the Andante and Menuetto without being too disruptive. Nevertheless, Schiff played this as separate compositions in their published order, presumably under the assumption that Beethoven published them that way for a reason.

The result is two consecutive exercises in contrasts. Number 1 begins with an Andante that tends towards the introspective without indulging in the moody, followed by a Rondo that reminds us that we are still in that period of Beethoven's life in which he took great delight in exercising his wit. In Number 2, on the other hand, the wit is more evident in the opening Allegro, while, as the manuscript suggests, the reference to a Menuetto is only to set the tempo. The second movement is more of a leisurely commodo, which gently pushes the envelope of our expectations for Menuetto ternary form. It is also interesting to see how Beethoven handles his dynamics. As is often the case, he experiments with abrupt changes in dynamic level; but it is interesting to note that, of the four movements across the two sonatas, it is the second movement of Number 1 and the first movement of Number 2 that end with straightforward fortissimo cadences, while the remaining two movements (which are sort of like "bookends" across the miniseries) sort of "fade out" (to pianissimo in the first and to a piano cadence separated from a last burst of forte by a single quarter rest in the second).

I should come clean and confess that I am writing this with the music at my side, but it is there to refresh my memory. This detailed and nuanced approach to the management of dynamics and tempo pervaded Schiff's performance of these two sonatas. I suspect that just about anyone who had serious piano lessons had the same memories of struggling with these pieces that I did. At least I am willing to admit that listening to Schiff was far more humbling than I had anticipated, just because it seemed so easy for him to demonstrate how much more he heard in this music than I had ever heard previously. However, it was only after Schiff followed these sonatas by "resuming the count" with the Opus 14 sonatas that I realized that Opus 49 provided a better introduction than the more radical departures of Opus 13 could have done.

Much of the Opus 49 rhetoric is also there in Opus 13. This includes the sharp contrasting of dynamics and its engagement in the interest of wit, particularly at the conclusion of a movement. There may also be an "inside joke" (because Opus 49 had not yet been published) over rondo form: The Opus 49, Number 1 Rondo is far from a conventional rondo and probably is usually classified by the academics as a "sonata rondo" (i.e. a synthesis of sonata and rondo forms, as in the last movement of Opus 13), while in Opus 14, Number 1, Beethoven basically assures us that he can still pull off a more "standard" rondo. A more explicit "joke" surfaces in the Andante of Opus 14, Number 2, which is anything but a "standard" andante and is more consistent with the expectations we bring to the miniature pieces of Franz Schubert or (even more so) Robert Schumann (which is to say that it may have inspired them)! Then, as if he were not being playful enough, Beethoven followed this movement with a not-particularly-ternary Scherzo, which is another "romp" with a pianissimo "fade-out."

It might sound a bit dismissive to say that all Schiff was doing was following Beethoven's directions. However, what makes both of these sonata collections interesting is how abundant those directions are and, therefore, how demanding it is to honor all of them. All this means is that Schiff could bring abundant life to a stare decisis approach to Beethoven in exactly the same way that Myung-Whun Chung had applied the same approach to conducting the San Francisco Symphony in both Olivier Messiaen and Gustav Mahler. Put another way, innovation does not come from mucking around with what the composer expects from the performer; it comes from satisfying those expectations while making them both logical and stimulating to the audience!

This brings us to Opus 22, the only work on the program after the intermission (not counting another Johann Sebastian Bach partita, Number 1, as an encore). Here again we hear many of the characteristic features of Opus 49 and Opus 13; but we also hear Beethoven resuming his experiments with the impact of silence, now on a somewhat subtler scale than previously (as in Opus 2). Also, in the Adagio con molto espressione movement we find Beethoven beginning to explore that sense of calm that would receive so much attention in his later works, such as the third movement of the Opus 97 ("Archduke") piano trio, which I recently discussed. Thus, as was the case with his Opus 2 performances, Schiff served us best by executing the rests for the silences they signified, rather than just as pauses. I know this sounds like mystical double-talk; but the problem is that it is just not the sort of thing that lends itself to words, which means we are in the realm where, in John Dewey's words "each art speaks an idiom that conveys what cannot be said in another language." Put another way, I am back to being humbled (this time as a writer) by the experiments realized through Opus 22 as I had previously been (as a piano student) by the deceptive simplicity of Opus 49, which may be the best way to prepare myself for the completion of the first half of Schiff's cycle next Sunday evening!

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