Tuesday, November 4, 2008

More Beethoven and Chopin … but with a Difference!

As I tried to make clear last week, there is nothing inherently wrong with a piano recital consisting entirely of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin, as long as the pianist is fundamentally accountable "to the music itself," rather than some panel of competition judges, real or imagined. As Chairman of the Piano Department of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Mack McCray, this afternoon's Noontime Concerts™ recitalist at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco, no longer has to worry about pleasing competition judges and has racked up his own share of awards to affirm that proposition. (If anything, he now has to worry about being an effective judge of up-and-coming pianists!) Thus, he could fix his priorities on presenting Beethoven and Chopin to his audience without that audience suffering from déjà vu (or, as one of my friends from my school days used to say, "déjà heard")!

Beethoven was represented by only one composition, the E major Opus 109 sonata, which is certainly an impressive piece of representation. As the first of the "final three" sonatas (which will constitute the entirety of the final recital in András Schiff's full Beethoven sonata cycle this spring), these can be taken as his "last word" (whether or not he intended it as such) on the piano sonata, but not on sonata form or, for that matter, on solo piano music, since there remained two sets of bagatelles and the completion of the "Diabelli" variations. That latter may be the more important milestone, since it is likely that, while he continued to pour out more and more variations on Anton Diabelli's little waltz, two of those final sonatas, including Opus 109, conclude with a set of elaborately conceived variations on a highly extended theme. Thus, it may be that the path established by these two variations movements continues most logically to the third movement of the Opus 125 D minor ("Choral") symphony (which is also "informed" by the "double variations" structure of the Opus 67 C minor symphony).

The challenge that faces the soloist, then, is one of knowing where he (or she) is in the overall architecture of an elaborate set of variations developed over a comparably elaborate theme. I suspect it was this challenge that led Leon Fleisher to talk about understanding a composition (or even a movement of a composition) at the "macro-level," even if he had Chopin, rather than Beethoven, in mind when he raised this point in his Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory. As I have already observed, I have some very strong thoughts of my own about what it means to think at the macro-level, so in an effort to validate my own medicine by taking it, consider the following time-line visualization of a performance of the entire third movement of Opus 109 by Egon Petri:

While this is not a particularly precise visualization, it illustrates the extent to which an understanding of the entire movement has less to do with the boundaries of the individual variations and more with how energy is distributed across the approximately eleven minutes of Petri's performance. We see a series of climaxes, which progress from sparse to dense, followed by a gradual tapering off towards the end of the movement. I am not suggesting that McCray used such a visualization to prepare his own performance; but I think it would be fair to say that his performance helped the listener understand this macro-level structure in terms of organizing the distribution of energy. In so doing, he endowed the performance with a vitality that transcended the technical virtuosity of the variations themselves and clarified the role of each variation in the overall motivating force of the whole. I see such an approach as one possible demonstration of what I have been trying to get at when I struggle with that concept of "accountability to the music itself."

Considering the imposing architectural demands of this sonata, it is probably just as well that the remainder of McCray's program was devoted to shorter works by Chopin. These, in turn, required a variety of approaches. The Opus 40, Number 1 A major polonaise, with its rather clear-cut structure of repeated material, drew most of its strength from a similar approach to budgeting energy, using appropriately paced crescendos to facilitate the sense of segmentation, rather than letting the repetitions speak for themselves. The two mazurkas (Opus 30, Number 4 in C-sharp minor and Opus 59, Number 2 in A-flat major), on the other hand, were shorter and were rendered more in the manner of intimate glances on a few brief moments, rather in the spirit that Jerome Robbins took to Chopin's mazurkas in his choreography of "Dances at a Gathering." The Opus 57 berceuse then brought us back to the "turf" of variations, this time spinning out forms of increasing embellishment over a simple ostinato. Finally, McCray offered the ternary form Opus 47 ballade in A-flat major, which builds up to a single fever-pitched climax in its middle section and then subsides its way into its return to the opening section, rather in the same sense in which Beethoven closes off the Opus 109. Five compositions involving four different scales of listening, each performed in such a way as to guide the listener through the appropriate scale. After such an educational experience, McCray rewarded his audience with an encore of the "Minute" waltz. I have always preferred the story about the work being motivated not by a clock but by a dog chasing its tail. McCray delivered it as a fresh breeze of familiarity, lightweight but far from insignificant and concluding a recital that renewed my conviction that "we go to concerts in order to learn how to listen."

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