Monday, March 30, 2009

The Sense of Fugue

Last night András Schiff performed the first of his final two recitals in his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. It was time for the second of the two "monuments" in the canon of piano sonatas, the "monumental" Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier"). This sonata is technically challenging from its opening gesture (which would later be honored by Johannes Brahms in the opening gesture of his own first piano sonata); but the work also poses major challenges to the listener. Most of those challenges have to do with what I have called the "journey through an extended duration of time." Except for the (extremely?) brief scherzo, each of the movements of this sonata takes on an unconventional (for its time) time-scale; and, while the first movement does this through relatively familiar sonata-allegro territory, the relationship between structure and process of the final two movements is harder to penetrate.

Yesterday I wrote about this journey as it was pursued in the andante cantabile third movement of Beethoven's Opus 97 ("Archduke") trio in B-flat major in my review of a recital by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio. In this case the journey is based on a theme-and-variations structure; and the extended duration arises when Beethoven departs from choosing a simple theme in favor of what I have previously called "a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives." In the adagio sostenuto movement of Opus 106, the structural framework follows the conventional sonata form; but Schiff offered the following comments in his conversation with Martin Meyer included in the program book:

While it's true that this structure is easy to make out in the score, in playing or listening to the piece it's much less obvious, because it's the poetic side that dominates as an expressive force, with its slow iambuses and intricate whispered figuration. Beethoven produces absolutely astonishing effects of sonority, which makes the "deconstruction" of the main theme in the final part of the coda all the more haunting. Following a wide-ranging journey of the passions, the movement ends at once laconically and full of expectation on a pianissimo held chord of F-sharp major.

This is clearly not for casual listening. Indeed, it requires an alertness of perception that may put performance at a disadvantage when this sonata is performed at the end of a program (as it was last night).

Even more challenging, however, is that the alertness allotted to this movement may sap the "cognitive energy" required for the fugue of the final movement. This, again, is a major journey, not to mention a major departure from the traditional conventions of fugue. However, even in the absence of those conventions, there remains the sense of fugue as a conversation among its "voices," rather than just a massive contrapuntal fabric. I continue to admire how Richard Goode establishes this sense in his performances of Bach counterpoint, and here in San Francisco pianist Frank French demonstrated that same sense in his concert performance of the 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. In the framework of that sense of fugue, a journey of extended duration amounts to a particularly involved (and extended) conversation. Unfortunately, that sense was absent in Schiff's performance. Indeed, it was absent not only from Beethoven's fugue but also from the encore performance of Bach's BWV 903 "Chromatic" fantasia and fugue in D minor. It was almost as if towards the end of last night's journey Schiff had shifted to autopilot to finish out the evening. Nevertheless, he followed his Bach encore with a graceful and witty account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 574 "Eine kleine Gigue" in G major; but I suspect that this work is familiar enough to him that even it could have been "flown on autopilot," so to speak. This may just have been the sort of "occupational hazard" that is hard to avoid when one undertakes a truly massive project.


Anonymous said...

I was shocked by the total abscence of phrasing and rhetoric in the Chrom Fant, but loved the fugue.
As far as the 106, I loved it, but the slow movement goes that way now I think because real depth of emotion hardly exists in this world anymore. It would be dismissed as wallowing. Check out Backhaus for how it really goes. Schiff's was not Appassionato e con molto sentimento, or con grand espressione. But I loved the rest, the fugue rocked. I am grateful to have heard it. The e minor was far better than his record.

Stephen Smoliar said...

My most memorable experience of how Opus 106 "really goes" goes back about 25 years to Alice Tully Hall. I heard Paul Badura-Skoda play it there. He played it on a modern piano, as opposed to the period instrument he used for his Astrée recording; and it was the first time the whole thing made sense to me. I also like the recording though, since the shorter decay time of that instrument gives greater clarity to the individual voices, which appeals to my thinking in terms of a "conversation." My guess is that the third movement also benefits from those "period sonorities."

For me, however, the fugal writing that most "rocks" is in Opus 110; so I really want to hear what Schiff does this coming Sunday!

Anonymous said...

I agree about the 110, one of my favorite pieces, but 106 is a uniquely intense whirlwind. Rather than a conversation, like Bach's fugues, it seems to me more a dance of voices. It has an extraordinary physical power, which is why I said it rocked. I was in row U, and wish I had been closer. It took a bit of effort to untrack a few moments at that distance. Of course, much piano music is best heard up close.
I wonder about what he will do with the slow movement of 110, but the last pages of the finale should be good.
Also, the ref to Backhaus was about the slow movement.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I like that "dance of voices" metaphor! It definitely works for the Opus 110 fugue. I can probably make it work for Opus 106 but will have to give it more thought the next time I haul out that Badura-Skoda recording (or play it from my hard drive)! I was in Row B, by the way.