Monday, April 6, 2009

Concluding the Beethoven Cycle

Writing about the conclusion of András Schiff's two-year eight-concert cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven on, I endorsed "Schiff's decision to pass on any encore." This was, in fact, the only one of the eight concerts performed without an encore; and it seemed as if Schiff had made scrupulous choices of encore material to facilitate reflection on those sonatas he had just performed in each program. Most recently, this involved following Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier") with Johann Sebastian Bach's BWV 903 "Chromatic" fantasia and fugue in D minor, after which he lightened things up a bit with "Eine kleine Gigue," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 574 in G major, whose contrapuntal dexterity still made it good company for both Beethoven and Bach. During the enthusiastic and prolonged applause which greeted (as possibly jumped the gun on) the termination of the cycle, I found myself wondering what the encore would be and decided that the most appropriate selection would be the first movement of Opus 2, Number 1. Just as Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen concludes with the gold back where it was in the beginning (even if now formed into a ring), it seemed that the only suitable listening after the final chord of Opus 111 had faded into silence would be a return to how the whole process had begun.

I suppose there is an impish streak to this suggestion; but I think we can ask the question, "What next?," without reducing ourselves to insatiable consumerists. I think about this in the time I spend at the piano. When I find myself putting a lot of time into a piece of music that is definitely beyond the limits of my skills but still within range of my curiosity, I realize that I have to do something to "take it easy" once I accept that I have taken that impossible challenge as far as it will go; but, after a week of such "taking it easy," I find myself thinking about where my curiosity really wants to go next.

On the other hand, where listening is concerned, circumstance seems to have taken care of the what-next question in a timely fashion. Brilliant Classics, that champion of affordable Gesamtwerk collections, has now released their Haydn Edition and my order with Collectors' Choice (my preferred supplier) went into the works a little over a week ago. Consisting of 150 CDs, it will stand behind the 170-CD Mozart collection and the 155-CD Bach collection in terms of "content bulk," so to speak. More important, however, is that Joseph Haydn received the dedication of Beethoven's Opus 2 sonatas. Thus, having now traversed and reflected on the full scope of Beethoven's "piano sonata language" (so to speak), I feel as if I am now in a good position to think about origins; and Haydn offers an excellent point of departure for those thoughts.

I am not sure how the Haydn Edition will be structured; but I suspect that, like the other collections, the structure will not be strictly chronological. Once again, I shall probably invoke the metaphor of scaling a mountain as I work my way through the collection, dispatching posts here as I reach successive "base camps." Fortunately, I have a fair amount of Haydn listening under my belt, going far beyond the usual favorites; but it will be interesting to see the extent to which recent intense listening to Beethoven will influence the way I listen to this new collection when it arrives.

1 comment:

ST said...

I agree with you that if there should be any encore to these last sonatas, it could be the first sonata. I had the same thought when I was in the concert! I had also thought of the late Bagatelles.