Sunday, October 16, 2016

SFP Pianist Jonathan Biss Stretches the Semantics of “Late”

Last night in Herbst Theatre, pianist Jonathan Biss presented the first in a series of four concerts he has prepared for San Francisco Performances (SFP) under the general title Late Style. Presumably, he put considerable thought into choosing his words. “Style” is a particularly tricky noun, especially when applied to music. Charles Rosen wrestled with it for more that 450 pages in his book The Classical Style; and, while the reader could come away with a treasure trove of knowledge about Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, it is unclear that (s)he came away with a better understanding of either the connotations or the denotations of the noun “style.” However, “late” is no easier to handle. Biss clearly wanted to avoid “last;” but “late” shares with “last” the presumption of some kind of ordering that usually involves time. Biss presumably wished to apply it to the lifespan of the composers he selected for his four programs, but it can also be applied in a variety of different historical contexts.

Given the latent ambiguities of the phrase, Biss managed to establish his own perspective with a single sentence in the program book:
What effect do years of accumulated knowledge and experience, combined with, perhaps, the realization that death is near, have on creativity?
This seems like a simple enough question; but, after last night’s all-Beethoven program, the thoughtful listener may have felt that all it did was raise other questions. For this concert Biss shared the stage with the members of the Brentano String Quartet, violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee. This allowed him to push “closer to the end” in the chronology of Beethoven’s life that he could have done had he confined himself to solo piano music. Thus, the “latest” (and concluding) work on last night’s program was the Opus 135 string quartet in F major.

This piece definitely draws on “accumulated knowledge and experience;” and, in a few remarks prior to the quartet’s performance, he observed the extent to which the music reflects back on Beethoven’s recollection of Haydn (as a composer, if not as his favorite teacher). Those who know the Beethoven canon know that he was inspired by Haydn’s capacity for wit throughout his career; and that scowling stone monument completed by Kaspar von Zumbusch in 1880 is more indicative of the late nineteenth-century obsession with hero worship than of Beethoven himself. There is no shortage of prankishness in Opus 135 and even the slow movement (Assai lento, cantante e tranqillo) lends a sunny disposition to its tranquility.

The Brentano String Quartet clearly appreciated the light touch of these qualities. Their command of turn-on-a-dime shifts in rhetoric were perfectly attuned to the pranks Beethoven chose to play, frequently best articulated through rhythmic gestures. The final movement bears the title “Der schwer gefasste Entschulss” (the difficult resolution), illustrated with two three-note mottos, the first marked “Muss es sein” (must it be) and the second “Es muss sein” (it must be). The first defines the Grave, ma no troppo tratto introduction, while the second dominates the following Allegro. However, that which “must be” is greeted with the joyous gaiety of the Italian noun for the tempo marking, almost as if death were the furthest thing from Beethoven’’s mind when he composed this movement.

Note, by the way, that this was not Beethoven’s “last” work for string quartet. After he completed Opus 135, he wrote an Allegro to replace the “Große Fuge” as the final movement of his Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major. This new finale is just as joyous and perhaps even more exuberant.

Steinberg also joined Biss for a performance of the Opus 96 sonata in G major to begin last night’s program. This provided a different perspective on the use of the adjective “late.” Beethoven wrote only ten of these sonatas (all identified as being for piano and violin, in that order).The first nine were composed during the six years between 1797 and 1803 and are almost always classified as “early Beethoven.” There was then a lapse of almost a decade. Opus 96 was written in 1812 and not published until 1816. This puts it in the same time frame as the seventh and eighth symphonies (Opus 92 in A major and Opus 93 in F major, respectively) and generally classified as “middle period.”

Thus, Opus 96 is “late” only in the chronology of the sonatas for piano and violin. However, the “accumulated knowledge and experience” seems to have resulted in Beethoven being a little bit less of a dominating show-off in the piano part of this “last” sonata. Of all ten sonatas, Opus 96 offers what is recognizably the most intimate relationship between the two instrumental voices. It also serves up its own generous share of prankishness, particularly in the almost eccentric approach that Beethoven takes in the variations he creates in the final movement. In that respect the rather deadpan approach that both Steinberg and Biss took to their playing provided just the right setting in which Beethoven’s pranks could speak for themselves.

The only real disappointment came with Biss’ performance of Opus 111 in C minor, the last of the 32 piano sonatas. This was the one selection that tended to strain the semantics of “late;” but it still carries a fair amount of weight as a “last sonata.” More important is that it saw Beethoven breaking significant new ground in how he chose to think about composing variations on a theme. The sonata has only two movements; and the second movement is almost mind-shattering in the diversity of approaches it takes to a theme that Beethoven called simply Arietta. Nevertheless, this was a matter of setting off down a new path, a path that would lead, about a year later, to the 33 variations that Beethoven composed for his Opus 120 based on an innocuous little waltz by Anton Diabelli.

Unfortunately, Biss seemed more concerned with taking a heightened dramatic approach to both movements of Opus 111. In the midst of all of those dramatics, both the classical foundations of the first movement and the full scope of imagination in the second were left in the lurch by overly aggressive keyboard technique. Indeed, the aggression was so strong that it led to a generous number of fumbles, many of which were clear even to those without a solid internal knowledge of the score. It would appear that Biss’ impressive attention to his duo work with Steinberg may have led to less attention to his solo work than was necessary.

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