Monday, October 8, 2007

The Beethoven Cycle Begins

Having just gone on a rant against those who talk about the arts in the newspeak "of a globalized world of work that we barely understand," I feel it is important to acknowledge a major project by a performing artist who cares more about doing than talking. The artist is pianist András Schiff, and the project is the performance of the complete cycle of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in several North American cities. San Francisco is one of those cities, along with New York (Carnegie Hall), Los Angeles (Disney Hall), and Ann Arbor (Hill Auditorium). The project will take two years with four recitals in each year, probably neatly divided into four sonatas per recital.

Since I have been a rabid attendee of piano recitals since I bought a condominium in Stamford, Connecticut in 1981 that was walking distance from the train station. I found myself wolfing down performances at Carnegie, Alice Tully Hall, and the 92nd Street Y as if I had been on a starvation diet during my three years in Santa Barbara, even though it was my piano teacher in Santa Barbara who was responsible for stimulating such a voracious appetite. As a matter of context, this was a time when a soloist's reputation was tightly coupled to a recording contract, which means that it felt as if the roost was being ruled by Claudio Arrau and Alfred Brendel, neither of whom every really did it for me. Arrau had this authoritarian aloofness that made for rather tedious readings of both Beethoven and Chopin; and Brendel always seemed to come on stage with this poorly-hidden sense of boredom for the whole affair. As a result my preferences ran to a hero of my childhood (and home-town favorite), Rudolf Serkin, and a discovery from my student days, Paul Badura-Skoda. Both of these pianists shaped the way I listened to the Beethoven piano sonatas through their ability to hear and communicate both the cognitive side of taking on compositional challenges and the emotive side of the rhetorical impact of the "solutions" to those challenges. Serkin and Badura-Skoda presented two sides of the coin, particularly after Badura-Skoda turned his attention to playing Beethoven on period instruments, since this required radically different strategies than those applied to the modern piano.

Going to Davies Symphony Hall last night, I really had no idea what to expect; but what I encountered was a spirit of performance that I really had not heard since I was fortunate enough to hear the last Carnegie Hall recitals that Serkin gave towards the end of his life. It did not take long for Schiff to remind me of all the things I had admired in Serkin. He conveyed that attitude that, for all that has happened in the evolution of music history, Beethoven still matters and, more importantly, every performance of Beethoven matters. As soon as I opened the program, I knew I would be facing a perspective that would challenge my own listening. Rather than taking an intermission half-way through the "sonata count," the intermission was placed between the third and fourth sonatas. This meant that the three Opus 2 sonatas were performed as a group (Schiff did not even leave the stage between them), saving the Opus 7 for after the intermission.

This posed an interesting approach to the scale for listening to Beethoven. Schiff wanted us to hear those first three sonatas as an almost continuous fabric; and, even at the sonata level, the pauses between movements were very brief. The fourth sonata was then presented as an object unto itself after we were given a chance to catch our breaths after this approach to the first three.

Did this work? I think the way in which it did work was that it shed light on the somewhat conflicted relationship that Beethoven had with Haydn. The Opus 2 sonatas are dedicated to Haydn, with whom Beethoven had studied. However, he had really wanted to study with Mozart (who died before he had the chance); and his overall relationship with Haydn did not appear to be a good one. Nevertheless, Haydn was using this own piano sonatas to explore those "compositional challenges;" so I think it makes sense to think about the Opus 2 sonatas as a response to Haydn's own activities. It is not that Beethoven is offering an homage but that he seems to be saying, "I see what you were getting at when you did it that way; but what do you think of this way?"

There are any number of ways in which Beethoven makes it clear that he is not following in Haydn's footsteps. In my own book the most interesting of these surfaces in the third of these sonatas, because this seems to be where Beethoven discovered the rhetorical impact of the rest. There is a certain irony to the fact that John Cage never spoke well of Beethoven because the former thought there was too much "ego" in the latter's music, yet I think we can make a case that everything Cage discovered about what one can do with silence can be traced back to Beethoven. Furthermore, that case is reinforced by the way in which approaches that are being tried out in the third sonata reveal themselves with great profundity in the second movement of the fourth sonata (after all the storms of the preceding movement). My own pet theory is that this second movement was probably one of the strongest influences on Richard Wagner, who heard the volumes spoken by those silences and eventually mastered the art of doing the same in those opening measures of Tristan und Isolde.

Having said all that, I now need to say a few things about the problematic side of this strategy. The sad truth is that I am not sure I have experienced the depth of such silence since my days at Carnegie Hall in the eighties. I used to sit at the front of the top balcony there, and there were silences when I was afraid to breathe. I have yet to have an experience like that in San Francisco. Almost a year ago Peter Serkin came here to give a recital of the works of Toru Takemitsu; and the blog post I wrote after that concert was entitled "The Unbearable Being of Silence." If I were more cynical, I would say that today's audiences have such a fixation with value for money that they feel they are not getting their money's worth if they are not hearing something; but I suspect that the truth has more to do with the extent to which silence makes us nervous. The way I put it in writing about Serkin was that we "are just frightened by the absence of sound the way we are frightened by the absence of light."

For what it is worth, my own solution has been to do my best to minimize the distance between myself and the stage. It seems easier to get beyond what comes from behind my head, as opposed to what comes between my ears and the music! Last night I felt I was in good company. All of us down there at the front of the Orchestra section of Davies were drawn into Schiff's approach to the poetry of Beethoven's silences; and I think we all felt fortunate that San Francisco had been included as one of the cities he had chosen for his project.

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