Monday, October 15, 2007

Beethoven's Wit

Yesterday I made reference to the various interviews that Philip Glass gave prior to the first performance of Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera. One of those was actually a "conversation" with Opera Director David Gockley in an event held for the benefit of Opera patrons. In the course of this conversation, Gockley tried to draw out how it was that Philip Glass "became Philip Glass," so to speak. By way of an answer, Glass talked about the time he spent in Paris studying under both Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar in terms of the impact of these two highly contrasting pedagogical influences. Those of us in San Francisco who believe that we always have more to learn about being a good listener got a taste of that kind of experience yesterday with the good fortune of being able to attend Appomattox in the afternoon and the second concert in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas a few hours later. The contrast between these events almost goes without saying; but what may deserve mention was the extent to which Schiff brought out those key elements of wit that pervade the three Opus 10 sonatas in the context of the "stark and dark" moods that constitute the spirit of Appomattox.

We tend not to think of Beethoven as a wit, probably because most of us are too saturated with that Titan-wrestling-with-the-Gods metaphor that Wagner invoked. With such a frame of mind, it is almost impossible to believe that the man would be capable of play; but that is really what he is up to in the Opus 10 sonatas. We are comfortable with discussing how Beethoven's compositions would thwart the expectations of his contemporaries, both performers and listeners. This is definitely the case in Opus 10, but it is achieved with a light touch. Beethoven plays, in the literal sense of the word, with almost insignificant fragments of notes, turning them every which way and, every now and then, just to remind you that all this is play, inflating them with grand gestures that fit the music about as poorly as Beethoven's clothes fit his body in many of the portraits he have of him.

The good news about last night's recital is that Schiff was unquestionably in on the game, a true master of that light touch in both the physical and metaphor senses of the phrase. We were all a polite enough audience that we were pretty good at restraining several well-deserved belly-laughs when Beethoven went over the top and Schiff followed him there, but fun was still definitely the order of the first half of the evening. The not-so-good news is that the second half was devoted to the first "named" (and, therefore, war-horse) sonata, the "Pathétique;" and I am not sure that the performance held up that well in its context. The Opus 10 sonatas are more demanding than the Opus 2 set that Schiff played last week; so last week the general effect was the Opus 2 built us up for the more passionate Opus 7. This time the Opus 10 was very much a journey unto itself; and I, for one, found the "Pathétique" to be a bit of an intrusion on my desire to savor the delights of that journey. This is not to say that the final sonata was not well played. Schiff has been most reliable with both his keyboard technique and his capacity for drawing expressive rhetoric from that technique. I suppose it was more like turning the ancient Greek dramatic practice on its head, drawing upon tragedy as an afterthought to comedy, rather than the other way around.

Then Schiff pulled an interesting move. He told the audience that he felt the true "ancestor" of the "Pathétique" sonata was the C Minor keyboard partita of Johann Sebastian Bach and proceeded to play the entire partita as an encore! Personally, I do not agree that connection that Schiff was trying to demonstrate is a legitimate one; but, to return to my opening theme, this was very much an exercise is good listening!

On the other hand there was another connection that Schiff did not recognize that I would take more seriously. I think that we can take the Allegretto (second) movement of Opus 10, Number 2 as the "seed" for the compositional explorations that Franz Schubert would take in his own shorter piano works, whether he called them Moments musicals, Impromptus, or just Klavierstücke. Last week Schiff took one of those Klavierstücke as an encore, as if to demonstrate the influence of Beethoven of Schubert; but it was in Schiff's performance of Opus 10, Number 2 that the impact of that influence was really driven home. As a listener it was as if I had experienced the opening of a door through which both Beethoven and Schubert would pass, each setting off in a different direction after crossing the threshold.

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