Saturday, October 20, 2007

Unfortunate Timing

András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas seems to be inspiring me to review my background knowledge of Beethoven, even to the point of consulting my copy of Thayer's Life of Beethoven, which I have not previously done very much. One reference in Thayer that struck me was to "the glorious series of sonatas" from the years 1798 and 1799. For Thayer this series began with the Opus 10 set, continued through the Opus 13 "Pathétique," and concluded with the two Opus 14 sonatas. Thus, Schiff's second recital launched us into this series; but the way in which the cycle has been scheduled means that we shall have to wait for Opus 14 until April. This is an unfortunate lapse of time for anyone other than myself interested in following the thread of Beethoven's creative development!

I am sure there are any number of explanations for why things turned out this way. However, it does raise the question of why such a project should be scheduled in the first place, particularly from the point of view of the more general audience, which is probably not interested in doing any background research or trying to take a context-based approach to listening. Is it just something to be done for the sake of doing it? In that case it is worth remembering what the Japanese say about climbing Mount Fuji: "There are two kinds of fools: those who have never climbed Fuji and those who have climbed it more than once." However, I would argue that this precept is more applicable to a live performance of Kaikhosru Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum than to the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, simply because the latter are more likely to inform us about practices of good listening, even on repeated experiences, than the former, which is little more than an athletic accomplishment.

I suspect that, where general audiences are involved, this kind of "cycle programming" provides an interesting bridge between the experience of the "live" performance and the experience of listening to recorded performances. After all, it is not particularly difficult to find box sets of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas; and I would not be surprised to find collectors who have amassed several of these sets reflecting performances of a variety of markedly different pianists. In other words it is not out of the question to assume familiarity with the full cycle, if only through a CD collection; so why not enhance that familiarity with an opportunity to hear them all in a "live" setting? From that point of view, this is yet another way to demonstrate that no recording, no matter how well it has been produced, can ever substitute for "the real thing;" and why not make that point "in the large" for all of the Beethoven piano sonatas, rather than confining it to the program of a single recital? If the realities of what a professional pianist has to do in order to schedule such an event then end up interrupting a "glorious series of sonatas," then that is not an unreasonable price to pay for such an enjoyable listening opportunity.

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