Friday, December 12, 2008

Some Passion Spent

For those of us who have been trying to track Ludwig van Beethoven's creative development in terms the language of his piano sonatas, particularly as presented through András Schiff's traversal of the entire canon, the E-flat major piano trio, Opus 70, Number 2, is situated between the Opus 57 in F minor ("Appassionata") and the far more affable (except for the pianist who has to deal with the key signature) Opus 78 in F-sharp major. There is a tendency to associate Opus 57 with a "passionate" confrontation with the hard truths of the "Heiligenstadt Testament;" but, as I have already observed, Beethoven had nothing to do with that choice of nickname. I further observed that it was better to approach this sonata more objectively, in terms of its experimentation with the juxtaposition of extremes in both dynamics and tempo; but Beethoven had already demonstrated that he could do this sort of thing with a lighter touch. He continued to demonstrate it in Opus 78; but that effort was preceded by the Opus 70 trios. Number 2 is definitely a study in extremes; but the "touch" is more boisterous than light. So it may be that Opus 57 was instrumental in getting the "dark Heiligenstadt spirits" out of his system.

Indeed, it may well be that Beethoven intended this trio to poke fun at those poor souls who could not play very well, in the spirit in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart took on his "Village Musicians" in his Musikalischer Spass. This is most evident in the final movement, in which each soloist takes a crack at running headlong into a cadenza passage and then loses the beat. This is the gag that opens the movie The Jerk; and I have suggested that it is one of the principal jokes in Charles Ives' "TSIAJ" ("This scherzo is a joke") movement in his piano trio. In all of these works, successful performance depends on letting the music (rather than the performers) deliver the joke. Listening to San Francisco Conservatory of Music students perform the Beethoven trio last night in the String and Piano Chamber Music series, I admired the deadpan style they brought to their performance, which also served Beethoven well in the second movement, where the extremes swing back and forth in a real challenge to agility. This trio deserves to be put on a program with the Ives trio, even if each of the ghosts of the composers might feel a bit uncomfortable with the presence of the other!

There was also considerable good humor in the performance of the third of the Opus 59 string quartets that Beethoven composed for Count Andreas Razumovsky; but the final movement was the primary venue for "extreme performance." Beethoven marked this Allegro molto, and I suppose there will always be different schools of thought as to just how molto it should be. The Conservatory students decided that, if this was a matter of extremes, they would push to the extreme limit. This made for a great cross between a high-wire act (where no false move could be tolerated) and a roller coaster ride (where most of what you see passes by in a blur); but it did not make for much of a listening experience. Yes, Beethoven occasionally applies some broad brush strokes to orient the ear; but I have to wonder if he really wanted the rest of the movement to be nothing more than a whirlwind of eighth notes.

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