Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hammering the Klavier: Beethoven's longest, most original piano sonata

“Should the sonata not be suitable for London, I could send another one; or you could also omit the Largo and begin straight away with the Fugue which is the last movement; or you could use the first movement and then the Adagio, and then for the third movement, the Scherzo, and omit entirely No. 4. Or you could take just the first movement and the Scherzo and let them form the whole sonata. I leave it to you to do as you think best.” 

The above quotation is from a letter that Beethoven wrote to his student Ferdinand Ries, who was about to play the London premiere of the Op. 106 Hammerklavier, his most massive, original, and ingeniously structured piano sonata. This says volumes about the musical world circa 1820, because in one of his letters Beethoven made it clear that he considered this piece to be of crucial importance in his output: “(the sonata) … will give pianists something to do  (and) will be played 50 years hence.”

In addition to Hammerklavier’s enormous demands upon a performer’s technique and powers of concentration, the work also poses unusual interpretive problems. It was published in both Vienna and London under Beethoven’s supervision, but the autograph has never been found. Unfortunately, the two sources contain many divergent readings, sometimes in important places, and there is also a strange reversal of the order of second and third movements in the London edition – perhaps reflecting how Ries decided to perform them.

Equally problematic is the matter of tempo, where Beethoven ostensibly went out of his way to be as explicit as possible. Although Op. 106 is his only piano sonata with metronome indications, those markings, particularly in the opening movement, are simply ludicrous. Most pianists who can manage the proscribed 138 to the half-note (I freely admit to not being among them) succeed only in making as strong a case as possible against the validity of such a notion. Even if Beethoven’s primitive metronome was accurate, two other facts must be taken into account: Composers often “hear” their music faster than anyone else because they have digested it so thoroughly during the process of creation that they do not require the time the rest of us need to absorb it. Furthermore, with Beethoven now virtually deaf, it is likely that he had lost the spatial sense that music requires in order to be cogent, and for its nuances to be adequately conveyed. Although it should be played in a headstrong manner, numerous sections contain pungent rhythms and complex and subtle harmonic details that simply cannot be heard at the indicated tempo.

Aside from being his lengthiest sonata by far—due mostly to the vast landscape of the slow movement—the piece is sonically huge, sounding extraordinarily symphonic. Inevitably, there is no sidestepping the fact that the Hammerklavier is no “fun piece” for the listener. It is as tough, gnarled, and uncompromising as anything Beethoven wrote. 

Above all, it is relentlessly obsessive. A single interval, the third, permeates all the movements at the motivic, melodic and harmonic levels. It forms the basis of virtually every principal theme in all four movements of the sonata, but that is only the beginning: In the first three movements, the main theme’s melodic outline is identical: a rising third is followed by a descending third that brings us back to where we started.  
Furthermore, in each movement there are prominent melodies made up of chains of thirds. For instance:
·      The 2nd theme (G major) in 1st movement
·      The Fugato in the 1st movement’s Development section

·       Slow Movement: Development section

·      The bass line in the Introduction to the Finale (episodes omitted)

The obsession with the interval of the third operates even more deeply at the harmonic level. The sonata superficially sounds as if it is in a traditional key, but its internal workings are quite different, imparting a sense of strangeness to the piece. These unorthodox “ground rules” make the piece such a “tough nut to crack.”
Since B flat is the main key of the sonata, the dominant F major might be expected to play a key role, with large-scale areas of the piece written in that key, as in virtually all other works of the classical and early romantic era. But in the Hammerklavier, F’s role is extremely limited. Beethoven certainly employs the dominant chord as a brief resting-place on several occasions. However, never once, in a piece of music lasting 45 minutes, does he actually modulate into the key of F. Instead, Beethoven constructs an intricate system of four keys around B flat, and returns to them time and time again. Three of them, G, D, and F#, are all separated from B flat by the interval of a third, and the fourth, B minor, is in some way related to the other three.
Beethoven establishes the fourth important key – the so-called “black” key of B Minor, as he called it – about mid-way in the first movement. From that point onward, B minor serves as B flat major’s antithesis, with the struggle between the two keys occurring at various points throughout the sonata, and most obviously at the conclusion of the Scherzo

Think of it! As early as 1819, Beethoven was attempting to re-define the concept of tonality by casting aside the traditional role of the dominant key (the second most fundamental entity in the tonal system), and elevating another note – the third – to that level of importance. In this respect, he was well ahead of later 19th century composers like Liszt and Wagner, who, by exploiting and thwarting our expectations of traditional harmonic practice, were still acknowledging its traditions. It is not too great an exaggeration to state that we must look to Debussy and Schoenberg to find such radical transformation of musical thought.

For the sonata’s layout, Beethoven reverted to the four-movement Grande Sonate model that he had used so frequently in his youth. The opening movement, in sonata-allegro form, contains one of the most disputed readings in all of Beethoven’s music. Just prior to the return of the main theme there is a progression in the bass line, in which an A-sharp enharmonically becomes the tonic B-flat. However strange the music sounds as printed, even to our 21st century ears, both editions are explicit. Controversy exists nonetheless, because a sketch in Beethoven’s hand indicates the more conventional A-natural. 

Pianist Alfred Brendel believes that the natural is correct, and notes that A-sharp robs the recapitulation of its proper sense of triumph. I agree with Brendel’s observations, but am more persuaded by esteemed British musicologist, Donald Tovey, who wrote that Beethoven may originally have meant an A-natural, but would have been overjoyed had anyone pointed out that he had actually written an A-sharp, and would have insisted that it stand as is. Throughout his career, Beethoven often purposely de-emphasized the moment when the main theme returns. This is true in the Hammerklavier, where the left-hand accompaniment ensures that the power of the sonata’s opening cannot be duplicated here. Since the A-sharp eliminates a dominant-tonic progression leading to the recapitulation, one of this sonata’s fundamental goals is achieved by simply following the published score.

The Scherzo is also based on descending thirds. It ends on two brief repeated notes that Beethoven also employs to conclude each phrase in the darker-hued Trio. That motif operates with great humorous effect in the brief Coda, where as previously mentioned, B minor tries very hard to assert itself, but without much success.

Superficially, the slow movement seems to recall the Largo e mesto (vast and joyless) of the Sonata No. 7, Op. 10/3; one can easily understand the temptation to perform the Adagio in a tragic, lugubrious fashion from the first to the last. But that is not Beethoven’s intention: True, it is marked Adagio sostenuto, but another description—Appassionato e con molto sentimento—is also provided at the movement’s outset. Elsewhere he writes con grande expression and molto espressivo. Yes, pathos is undeniably present, but the movement is far more multi-faceted. 

For all its length, it is cast in Sonata form, with an expansive coda. The following "road map" might assist those listeners who feel the need to track the movement's progress:

Exposition: Main theme

Exposition: Transition

Exposition: 2nd Group: Theme 1

Exposition: 2nd Group: Theme 2

Exposition: 2nd Group: (closing) Theme 3

Central to the Development Section is the extended “descending thirds” passage quoted above. (It is hard to imagine that Brahms was unaware of it, given the opening of his own 4th Symphony.) It leads directly to the Recapitulation with a highly embellished variation of the opening theme, whose progress can be followed in the lowest note of each 4-note group in the right hand:

Recapitulation: Opening Theme embellished.

It is only in the final movement that “normal” sonata procedure is abandoned. The composer begins by searching for an appropriate conclusion to the work, as he would do in the Finale of the Ninth Symphony. But whereas, in the later orchestral work, Beethoven would use the occasion to audition themes from previous movements, in the Hammerklavier, the material is always new. On four occasions, Beethoven interrupts that seemingly rhythm-less series of descending thirds quoted earlier, in order to try out short ideas that have occurred to him. Suddenly, he has the answer. He is elated: those chained thirds become faster, louder, and more excited. Then he calms down, and the fugue itself begins.

Beethoven had included fugal sections in several of his earlier works, but writing a fugue as an entire movement was new for him. And what a weird, grotesque fugue it is! In sharp contrast to those of the Baroque masters, this one employs in a single piece every known manner of fugal writing.

The movement can be broken down into seven discernible sections:

1.   Introduction. Here is the opening, with two of the “interruptions” included.

 2.  The Fugue’s long main subject is introduced and developed. Note that it begins with a trill – ordinarily a concluding device. Nothing in this universe is as it should be.

3.  A new theme in G flat major is introduced and briefly developed. 

That theme leads to the original subject, now at half speed, a technique textbooks refer to as augmentation, with jarring accents and furious trills in the other hand. 

The section concludes with such tension and dissonance that the untrained listener might well imagine the piece had been composed in 1919, not 1819.  

4.  The tension dissolves into a return of that new theme, this time in A flat major.  Like its predecessor, it too dissolves into a section in which the fugue subject is played backwards, or as textbooks call it, retrograde, with a counter-melody in the other hand.

Beethoven then extracts the first few notes of the theme, and ingeniously combines the original version with its mirrored inversion:

Finally, the entire subject is stated in its mirrored form:

Further development of these ideas culminates in a frantic, trill-laden passage that leads to an abrupt stop:

5.  A new introspective melody, presented fugally, offers a brief moment of repose. 

6.  That theme is combined with the opening of the fugue subject. 

For the first time in the movement, Beethoven now seems to be striving toward a conclusion, via the introduction of yet another fugal technique known as stretto, in which one voice enters before the previous one has had its full say, as in a heated conversation:  

Things appear to be solidifying harmonically as well. The
dominant note F  begins to play a more important role than it has previously, occurring as a repeated pedal point in the bass, portending the return of the tonic B flat.

Just at a point where he would seem to be heading into the sonata's concluding measures, he takes a deep breath and begins the fugue anew.
False alarm! Beethoven will have his little joke.

“Why??” the listener asks, almost angrily.  I asked myself the same question while I was learning the piece. In fact I confess that I tried to find a satisfactory cut at this point, justifying my action by comparing it to the massacre that Beethoven himself authorized Ries to carry out if he wished. Thankfully, the muses restored my reason before I committed that act.

Again, the discourse reheats. A final statement of the fugue in the tonic Bb is heard. Suddenly, with little warning, the music cadences at the very end of a bar, on a weak beat, once again providing an unsatisfactory ending! 

7.  There is nothing to do but to press onwards. Beethoven allows us to catch our breath, but only barely.  A brief improvisational Cadenza provides another lengthy pedal point on the dominant F. The section becomes increasingly slower, finally reaching an inconclusive pause, while Beethoven searches desperately for an exit! Suddenly he spots it. But it is not an easy journey. He has to struggle uphill with trills for an entire octave before he finally reaches the conclusion to this unique, gawky giant masterwork.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Four Down, Four To Go

I have already written that, prior to embarking upon this project, I was apprehensive on several levels: At the back of my mind lay a fundamental premise that there is no point in committing to disc a second recording of anything, let alone a full Beethoven sonata cycle, unless it reflects further thought and greater insight on the part of the artist. Moreover, to pretend that an undertaking of this scope is anything other than gruelling is pointless: Let’s face it, technique and stamina do not generally improve when one is a pensioner. Neither does memory. 

Initially, I experimented with self-conscious changes in interpretation: stretching tempos here, pushing them elsewhere, deliberately bringing out voices that Beethoven himself may not have realized were present, playing lyrical themes more "romantically" than I might have done previously, and so forth.  In other words, I found myself doing things that my teachers never would have allowed me to do, things I had never previously done as an adult myself, and things that I never permitted my students to do.

Only a couple of hours' effort were necessary to recognize this approach's futility. Perhaps some performers can successfully impose their will on a composer’s score, but I cannot. I soon realized that whatever changes that would occur this time around would have to reflect harder work, deeper thought, and modifications in my own way of looking at music--and the world--during the intervening decade. I set myself a goal of ensuring that at each practice session, every melodic strand in Beethoven’s canvas, and every sound I created would be re-evaluated, and if possible strengthened.

In retrospect, this shift in my musical outlook is due primarily to an enhanced ability to step back from the score and view its larger dimensions, seeing where sections really begin and end, and ensuring that at least one voice is carrying the music along throughout each section, even if others seem to be taking a breath. Great composers think vast thoughts. Even when the score seems to indicate that a new section has begun, the music is often still in midstream.

It was not always thus. One characteristic of my earlier playing was that commas tended to became semi-colons; semi-colons, a period. I often slowed down and started afresh at the ends of phrases, or in preparation for a new voice that was about to state the theme. (Strange that none of my teachers ever caught it, but none did. It was a former student who casually asked if I really meant to do it as frequently as I did that got me thinking.) By mid-career, those mannerisms were largely gone, but I still was not prepared for the extent to which, as I get older, the pieces I study seem increasingly larger in scope, while at the same time, feeling shorter. An event that may then have seemed structurally important often now appears as local. These days I try to ensure that colourful details do not obscure the broader musical line. Yet paradoxically, I also find myself infusing greater inner life to every phrase in every sonata. In other words, I try to zero in on a work's macroscopic and microscopic aspects simultaneously. Both go hand-in-hand.

Thus far, the works that have changed the most are the first movements of Opp 109 and 110, which I have probably performed more than all the others combined over the past four decades, and recorded twice previously.  I have simplified both movements somewhat, largely avoiding such formulaic, self-conscious late-Beethovenisms as sudden pauses and deliberate tempo changes, except where he specifically indicates he wants them. However, even his own markings require reflection. In his later works, Beethoven began introducing interpretive directions that were no longer purely reflections of the work's structure, but rather, indications of how he wanted them performed; he may well have been writing out his own rubati, as it were. In such cases, there can be a danger of over-interpreting those markings.

Another obvious reason for simplifying the first movement of the 31st sonata is to shift the work’s emotional weight as much as possible toward the conclusion of the sonata. If ever a composition calls for such an emphasis, Op. 110 is it.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On Beethoven editions

Like many other pianists, I use the Henle edition for studying the Beethoven sonatas, as well as a lot of other piano music. It is expensive, but you get what you pay for: notes are invariably well laid out on the page, and you can be fairly confident that all the important sources (especially the autograph – where available – and first editions) have been consulted and analyzed by editors who know their business. Conrad Hansen’s fingerings are inspired; like no other edition of piano music known to me, they force the player to phrase correctly, without demanding that you also be a contortionist. Henle is also unusual because minor revisions are added silently in new printings of the same edition. This admittedly can result in some confusion unless you check the publishing history carefully, but if you buy a recent copy instead of xeroxing your library's older one you will be assured of getting the latest version.

On occasions where differences between sources exist, the choice of which to use is sometimes obvious, but on other occasions, it is anything but. Henle’s editor, Bertha Wallner, generally makes good calls, but it is always best to decide for oneself.  At the very end of the Appassionata, in m.352, for instance, the first and third eight-notes in the bass clef are F’s in the first edition, whose printing Beethoven presumably oversaw. However, clearly marked in the autograph are A-flats. Wallner thinks that was an error, and she may well be correct. But perhaps not. Playing the A-flats allows the extra punch of a renewed F in the next measure where the cascading arpeggiated chords are written double forte.

I always play through Schnabel's edition once (but only once), and only after I have thoroughly learned the sonata. He offers fascinating and provocative interpretive advice, but he certainly was dogmatic, and often just states his opinion without supporting it with any argument. Especially annoying is his refusal to condone even the slightest adjustments Beethoven would have had to make in order to counter the limited range of whatever piano he had at hand.  I have no problem extending the bass a note or two when it seems obvious that Beethoven needed, say, a contra E that was not available to him, as in m.2 of the second movement of the Waldstein, but I invariably observe any variation he composed in order to get around the limitations imposed by his lack of treble notes. Another Schnabel curiosity is the system of Roman numerals he employed to indicate measure numbers within a phrase. Thinking deeply about such issues is of utmost importance, of course, but his system of counting measures often seems arbitrary.

I also keep a copy of the Tovey-Craxton edition close by, for one reason only: Donald Tovey's pithy comments that precede each sonata. Unlike his book on the sonatas that now seems pedantic and old-fashioned, his remarks to the performer are chock-full of advice that is witty and wise in equal measure. He would have been a lot more fun to argue with than Schnabel. He may even have listened to what I had to say.

Von Bulow's comments in the Schirmer edition give insight into the thinking of a great musical mind of the 19th century, but his edition, like the Schnabel, who at least made a strong effort to deliver an accurate text, should serve solely as a reference, not something to learn a work from. Copious editorial suggestions that we constantly see in front of us, no matter how perceptive, have a way of affecting our interpretation in spite of our best intentions to avoid their influence. Why do you think politicians keep on repeating the same lies time and time again?

Not being a theorist I do not prostrate myself on the floor whenever the name Schenker is uttered, even though I freely recognize his invaluable contribution to our comprehension of tonal music. His credentials aside, however, I have never felt drawn to his edition of the Sonatas. I own a copy but seldom find it helpful in comparison to any of the others I have mentioned.

All the above editions are what today's students would call old to ancient. Others exist, and new ones appear now and then. However I have not examined them and so I leave it to others to comment upon them, or compare them to those editions that have served my generation extremely well. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Concert No. 2

It’s hard to believe but the San Jose cycle is already 25% complete. The Appassionata was probably the highlight to date, and with a few retakes, Op. 109 came out really well too. None were disastrous, I am pleased to report.

This time I used a couple of cheat-sheets. The first movement of the G minor sonatina, Op 49 required so little work to get it the way I wanted that I never quite managed to lock it into my memory bank, having missed learning that one as a kid.

There was an event during the opening movement of Op. 54.  Beethoven’s music possesses a powerful inner logic. Most of the notes are precisely the notes they have to be at any given moment, and as a result, memorizing his music is generally easy (for me, at any rate). However there are certain movements, often slow ones, containing several variegated iterations of the same theme.  Generally, those inner variations become more elaborate as the movement progresses, but still, memorizing those differences give me my share of trouble. As a result, during the performance, I also end up spending far too much of my creative energy worrying about what’s coming next.  The first movement of Op. 54 is one such instance, so I placed a sheet containing the last page on the music stand.  As I turned the first page, which was easy to do because there is a long rest for the right hand, the resulting breeze blew the extra page off the piano onto the keyboard, then onto my lap and finally onto the floor. All the while, I was performing and the microphones were recording the proceedings. Needless to say, that movement required more than one re-take the next day.

Given that these works are being recorded for future release, from now on, I might very well play some of the sonatas with the scores open, and even with a page turner.  Feedback anyone?

Incidentally, there was an on-line review of the first concert:

Next up, some thoughts on editions and adherence to text. See you then

Monday, September 13, 2010

Thoughts on the opening concert in San Jose

The program of last Thursday’s concert reveals such a wide array of moods--from the storminess of the first sonata’s outer movements, to the comparative gentleness of the Op. 14/1!  Even more impressive is Beethoven's mastery in so many different compositional styles. Compare, for instance, the breadth, brilliance, yet relatively simple texture of the Waldstein, to the thorny, compact, pervasively contrapuntal Op. 101, which could (and should, IMHO) be a string quartet or quintet. How many of us, if we knew only one of those works, could intuit that the same composer wrote the other?

During the recital, I felt a bit like an athlete at the moment of a competition. The principal goal at the actual performance is not to duplicate the best of one’s practicing over the past several weeks, but to make use of the acquired insights and technical improvement so as to better access whatever inner creativity can be summoned up at the moment. I’ve now heard the “rushes” and hey, they ain’t all that bad (in Bob Silverman talk, that’s good). The touch-up sessions should take care of the most egregious clams, but it is already clear that, if this set sees the light of day as a recording, it will indeed be a live performance, warts and zits included, not a carefully edited studio product.

Earlier on these pages, I wrote that this traversal would be different than my earlier one.  For a short while, I tried to deliberately introduce differences, but quickly learned that I could not. Differences, there will be, but they will have to be the result of new or enhanced ideas about the pieces that reveal themselves through further study of the score and a striving for more technical perfection.  Or by the simple fact that I am 15 years older than I was when I first approached many of these works.  One cannot “fake a difference.”  Self-conscious phrasing creates caricatures, not portraits.  Choosing a tempo that is incompatible with one’s inner clock never works. A tempo can never so slow as to impede the flow of ideas, or so fast that the ideas don’t have the opportunity to breathe, or that the listener cannot adequately digest them.

And now, back to Op. 54.  I love the piece this time around…

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Musings on the human mind and Beethoven’s head-games

The 1st concert in San Jose is just a week and a half away.  The work is exhilarating most of the time, and goes well.  It never ceases to amaze me not only that the human mind stores absolutely everything in some deep recess of our memory, but as far as piano playing is concerned, we apparently keep practicing the music unconsciously non-stop all the time.  Why else are passages that scared the bejeezus out of me 15 years ago, now more comfortable in a seventy-two year-old's hands than they were in his late fifties?  Why else do solutions to problems of interpretation in a given work now appear far more easily and quickly solved than they did then? It's not exactly as though I studied them superficially or did not practice hard the first time around….

Lately, I find myself wondering whether, after Beethoven realized he was creating an ever-growing canon of lasting piano music, he may have started playing head-games with the numbering of his pieces, or his choice of keys?  One of my correspondents jokingly referred to the Waldstein as a large dominant preparation for  the F major of Opus 54.  But she may have been onto something:  Following the brief hiatus, post No. 27, in E, Beethoven returns to serious piano sonata composition with Op. 101, in A major.  Not only does the the sonata begin on the dominant, but the hesitant opening phrase could easily translate into "Let's see now, where were we?"  as though he were picking up on an unfinished conversation a while ago.

Beethoven's ever-growing lifetime fascination with the interval of the third may also mirror the key choices of Op.109-111 (E to G# or A flat, then A flat to C. 

The Diabelli's Variations' thematic relationship to the final movement of Op. 111 has been oft-noted, not to mention that he composed 33 Variations, one more than the number of sonatas thus far, thereby hinting that this was really his 33rd sonata. Moreover, as Brendel notes, the number 33 fills a gap of sorts: He'd previously written a set of 32 variations in C minor, and and published variation sets Op. 34 and 35. 

Of course all this could all be coincidental. I’ll have to ask him the next time we meet

Friday, August 13, 2010

Less than a month to go

What a spectacular work Beethoven’s 28th sonata (Op. 101) is! Counterpoint reigns from the first note to the last, more consistently than in any of the other sonatas. In fact, an enterprising transcriber like either of my friends Robert Stallman or Mark Starr could easily turn it into a great string quartet or quintet: So much of the music specifically emulates string writing, like the entire second movement, or that two-note motive that is handed pizzicato from one instrument to the other toward the end of the Finale.

That is what makes this piece so difficult for pianists. Of course it is never enough simply to pay attention to the most active voice. Here, the principal challenge is not merely to keep track of, and project three or more voices simultaneously, but to infuse each voice with a life of its own that often is independent of the others. Yet, in the end, all must coalesce into a unified vision.


Further word from Audio High about the recording team Michael Silver is assembling for the San Jose Beethoven project: the legendary Mark Willsher of Pin3hot will be in charge of recording the recitals, and the equally renowned Steve Hoffman will master the edited files. Meridian is a major co-sponsor of the project, along with the Elf Foundation, whose mission is to make life more fun for sick kids in hospitals. With guys like that hanging around, I’d better cut this post short and get back to practicing soon.

Closer to home, Dave Pay of Music on Main has arranged for a great Steinway B to be brought into The Cellar specifically for the series there. I love that funky, intimate space.