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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Le Petit Trianon in San Jose

Site of the upcoming series and recording sessions.