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.