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.