Sunday, June 7, 2015

Beethoven Sonatas Redux

There are many reasons why only a handful of pianists have recorded the 32 Beethoven sonatas more than once. So, when I was invited to perform the complete cycle during the 2010-11 season for Music on Main, Vancouver's edgiest concert presenter, and a week later, to play and re-record them all at Le Petit Trianon in San Jose, I was flattered. Nonetheless, the decision to accept both invitations was not made lightly.

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. So why did I grab at the bait?

There are technical reasons for having another go at the sonatas as well: the earlier set was made on a reproducing Boesendorfer 290SE, a technical marvel of its time, so fiendishly expensive that only 32 were made (one for each Beethoven sonata, apparently). It was situated in a large living room, which gave the sound an undeniable intimacy – far closer to the sound of a fortepiano of Beethoven's era in a large drawing room than that of a resonant, modern concert Steinway in a large concert hall.

Still, for better or worse, a resonant, modern concert Steinway in a large concert hall is what we have become accustomed to for the past century and a half. Having been a Steinway artist by choice for decades, the opportunity to re-record the Beethoven sonatas in ideal concert-hall conditions proved irresistible.

Let's go back a bit.  I had studied many of the sonatas during my student years, and taught all of them over the past four decades. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, when I first played the cycle in its entirety, over two dozen sonatas were new to my fingers, if not my brain. Learning them all took two years. I performed the cycle eight times in Washington D.C., Vancouver, Seattle, Toronto, then recorded them in 2000, using a reproducing Boesendorfer concert grand, on a now out of print set of Juno-shortlisted 10 CDs.

Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas embody the core of the piano repertoire. It is in the realm of these works that his immense expressive range, limitless powers of invention and technical mastery were first manifested, and every facet of his genius is reflected in them. As a group the sonatas seem to take on a life of their own; we are not simply hearing 32 magnificent individual pieces. Rather, we are listening to an integrated body of music. Relationships between sonatas, or even groups of sonatas, composed at different stages of his career, take the piece of thematic connections within an individual work.

We are exceedingly fortunate that Beethoven was born exactly when and where he was born. The complexity of the miraculous language known as tonality, and the sophistication of the high classical style had only melded together within the previous two decades, reaching a level that made it possible for a Beethoven to mine their treasures and infuse them with as intense a personalization, and as wide a range of dramatic narratives as Western music has witnessed. Throughout his career, he would systematically question, stretch, and challenge virtually every compositional principle his great predecessors had handed down. Nevertheless, he did so without overthrowing or discarding any of them. For all his reputation as a musical revolutionary, he was content to work within the system throughout his career.

It was fascinating to trace Beethoven's development from sonata to sonata. I saw how he continually tried new ideas, discarded some of them, stretched others in novel ways, and then moved on to different challenges and areas of concern. No small wonder that the sonatas -- from the muscle-flexing exuberance of the early ones, through the brilliance and heroic drama of his Appassionata and Waldstein, to the haunting, other-worldness of his late works -- sound as fresh and innovative as they did 200 hundred years ago!

This had undoubtedly been the musical journey of my life. No project I had ever undertaken had been remotely so exhilarating: my brain was flooded daily with insights about how Beethoven's mind worked, how his music was put together, and how his magnificent, multi-faceted thoughts might be transmogrified from notes on a page into a rich, architecturally-coherent sonic image.  Delving deeply into Beethoven's creativity for over two years was exhausting but exhilarating. Richard Goode told me my life would never be the same afterward, and he was right.

In retrospect, this adventure was in no sense a culmination, but rather a rejuvenation. A dozen years later, I still find myself studying scores and practicing in ways that I had not previously done. New ideas about interpretation, technique, musical structure, and sound production constantly occur to me whenever I take a seat at the keyboard (and often when I am away from it).

Several sonatas from the earlier set still rank among my private list of favourite recordings. However, I do hear most of them differently – not necessarily better, definitely not worse, but certainly differently. In retrospect, the first set constitutes a fairly objective record of how I thought they should be played at the time. I intended that the forthcoming set represent a more personal interpretation of the sonatas.

Initially, I experimented with self-conscious changes in interpretation: stretching tempos here, pushing them elsewhere, discovering and bringing out voices that Beethoven himself may not have known were present, playing lyrical themes more "romantically" and so forth. It took only a couple of hours before I realized that I was doing things that my teachers never would have allowed me to do, things I myself had never previously done, and things that I never permitted my students to do.

Only a couple of hours' effort was necessary to recognize the futility of this approach. Some performers like Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould could successfully impose their will on a composer’s score, but I cannot. Whatever changes had occurred over the previous decade would have to result from ensuring that every strand in Beethoven’s sonic tapestry be reconsidered and strengthened musically to the best of my ability.

Although I'd always had a healthy, robust sound, it was around the turn of the century that I realized that my playing could use greater tonal variety. I began work consciously toward that end, experimenting with various touches, and different ways of positioning the hand while at the piano. I also spent time listening to — and trying to emulate — orchestral balances achieved by the greatest of conductors, especially Furtw√§ngler, Kleiber, and Levine.

One characteristic of my early playing was a tendency to slow down at the end of too many phrases. Too many commas were inserted into the music, those commas present in the score tended to be treated as semi-colons; semi-colons became periods, and so on.  By mid-career, I’d largely eliminated those mannerisms, but when working on the sonatas this time, I was amazed at the degree to which I found myself not simply choosing to carry the music along throughout each section, but rather, BEING FORCED by the music to do so.  Events that may once have seemed structurally important to me now appeared local. Simultaneously, because of the greater continuity, other Beethovenian gestures — sudden pauses or dynamic changes, for example — now seemed rhetorically more important than they once did, and I found myself able to perform them with more conviction.  How did this happen?  It never ceases to amaze me that our minds can store absolutely everything in some deep recess of our memory, and that as far as piano playing is concerned, we seemingly practice every piece we’ve learned, unconsciously, non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Why else are passages that scared the bejeezus out of me 15 years ago, now more comfortable in a 72-year-old’s hands than they were in his late 50s? Why else do solutions to problems of interpretation in a given work now appear far more easily and quickly solved than they did then? Most puzzling of all is that the sonatas that have changed the most are the ones that I have performed more than all the others combined over the past four decades.

So, is this set (only 24 sonatas will appear) actually better than the first? That’s for each listener to decide, although I believe it is.  However, it certainly is palpably different, and for better or worse it undoubtedly reflects my current thinking about these crucially seminal works.  (The first release is due for release momentarily)