Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Rollercoaster with Beethoven

January 29, 2008 – Playing with cellist Amit Peled the five cello and piano sonatas written by Ludwig van Beethoven. Part of the 150 anniversary celebration of the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

When I studied at the Peabody Conservatory, over ten years ago, I once asked my teacher Leon Fleisher to recommend me some good reading material about Beethoven – material that would get me closer to understanding this explosive, ever-changing, ever-experimenting, ever-challenging person. Without hesitating for a moment his reply was “the answers to all your questions are in his works. Get to know the music and you get to know the person.”

Indeed learning a body of work of a composer is in many ways like reading a fascinating biography about that person, especially if the music is of L. v. Beethoven. One can hear struggle, hope, triumph, humor, development, questions, frustration, jubilation, and many more characteristics that end up shaping the life of such a creative artist. My experience taught me that the music of great composers is also like the “keys” to the most hidden rooms – the ones that lead straight to their heart.

Amit and I played the Beethoven sonata cycle several times – in Seattle Washington DC, Rockville as well as Jerusalem. As we launched onto each 'journey' we felt that we are handing those special “keys” to the audience. We are the drivers, taking the audience along, on what ends up being a “Rollercoaster with Beethoven”.

Beethoven wrote several cycle of works in various genres – five piano concerti, nine symphonies, thirty two piano sonatas, sixteen string quartets, ten sonatas for violin and piano, five sonatas for cello and piano, and seven piano trios. Among these, the cycle for cello and piano stands out in being relatively short (only five works), and yet it covers a wider ground than say the piano concerti, or the trios, or in certain aspects even the ten violin and piano sonatas.

Interestingly Beethoven sat down to write his five cello sonatas in three different times that correspond with the “three periods” that musicologists are so fond of when dividing Beethoven’s creative life: The two sonatas Op. 5 were written in 1796, when he was already living in Vienna, and when influences of his predecessors Mozart and Haydn can be found side-by-side with the emergence of his own style. The third sonata Op. 69 was written in 1807-8, during the so called heroic period. Some of his most successful works were composed during the time - the fifth symphony, the “Emperor” concerto and many more. And his sonatas Op. 102 no. 1 and 2 were written in 1815 - the most transcendent and spiritual period. In many ways the music during these years is more enigmatic and at times introverted.

Our concert began with the two early "grande" sonatas Op. 5 no. 1 and no. 2. Interestingly they are the first duos for cello and keyboard instrument of any real importance. Neither Haydn nor Mozart touched this genre, and Bach’s monumental suites are for cello solo. In his Op. 5 sonatas Beethoven is taking an instrument which has always been associated with doubling the bass line, being a continuo, and bringing it to the foreground.

When Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, he first tried to establish himself as a piano virtuoso. Consequently, the Op. 5 reflects Beethoven the pianist’s perspective to such a medium. These works are for “piano and cello” as written on the cover page, and not the reverse.

These early sonatas are quite unorthodox in their layout. That ultimately raises some issues regarding their structure and overall balance and proportion. Each sonata has two movements, the first movement being twice longer than the second. They begin with a large scale introduction that follows with an Allegro movement characterized by an over-flow of musical ideas. The second movement is deceptively lighter. Although it is shorter, and does not have the same gravity as the first one, it is even more edgy than the first movement and introduces humor, sarcasm (possibly on the poor performer), and plain fun. My favorite moment is when the “Turks are coming” in the middle of the second movement of the first sonata. A gypsy sounding section, that must have raised some laughter when it was first heard by the King of Prussia for whom these pieces were dedicated to.

Playing through the two sonatas - I know that Liszt was not yet born... but the level of sheer technical difficulty is astounding – all sorts of fast figuration, supported by odd accompaniment patterns, sudden dynamic changes, contrasting outbursts and all kinds of “special effects” that make the music extremely appealing, captivating, yet unexpected and quite 'dangerous'.
Survival is crucial to the continuation of the journey..

An intermission... or as Radu Lupu calls it - “Interpission”...

We continue with the third sonata Op. 69, written during Beethoven’s most productive compositional period. The same years (1807-8) also saw the production of the forth and fifth piano concerti, the violin concerto, the two piano trios Op. 70, the fifth and sixth symphonies, and the Fantasia for piano, orchestra and chorus. In the course of our concert / journey we place this sonata between two intermissions, giving it a certain focal point, a sense of arrival. In the cello literature, this sonata holds as central a place as the Kreutzer sonata holds in the violin literature.

There is a sublime merger of naturalness ad spontaneity in this sonata which in many ways is where Beethoven takes this genre to its ultimate development. This is also why I think of this work as “the place of arrival”, as in many of Beethoven’s middle period works where he achieves maturity and profound understanding in the genres he is writing to a much greater degree than in his earlier years.

In 1808 Beethoven’s hearing was already quite impaired. He could no longer hear high pitches. At times he would succumb to blackness of mood and depression. On the manuscript of the third cello sonata Beethoven inscribed “Between Tears and Sorrow”. Some suggest that this piece was his “hidden” expression of love for the mysterious Immortal Beloved. Indeed this sonata is much closer in character to the heavenly beauty of the forth piano concerto or the violin concerto rather than to the dramatic pain-to-triumph of the fifth symphony.

During the playing there is an incredible sense of inner-balance - A sense of divine beauty, of vision that comes only from someone that on the one hand is hugely talented, and on the other hand keeps experimenting, constructing and reconstructing and dedicating himself constantly and wholeheartedly to his craft. Beethoven’s understanding of the cello is now so complete that he allows the instrument to begin the piece unaccompanied. We are listening to a conversation of equals – cello and piano – they argue, the sing, they quarrel, they merge, they support each other, they confront one another and ultimately they believe, and bring themselves to explore greater heights in the realm of music and the so-called cello and piano genre.

If the essence of the “Classical Style” lies in the symmetry and proportions of the form, then this sonata can be the model for which one could learn about this era. And not to forget the opposite forces which are also an integral part of the “Style” – these opposite forces unfold during the harmonic build up of each movement and its key relations. It is hard to let go of this masterpiece.

Another intermission. A short one.

Rather than say, "we arrive now at the last part of our journey…" with Beethoven’s late period, I would rather say "we have now departed into the culminating part of our journey..." Because with Beethoven’s late period rather than feel a sense of arrival, I feel a sense of departure - departure into new realms of sound, of silence, of space, of time, of form, of harmonic development, of instrument relationship and much more.

The two sonatas Op. 102 are also the last of his chamber works with piano. The only other great works written on an intimate scale afterwards are his late string quartets and a number of late solo piano works.

The last two cello sonatas were written in 1815 on the threshold of what is referred to as Beethoven’s "late style". By that time Beethoven already had eight symphonies to his credit. He was completely deaf and his compositional output slowed down considerably. In this "late style" we find the composer searching for expression and meaning that some Beethoven specialists have noted as conveying a spiritual aspect – rather than a communion with a human audience, we sense that there is a communion with G-d. Several of the works written during the last decade of his life have religious undertones, including the Missa Solemnis as well as the last three piano sonatas.

In the forth sonata again the cello is the one to present the first notes unaccompanied. But is this a cello? Several aspects make this opening "statement" sounds quite different - the alto register; the non-assertive use of the key (C major), as well as the open-ended character of the theme. Consequently the cello sounds different. And when the piano enters, the sense is not of a dialogue but rather it is of a continuation of the line. Cello and Piano become interwoven, and the polyphonic lines make the two instruments almost indistinguishable. Cello and Piano become ONE! This is not music which is written FOR cello and piano. It is music! Which is played BY cello and piano.

Beethoven called this sonata a "Free Sonata", which probably refers to its structure. Rather than the "Classical", three-movement work (or four-movements with a Scherzo), we have here essentially two symmetrical movements. Each one begins with a slow section / introduction, followed by a faster sonata movement. One of the most interesting aspects of this piece, which is also an important element of Beethoven’s late style, is the sense of evolution that one gets when listening to the piece. The opening material of the piece reappears in the second movement creating a perfect unity. This reoccurrence leads to the final movement which is also the longest.

This is the shortest of the sonatas being just under fifteen minutes. But just as with the piano sonatas (Op. 78, Op. 101 among others), Beethoven’s understanding of the 'potential' of his motifs is at a level that he is able to say much more, with much less. In other words his motifs are on the one hand very simple and on the other hand they open up an infinite amount of possibilities, many of which develop in the subconscious of the listener. Beethoven is much more economic. The transitions are much shorter. And yet this music provokes a special dialogue with the listener – a dialogue which he might find hard to comprehend at first, and will keep on trying with some degree of success.

Entering the fifth sonata - Emotionally we are drained. We cannot go on 'automatic pilot', yet we don’t feel that can be in control any more. Can I go as far as say it is a kind of "out of body experience"?
That is what I feel. That is what we feel!
The development we have been going through. The growth, the amount of information we are being presented with – all has reached the last work, and yet we keep opening new doors – these ones however are completely new to our EARS! When I first learned the fugue of this sonata (the last movement), I remember calling Amit to say "I am either playing lots of wrong notes, or this is 'atonal' music!!"

This sonata has the only real slow movement of the entire set! The deeply moving Adagio has a distinctly out-worldly transcendence that characterizes other slow movements in Beethoven’s late period. The Final movement's Fugue is among the greatest fugues he had written. Though Beethoven loved fugal writing, he did not write many complete fugue movements. With its contrapuntal complexity, this particular movement is a masterpiece that stands alongside the fugues of the Hammerklavier op. 106, and the Op. 110 piano sonatas as well as the Grosse Fugue op.133 for string quartet.

If in "early Beethoven" the sources of inspiration came from Haydn and Mozart, in these late works, Beethoven looks further back to the Baroque era – to Bach. His
polyphonic writing reaches its climax in the 5th sonata's slow movement - a choral, and even more so in the last movement's extensive fugue.

Coming back to the point I have mentioned earlier - with most composers, as they approach the end of their creative life there is a feeling of arrival, also heard in their music – their art is extremely refined, the sound, texture as well as structure seems to have reached a certain culmination. With Beethoven, however, rather than arriving at the end, one feels that we are "departing" at the end... His music points to new directions, searching for new sources of sound, melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, structure and also sources of silence. One can even dare say that this music is more modern and onwards looking than our own contemporary 21st century music.


The End… or better say The Beginning.


Alon Goldstein

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