The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet the Chinese phenom pianist Yuja Wang in a New Yorker profile that has more details than you have ever seen before

September 17, 2016
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By Jacob Stockinger

Whether you focus on her virtuosic playing or her sensational and controversial use of sexy fashion in performances, the young Chinese-born and American-trained pianist Yuja Wang is a phenomenon that has both audiences and critics talking in superlatives.

yuja wang dress times 3

True, she is no newcomer to the concert stage and has been in the mass media for years.

Yet the best profile that The Ear has yet seen was written by acclaimed journalist Janet Malcolm and appeared this month in The New Yorker magazine.

It is pegged to Yuja Wang’s recent performance at Carnegie Hall of the famously difficult “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 106, by Ludwig van Beethoven. (You can see and hear it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Yuja Wang Ian Douglas NYT May 2013

Here is a link to the profile, which is chock full of personal and professional details:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/yuja-wang-and-the-art-of-performance


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will perform the “German” Requiem by Brahms plus two world premieres this coming Saturday night in Madison and Sunday afternoon in Whitewater. Also, here are the winners and sonatas you can hear in the FREE Beethoven piano sonata recital this Sunday afternoon at the UW-Madison.

April 15, 2015
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ALERT: The Ear has been informed of the winners of the annual UW-Madison Beethoven Sonata Competition. The FREE winners’ recital is this Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall. Three major late sonatas will be featured on the program: the Sonata in A Major Op. 101, played by Kangwoo Jin (below right in a photo by Katherine Esposito); the last Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, played by  SeungWha Baek (middle); and the titanic “Hammerklavier” Sonata, Op. 106, played by Luis Alberto Peña (left).

For more information about the student performers and their teachers, go to:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/events/beethoven-competition-recital/

Beethoven 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Our friends at the Wisconsin Chamber Choir write:

This coming weekend, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) performs the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms plus world premieres by Giles Swayne and Christian Ellenwood.

wisconsin-chamber choir 2012

The two performances are:

This Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Luther Memorial Church (below), 1021 University Avenue, Madison. Tickets are $25 in advance ($30 at the door); students pay $10 ($15). Visit: www.WisconsinChamberChoir.org

luther memorial church madison

This Sunday, April 19 at 3 p.m. in the Young Auditorium, 930 West Main Street, Whitewater. Tickets are $20.50, $18.50, $15.50; UW-Whitewater students pay $10.50. Visit http://www.uww.edu/youngauditorium

One of the most beloved and popular of all choral works, the German Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below), is a masterpiece of musical Romanticism. (You can hear the opening movement on a YouTube video at the bottom.)

brahms-1

Brahms began the work as a memorial to his mentor, Robert Schumann (below), but the death of Brahms’ own mother spurred him to complete it several years later.

Schumann photo1850

The score embraces a wide variety of emotions, from the lush sounds of the choir and orchestra that envelope the audience in a message of consolation, to lively fugues, worthy of Bach or Handel, that promise the hope of salvation. This music will thrill audiences as well as comfort all who have ever lost a loved one.

Sharing billing with the Brahms are two world premieres, one commissioned by each choir.

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will present Our Orphan Souls by British composer Giles Swayne (below top) on a transcendental text from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

The UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers will present Prairie Spring by UW-Whitewater professor of music, Christian Ellenwood (below bottom), a setting of the poem by American author Willa Cather.

Giles Swayne

Christian Ellenwood copy

Joining the WCC in this performance are soprano soloist Tanya Kruse Ruck, baritone Brian Leeper, and bass Gregory Berg; the UW-Whitewater Chamber Singers; and Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s own fully professional orchestra made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble.

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Haydn; a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and world-premieres. Robert Gehrenbeck (below) who directs the Choral Program at the UW-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

 


Classical music: Here are the final program and details about the FREE memorial on this Sunday at 3 p.m. in Mills Hall for University of Wisconsin-Madison pianist Howard Karp.

August 28, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received a request from the Karp Family.

It seems there is still some ignorance and some confusion about the memorial event -– a life celebration, really –- set for this Sunday afternoon for the late pianist Howard Karp, who died in June at 84 in Colorado and who had taught and performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music from 1972 to 2000.

The event is FREE and OPEN to the public.

Here are the details:

“Dear Jake, 

“I hope all is well.

“Here is the program for Sunday.

“I am still hearing from people who want to go to the celebration, but don’t know when or where it will be.  

“My very best to you,

“Parry Karp”

A CELEBRATION OF THE LIFE OF HOWARD KARP (1929-2014, below in a 2000 photo by Katrin Talbot)

Howard Karp ca. 2000 by Katrin Talbot

The celebration will be held this Sunday, August 31, 2014, at 3 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall (below) in the Mosse Humanitites Building,  with a FREE and PUBLIC reception to follow.

MIllsHall2

FREE parking can be found in nearby Grainger Hall of the University of Wisconsin Business School.

“Performances” by Howard Karp come from recordings issued by Albany Records and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Welcome

Sonata in B-Flat Major, Op. 106 (“Hammerklavier) by Ludwig van Beethoven:  Movement I. Allegro, Howard Karp, pianist

Words from Bill Lutes (below, with his wife UW-Madison pianist Martha Fischer, and a former student and friend of Howard Karp)

martha fischer and bill lutes

Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47, by Robert Schumann,   Movement III. Andante cantabile, performed by Frances Karp, pianist (wife of Howard Karp, below top with Howard); Leanne League (violinist, below bottom, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and  is the assistant concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra as well as a member of the Ancora String Quartet); Katrin Talbot, violist (daughter-in-law and wife of Parry Karp); Parry Karp, cellist (eldest son of Howard Karp who teaches cello and chamber music at the UW-Madison and is a member of the Pro Arte Quartet.)

howard and frances karp

Leanne League profile

Readings from William Shakespeare by granddaughter actresses Isabel Karp (bel0w top) and Natasha Karp (below bottom).

isabel karp USE

Natasha Karp

“Fantasie” in C Major, Op. 17, by Robert Schumann, Movement I: Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen, Howard Karp, pianist

Words and music from Malcolm Bilson (below, a well-known teacher and keyboard performer with Howard Karp at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and a retired professor from Cornell University); Sonata in F-sharp Minor, D. 571, by Franz Schubert,  Movement I. Allegro moderato

Malcom Bilson 2

Words from pianist and friend Ira Goodkin

Concerto Per Due Pianoforte Soli by Igor Stravinsky, Movement 1. Con moto; Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fantasy-Tableaux: Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos, Op. 5: 1. Barcarolle: Allegretto; Howard and Frances Karp, duo-pianists

Words from actress granddaughter Ariana Karp (below), via video

ariana karp portrait

“Kol Nidre” by Max Bruch, Parry Karp, cellist (below top), and Christopher Karp (below bottom), pianist and  youngest son of Howard Karp who is a medical doctor with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Parry Karp

Christopher Karp

Words from Parry Karp

Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58, Frederic Chopin, Movement IV. Finale: Presto non tanto, Howard Karp, pianist

FREE PUBLIC RECEPTION TO FOLLOW

Here is a link to the posting on the new UW-School of Music blog A Tempo:

http://www.music.wisc.edu/2014/07/17/howard-karp/

And here is a link to another performance by Howard Karp on SoundCloud, a rarely heard work by Johann Sebastian Bach that features a Fugue on a Theme by Tomaso Aliboni as well as works by Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn:

https://soundcloud.com/uw-madisonsom/sets

Howard Karp's hands by Katrin Talbot

 

 

 


Classical music: Violinist Rose Mary Harbison talks about the 25th anniversary of the upcoming Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, while composer John Harbison discusses C.P.E. Bach, whose 300th anniversary will be observed during the festival.

August 21, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

On Monday, The Ear offered an overview of the 25th annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival that opens this coming Saturday night and runs through Sunday, Aug. 31.

Here is a link to that post:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/classical-music-the-token-creek-chamber-music-festival-starts-saturday-it-celebrates-25-years-with-observing-the-300th-anniversary-of-c-p-e-bach-and-by-offering-a-wide-rage-of-works-and-composers-t/

TokenCreekbarn interior

For more information, including programs, performer biographies and archives, visit: http://tokencreekfestival.org

For tickets ($30 with a limited number of $10 student tickets): Call (608) 241-2524 or visit http://tokencreekfestival.org/2014-season/tickets/

TokenCreekentrance

Today, as promised but postponed by stories about the Metropolitan Opera labor negotiations and about two local concerts this Friday, the blog features two important essays by the two co-artistic directors of the festival.

The first essay is a discussion by violinist Rose Mary Harbison about the 25th anniversary of the festival.

The second is a personal essay by composer John Harbison about the composer C.P.E. Bach, whose 300th anniversary will play an important role in the festival.

NEW BEGINNINGS AT TOKEN CREEK

By Rose Mary Harbison (below)

RosemaryHarbison

When the Token Creek Festival began, 25 years ago, we had many ideas and many ideals, but none of our plans involved growth. The reason for that was at first practical. We wanted to perform in a converted barn, the very space where we already practiced and played.

The space, and its surroundings, is welcoming, but able to seat, optimally, no more than 80 people. We had no stage, no lights and no parking plan. We were our own maintenance and grounds-keeping staff.

We also had ideas about the music we would like to present. We had participated in various summer festivals, and were not too interested in the concept of “summer” music. Along with our founding colleagues, Jorja Fleezanis and Michael Steinberg, we came up with some initial programs — Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, recent pieces by Helps and John Harbison, thinking of music we wouldn’t likely be asked to prepare at other festivals, in late August.

In the official re-opening season (1994) there were three concerts: all Bach, all Mozart, all Schoenberg. Single composer concerts have since been rare at Token Creek, but we have instead done series: many Haydn trios, the complete Mozart concertos for which he made chamber music arrangements; the “esoteric” final period of Bach (below), including generous selections from The Art of Fugue, and The Musical Offering in two different orderings and instrumentations.

Bach1

Our guests have been friends whom we have cone to know in our various travels. We were once told by a possible patron that he would fund the festival for two seasons if we would bring X, a conductor with whom we were in close partnership. But this is not the way we have chosen to construct our seasons — independence in programming and staffing has remained our most precious freedom.

We have presented what interests us, and the varying audience sizes, from sold-out to modest, reflects that determination. Thirty excited, involved listeners provide a sufficient presence, in our small barn, for an unforgettable occasion, like Leonard Stein’s lecture-demonstration on the Hammerklavier sonata (played in live performance by Daniel Barenboim in a YouTube video at bottom) by Ludwig van Beethoven (below).

Beethoven big

Ten years ago, we expanded into jazz, eventually composer-focused, with an idea that some of the players would play in both, and we would encourage an audience to embrace the whole series. In the early years we stressed themes and issues shared by both forms. (An audience survey later revealed that, in fact, the crossover audience is very small; we were surprised.) The jazz became popular, and began in certain ways to drive the festival, especially logistically (a night-club set up, an eventual two-concerts-per-day schedule). Part of our effort to recapture the original spirit of the festival involves letting go of the jazz for this year, becoming smaller and more thoughtful again.

One of our best colleagues, a performer, has a brother, a violinist, who started a European festival. It grew and it added things on, his responsibilities changed. Is he happy with the growth? we asked. “Well of course, it’s a success, but he is pretty sad. … he no longer plays the violin.”

Every musician is challenged, at every point in their development, to try to remember why they went into music, to recapture the basic impulse. Sometimes that requires going back to a starting point, and either starting over, or summarizing what has happened.

Institutions, like individuals, are always challenged to grow, to go forward, to move on, and must occasionally reconstruct themselves, at the risk of not fitting expectations, dreams, or the economic model.

I write with the hope of encountering their best instincts and reconnecting with like souls, the natural constituency.

CARL PHILIP EMMANUEL BACH (1714-1799), AN ANNIVERSARY

By John Harbison (below)

JohnHarbisonatpiano

One of the many privileges of co-directing a music festival is study, a chance to pause over music that might go by too fast; a chance, even, to make a connection with music that has remained alien too long. For many years I cherished a suspicion of, close to an aversion to, CPE Bach’s music.  This was based on a large number of keyboard pieces I heard in the ‘60s played by the eminent harpsichordist Louis Bagger.  The pieces had a pronounced WOW factor, they were calculated to immediate effect, they asked provocative questions, then shirked answering.  The non-sequiturs, as in many of today’s novelties, seemed mere posturing, the work of a gadfly without a message.

Tied to this was an impression that CPE was an ingenious person.  In spite of his good stewardship of the materials left to him from his father, he seemed self-servingly willing to promote J.S. Bach’s teacher reputation, a prescription that stemmed from the competition between them.

I now believe many of these impressions were wrong, or at best uninformed.  CPE Bach is a complicated case, and needs a much more attentive examination.

He was J.S. Bach’s second son.  The first, Wilhelm Friedemann, was more talented, but less industrious. Friedmann’s best pieces seem to have a naturalness and pure musicality unavailable to CPE, but they lack a strategy to fully separate from his father.

Such a strategy does CPE deploy, with a vengeance.  This took courage and an investigative mind.  It seems clear that the son’s valuation of his father’s music grew during the course of his career.  Together with his vast experience as a composer came an appreciation of the foundation he had received from his only teacher, together with a perception of the enormity of that teacher’s artistic achievement.

Carl Philip Emmanuel (below, in a 1733 portrait by a relative Gottfried Friedrich Bach) was too good a musician not to notice something: In spite of being the most famous and highly regarded composer in the world by the 1740s (J.S. Bach was still alive), he was not in the same league with the old man.  He becomes, instead, an avatar of the new, often at his best while disturbing the logic, proportion and density that were his father’s hallmark.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in 1733 painted by Gottfriend Friedrich Bach, a relative

Much has been said about the manner, the tone of much of his music, which says: This need not always be so serious, this need not be so responsible, this is apprehendable right away. These are things worth stating, periodically, and can be expressed, as in CPE’s music, by a kind of nervousness, hurry, irresponsibility — winning qualities in his best pieces.

But the main agent of change in CPE can be very simply described: He dismantles his father’s bass-line—radically clears it out, reduces it much of the time to skeletal support, thus placing new emphasis on the charm, buoyancy and unpredictability of the melodies.

J.S. Bach’s music, in asserting that the bass possesses a profile very like the upper parts in activity and articulateness (and often surpasses them in importance) draws on very old principles carried forward from Renaissance polyphony. In reducing and domesticating the bass, CPE achieves a new intelligibility and friendliness of texture, and cuts his hereditary umbilical cord.

Still he retains a lot of J.S. in his ability, when he chooses, to develop and vary motives, to spin out large phrases, and to create drama and propulsion.

In this 300th anniversary year there is an added fascination: A scholarly filling out of his canon.  A great proportion of his output is being made available for the first time in published form. There are many surprises, especially in the form of vocal and instrumental chamber music.

“Premieres” are being offered, around the world, and the music, which has always been valued as a necessary historical moment, is now being valued for itself.

We can hear not only the way he both holds and breaks with his father, we can also hear why Joseph Haydn (below and at the bottom in a YouTube video of the famed Beaux Arts Trio playing the same Haydn piano trio that will be played during this year’s festival) was so taken with this music.  It has its own surprises, quirks, and above all a burning energy, singular, bold, drawing our attention, chastening our misconceptions.

Haydn

 

 


Classical music: Is there more to say about Beethoven and his music? Acclaimed musicologist Jan Swafford thinks so, and says so in his new biography of The Ludwig.

August 9, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

By most polls and surveys, the most popular composer of classical music remains Ludwig van Beethoven (below). The surly, willful and influential musician bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, and his music retains much of its power and universal appeal even today.

All you have to do is mention the names of works in virtually all the various musical genres and forms — solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, vocal music — that Beethoven mastered and pushed into new realms of expression:

The “Eroica” Symphony.

The Fifth Symphony.

The “Pastoral” Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.”

The “Emperor” Concerto for piano.

The “Razumovsky” and “Late” String Quartets.

The “Ghost” and  “Archduke” piano trios, and the “Triple” Concerto.

The “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” piano sonatas.

The “Spring” and “Kreutzer” violin sonatas.

The “Missa Solemnis.”

“Fidelio.”

And on and on.

Such nicknames and so many! Talk about iconic works!

Beethoven big

What more is there to be said about Beethoven?

Well, quite a lot, apparently, according to the acclaimed music historian Jan Swafford (below), who did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and his graduate work at Yale University and who now teaches composition and music history at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Jan Swafford color

Swafford, who has also written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, has just published his 1,000-page biography of Beethoven with the subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.”

It is getting some mixed or qualified reviews. But before you look into that, better check into the pieces that NPR (National Public Radio) did on Swafford and his takes on Beethoven, some of which defy received wisdom and common sense.

Here is a summary of some common perceptions about Beethoven that may -– or may NOT –- be true, according to Swafford. It i s an easy and informative read.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/08/05/337857557/ask-us-anything-about-beethoven

And here is another piece on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that deals with how the powerful Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” reveals Beethoven’s personality. (You can hear the opening, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

http://www.npr.org/2014/08/03/336656578/beethovens-eroica-a-bizarre-revelation-of-personality

Some critics have questioned whether the book (below) is too long, whether it repeats things that are already well known and whether the writing style is accessible to the general public.

But nobody is ignoring it.

Jan Swafford Beethoven cover

Here are two reviews by reputable media outlets.

From The Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/book-review-beethoven-anguish-and-triumph-by-jan-swafford-1406927297

From The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/books/review/beethoven-by-jan-swafford.html?_r=0

Have you read Jan Swafford’s other work?

What do you think of his music histories and biographies?

Or of his new Beethoven book, if you have read it?

And what is your favorite  work by Beethoven?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music Q&A: Shakespeare turns 450 today. Pianist Ryan McCullough talks about Beethoven’ problematic profundity and his Shakespearean sense of pacing and rhetoric. He will perform Beethoven’s titanic last three piano sonatas -– through which he sees a progression — this Saturday night at Farley’s House of Pianos.

April 23, 2014
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NOTE: Today’s in the 450th birthday of playwright William Shakespeare — a fitting date for the blog post below to appear. Do you have a favorite work or composer who stands up to comparison with Shakespeare or whose music or opera best incorporates work by The Bard? Leave a COMMENT.

shakespeare BW

By Jacob Stockinger

At 8 p.m. on this Saturday night, April 26, pianist Ryan McCullough (below top) will play the last three Beethoven piano sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, on the new Salon Series of concerts at Farley’s House of Pianos (below bottom is Farley’s Steinway‘s 1877 Centennial Concert Grand), located 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side, not far from West Towne.

Ryan McCullough above keyboard

Farley 1877 piano

McCullough has appeared with orchestras including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he performed to acclaim at the Token Creek Festival in Madison in 2010. For more information, visit his website www.rmmpiano.com.

He is comfortable with repertoire ranging from classical works to electro-acoustic improvisation, and serves as Sage Fellow in Contemporary Performance Practice at Cornell University.

For this concert he will play Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 30 in E major, No. 31 in A-flat major and No. 32 in C minor. You can call (608) 271-2626 to reserve your tickets. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door. A free reception follows the performance and is included.

McCullough graciously answered an email Q&A for The Ear.

Ryan McCullough mug small

Can you briefly introduce yourself and your major accomplishments, and talk about your background including when you started piano lessons and what was your Aha! Moment when you knew you wanted to become a concert pianist?

By my nature, it is hard for me to claim any major “accomplishments” since I attribute any such thing to luck and circumstance (provided I’ve done the work!). But I will say I am very happy and feel very lucky that I’m a concert pianist, and especially that I’m satisfied with the breadth and variety of musical projects I get to work on. I can’t really even take sole credit for that, though, since I’ve had a lot of support from family and teachers all along the way.

My mom started me on piano when I was 5, but at the time I wasn’t really into it–I wanted to be a pilot. Something happened when I was 11, however, and suddenly music became an insatiable fascination for me.

I began composing, I began playing the clarinet, which gives me a lot of respect for the musicians on the “other side of the podium.” I started going to little competitions and I just knew that this was what I was going to do. I never decided, I just found myself.

ryan mccullough informal big

What is it about Beethoven and especially late Beethoven sonatas that appeals to you? Do you have a favorite among the last three sonatas?

There is a lot of cultural baggage that comes with Beethoven’s music, and this is of course nothing new. Composers, performers and music-lovers have racked their brains over his music and especially his late music for close to 200 years, and so I often wonder if it is really possible to unpack what is really Beethoven from what is just the Beethoven mythology.

But trying to think as objectively as possible about these works, I have been thinking recently about how much I love the pacing of his music. It’s very dramatic, in the thespian sense of the word, and revelations and changes to the motion of the music seem to happen at exactly the right moment. It is well-known that Beethoven (below top) loved Shakespeare, and the connections between dramatic rhetoric and music were very deep in the 18th-century, so I imagine this was a very serious consideration for him.

Beethoven big

One of the challenges of playing Beethoven’s late works is grappling with profundity. Ask anyone who knows a little about Beethoven’s music to describe his late music and you’ll get responses like spiritual, profound, transcendental, mystical, otherworldly, and so on. This is just a part of our cultural understanding of Beethoven, which is of course backed up by Beethoven’s own words, such as the indication atop the third movement of op. 109, “mit innigster Empfindung,” or “with deepest feeling.”

Of course, while I do believe Beethoven was a very spiritual man with a deep interest in the philosophical and cultural trends of his time, 200 years of critical hyperbole since his death have made it such that playing this music feels to us as if his notes contain the secrets of the universe, and so as a performer it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound through these works when just letting them be what they are is already profound enough.

ryan mccullough playing 1

Why do you think that the last three sonatas, and the late sonatas in general, have replaced the more “heroic” middle period sonatas like the “Tempest,” the “Appassionata” and the “Waldstein” that used to figure so prominently in piano recitals?

There is probably no accounting for why certain pieces begin to feature more regularly in concerts, especially in the piano circuit, which is so heavily influenced by (or contrary to) competitions. I also think it depends where you’re looking. I have heard many performances of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata recently, especially at top-tier competitions where it seems to be the “no s/he didn’t!” piece of choice these days.

I heard the last three sonatas played by my teacher, John Perry, back in 2004, before I began studying with him, and got it stuck in my head at that point that I would do that one day as well, so I think that’s at least one reason how certain repertoire disseminates.

That being said, I also heard a performance of the complete 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day by one person, and that is not something I would ever want to do.

Do you see any kind of connection or relationship among the last three sonatas? What would you like to point out to readers about each sonata, and about your performance in Madison?

This ties into the notion of profundity I mentioned a moment ago, whether it’s latent in the work or imposed by the observer (which of course includes the performer). Obviously Beethoven made the decision to put them in that particular order (Opp. 109, 110, 111), and opus order is something we know he was conscious of, especially with his late string quartets.

Whether that actually means anything specifically is anyone’s guess, and probably has as much to do with the composer’s business relationships with his publishers as it does with the actual music.

For the purposes of performance as a set, I do perceive a progression through the three.

Op. 109 (a manuscript page is below) feels very domestic, grounded in the realities of everyday living. Emotions ebb and flow, from comfortable simplicity to passionate arguments, but the piece never really wanders very far from home and there’s a certain quiet satisfaction that overrides the whole work, even in its most ecstatic moments.

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op.109

Op. 110 (a manuscript page is below) is a much more complicated piece, and for me is the hardest of the three. It seems to begin somewhat where Op. 109 leaves off — comfortable, satisfied, glittering, but there is a certain disquietude in the first movement, evidenced by the fact that Beethoven keeps leaning towards the dark key of F minor but manages just to avoid it or only touches on it briefly. The second movement is a wild romp in, not surprisingly, F minor, so whatever it was Beethoven was trying to avoid in the first movement seems to eventuate in full.

The third movement, which emerges out of the second, is one of the most depressing, emotionally draining pieces of music Beethoven ever penned, so whatever happened in the second movement was evidently quite a test. After a couple of attempts to pull the music out of this stupor, the piece ends up in a wildly ecstatic version of where the sonata began, but with the same harmonic hints at disquietude as the first movement, suggesting a kind of cyclical story-telling that Beethoven was very interested in at that time. It’s this combination of tightly-woven composition and boundless, fantasia-like wandering that makes the piece hard to pull off. The pacing, as I mentioned before, is very important.

beethoven ms piano sonata op 110

Op. 111 (below is the title page form the first edition) is undoubtedly my favorite, certainly conceptually. Its two movements could not be more different from each other. The first movement is very much the stormy Beethoven we all read about, unkempt, his chamber pot full, frantically and obsessively scribbling the same short musical gestures over and over until he’s found just the right version (which was usually the first version, 20 versions ago), the deaf man beating out this wild music at the piano while listening through his earhorn.

Beethoven Title page Sonata Op. 111

The second movement, then, is as if you woke up from that bad dream and found yourself watching some sort of eternal celestial ritual that had no beginning, no terminus, and only seemed to exist for as long as you were there watching it. The way the movement is constructed reminds me somewhat of the great old science film “Powers of 10” (http://vimeo.com/6150677) where the universe is shown proportionally in both its infinite vastness and smallness—the falling motive Beethoven starts with is continually divided in half, somewhat like a single bacteria, and becomes such a cloud of activity that it seems to engulf us until inadvertently we find ourselves back where we started. (You can hear the second movement played in a live performance by the great Rudolf Serkin in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Many see Beethoven’s sense of musical abstraction as a precursor to 20th-century modernity; but the 18th-century was a pretty crazy time conceptually, and artists and philosophers were already considering ideas that modernists in the 20th-century would claim as their own invention. Beethoven just happened to be a very effective bullhorn for these ideas. (Below is a manuscript page of Op. 111.)

Beethoven ms Piano Sonata Op. 111

Is there something else you would like to add or say?

I am dedicating this performance and another that I am giving at Cornell University to a great friend and music-lover Leon Berliner (below), who owned a Classical music recording shop in my hometown of Eureka, California.

Leon Berliner

Leon was born into a Jewish family in Belgium, and Beethoven was one of the first sounds he heard after the liberation of his country from the Nazis. He held an annual Beethoven’s birthday party at his store on December 16, and he died this last year from lung cancer on December 15. That’s as amazing a coincidence as you’re ever likely to get, and I very much hope he’s enjoying his “eternal celestial ritual.”

 

 

 

 

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