Apropos Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas

ARTS, Features, Music
img_michaelhoustonMichael Houston’s historic cycle of sonatas allows us to consider and reconsider Beethoven one more time.

With Beethoven, we are faced with one of the supreme images of the titan, like Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Among Beethoven’s contemporaries, Goethe was the only other genius he acknowledged as speaking the same language as him. In the last century we can see the titan in the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, painter Anselm Kiefer, and photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. As with all these other titans, with Beethoven it is not simply a matter of talent (Mozart is the supreme example of that); rather, it is the force of will that strikes one, that commands one’s attention. With Mozart we have music that comes from God; with Beethoven he himself becomes God. Mozart’s music is perfection; Beethoven’s is struggle, agony, despair, victory. The will of this one man was so great that he had to shape the style he had inherited to his own demands and by so doing he single-handedly altered the course of Western music itself.

With such a figure as this, each new generation has to come to terms with him, reinterpret him, think about what he means for their own lives. As long as culture exists people will keep putting on Shakespeare plays. They will keep performing Beethoven piano sonatas. Performing all the piano sonatas of Beethoven as a cycle has become a tradition since Artur Schnabel did so on the centenary of Beethoven’s death in 1927 (the only pianist to perform them, from memory, before him was Hans von Bülow, a contemporary of Brahms). Michael Houston is to be admired for giving New Zealand audiences the chance to hear them over the last year. It is, to my knowledge, the only complete cycle here since he last performed them 20 years ago. Like Beethoven with his deafness, Houston has had his own problems with the use of his right hand, and it seems appropriate that on overcoming them he should present us with the cycle of Beethoven’s sonatas once again (albeit rather lamely dubbed ‘recycle’). What I have heard this time around is a deeper and more satisfying experience than the earlier one. I had the opportunity of being present at the third stage of Houston’s Beethoven cycle, the last three concerts. Houston programmed sonatas covering the early, middle and late periods of Beethoven’s creative life, which gave each concert variety and a sense of the range of the composer’s development. (In comparison, a more chronological approach might give greater emphasis to the feeling of progression and to homogeneity of atmosphere.)

In the first four sonatas, Beethoven pays tokens to conventions; movements are clearly separate and in a conventional order: fast, slow, fast, with a minuet or scherzo in between the last two movements. As he goes on, these conventions become increasingly blurred. In the 6th sonata there is an Allegretto in the place of a slow movement. In the 13th sonata he mixes movements into each other with no single movement in sonata form, but with the piece resembling sonata form as a whole. In the 14th sonata he progressively speeds up the pace of the three movements: Adagio/Allegretto/Presto (although Mozart does something similar in his ‘alla turca’ sonata, with Beethoven the transitions are much more extreme).

More and more, Beethoven is not content with the needs of others who created before him and stood as the artistic models of the time; his overwhelming need for expression leads him to push the boundaries of what is possible and to create new aesthetic standards. Thus, we can understand the quote given in the programme notes by the pianist Moscheles, who had been instructed to “study no other authors but Mozart, Clementi and J S Bach,” and who “learnt from some school-fellows that a young composer has appeared at Vienna, who wrote the oddest stuff possible. Such as no one could either play or understand; crazy-music, in opposition to all rule; and that this composer’s name was Beethoven.” In Beethoven’s last sonatas, the bold innovations of his middle period have become effortless. If we compare the 13th sonata with the 31st (its numerical inversion), we see the same formal idea of the interlocking of slow movement and finale, but whereas in the earlier sonata this juxtaposition seems to be a determined dramatic move, in the later sonata it seems to arise much more out of some inner necessity; rather than imposed it seems to have simply been born. Beethoven’s struggle has been sublimated, and all its signs have become made invisible, indistinguishable from the very texture of the composition. Beethoven has moved so far from the conventions, they have ceased to concern him to such an extent that he speaks purely his own language.

During the last three concerts each of the last three sonatas was given as the last piece of the concert, and for me these were the highlights, especially the slow movements. Though the faster movements could risk sounding merely mechanical, more physical than musical, the slower movements had a meditative quietude to them that was very beautiful, the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata for example. This was nowhere more so than in the last sonatas and in the last movement of the very last of them Houston’s masterly control and stability allowed me to breathe its air of still exaltation. It seems to me that after this last sonata it was a conscious decision of Beethoven’s to take leave of the sonata form (though perhaps it seems so only through the ordering lens of retrospection); it is as if he has moved far from earthly concerns and dwells in the timeless heavens. Whereas it is as if Mozart was born with perfection (even his compositions at five years old are masterpieces!), in this sonata we get the feeling that Beethoven has reached perfection through struggle. The material evidence of his struggle has been distilled into a pure essence like the white canvases of Mondrian. (The C major of the last movement is the musical equivalent of the colour white and symbolizes purity. Mondrian struggled for expression in various more conventional forms before finding his own unique way in the predominantly white geometrical paintings he painted late in life.) Having been faithful to the piano sonata from 1795 to 1822, Beethoven abandons the form in the last five years of his life: after the 32nd, the summation of his sonatas, we get the 33 ‘Diabelli’ Variations, which in a kind of musical pun, acts as the 33rd sonata and is the pinnacle of his works in variation form.

I don’t want to be anything but duly respectful of Houston’s monumental achievement, but I feel I should acknowledge a few things I would have liked to hear more of. One is the harmonic aspect of the playing, which he seemed to downplay in both the vertical aspect (the voicing of chords, so that the various notes are played simultaneously but with different emphasis given to different notes) and the linear aspect (the harmonic tension of dissonances and resolutions, the former generally played louder than the latter). There could have been more of bringing out the hidden melodies, for example the start of the last movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata in the left hand, or the chromatic inner melody in the right hand semiquaver figurations in the first movement of the Op 7 sonata. Houston mentions in the programme notes the importance of clarity for him, and no one could criticize him for a lack of clarity, in the sense of being able to hear all the notes. But is clarity such a desirable thing?

I think that the pursuit of clarity can be pushed too far. When I go to a concert I don’t want to hear all the notes (in piano music at least, when there are so many notes that to have to concentrate on all of them is distracting). What I would rather experience is an emotional or pictorial impression. I don’t want to hear the 16 or 32 notes of a series of arpeggios, I want to hear the wind rushing about me, and I guess that that is also what the composer wanted to evoke. (One memorable instance of what seemed to be a oneness of vision between composer and performer was at a concert of Scriabin given by Grigory Sokolov. Scriabin is famously said to be a synesthete, but this was the only time when while listening to his music I smelled sweet perfume, saw red roses, and felt my arms being caressed.) Rather than concentrating so much on clarity, I think recreative artists, just like creative artists, should concentrate more on the power of the imagination. I believe this is what Schnabel meant when he said “it is sometimes necessary to make things obscure to make them clear.”

Houston also writes in the notes “I don’t like to hear Beethoven where the tunes are belted out, even when he was writing the most glorious melody. I think there is always something else of significance happening.” I, however, like Beethoven where the tunes are belted out, especially when it is someone like Schnabel, Kempff, or Richter who is doing the belting. For me, with Beethoven, the singing voice is essential just as it is with Schubert and it remained so throughout the Romantic era (perhaps its fall from prominence comes only with Debussy). Marion M. Scott in her biography of Beethoven writes of his playing that he had “a cantilena said to have been ‘stirring’, full-toned and sustained like organ notes; the tones ran together in unbroken melodic lines, ‘like the drawing of a violin bow’,” and surely this tone helped to cause the great emotion he inspired in his listeners (as it certainly does in Richter’s playing, to give a modern example). I found this singing tone the thing I most desired from the playing; the intensity of tone that wrings emotions. Though there was much to be admired, I felt that my emotions had been unwrought.  I wonder if we will hear the cycle again in another 20 years and how it will have changed by then.

In only 27 years Beethoven went from his very first sonata of 1795 (that is to say, the first sonata he felt worthy to be published) to his last sonata of 1822. It is moving to consider side by side the C major slow movement of the Op 7 sonata from 1798 and the last C major slow movement of 1822. The first is glorious in its expansiveness and in the depth of its emotional language, but with the white canvas of the later movement, both timeless and eternal, how far we feel we have traveled. We must thank Michael Houston for allowing us to make this journey; for allowing us to consider and reconsider Beethoven one more time.

Michael Houston performed Part Three of his Beethoven reCYCLE this November.

MAIN IMAGE: Michael Houstoun performs ‘Les Adieux’ at the Michael Fowler Centre. Sourced from chambermusicnz.wordpress.com.