Saturday, April 29, 2017

Beethoven & Franck to End the Season: To Begin, Beethoven's Next-to-Last Piano Sonata

Who: The Verona Quartet and pianist Daniel Hsu
What: Beethoven (Piano Sonata Op. 110; String Quartet Op. 59/2) and Franck (Piano Quintet)
When: Wednesday May 3rd at 8pm
Where: Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg
Why: well, two great works by Beethoven and a little-heard giant of the Late-19th Century Romantic Repertoire in the rarefied realm of the Piano Quintet – and it's the last concert of Market Square Concerts' 35th Anniversary Season! 

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'Hailed by The New York Times as an "outstanding ensemble of young musicians", the Verona Quartet is a winner of the 2015 Concert Artists Guild Competition, and in just three years, has earned a stellar reputation for delivering a “sensational, powerhouse performance” (Classical Voice America) every time they take the stage.  Musical America recently selected the group as “New Artists of the Month” for May 2016, further setting the Verona Quartet apart as one of the most compelling young quartets in chamber music.'
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Daniel Hsu
They'll be playing Beethoven's 2nd “Razumovsky Quartet” on the first half, and will conclude the program with the Piano Quintet written by Cesar Franck in 1879, joined by pianist Daniel Hsu who also opens the concert with a solo appearance in Beethoven's next-to-last piano sonata.

(Follow these links for related posts about this concert, here:
Beethoven and his String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59/2
So, What Exactly Is a Razumovsky, Anyway?
Franck's Piano Quintet

This post is about the Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op.110. It includes a complete performance of the sonata by Daniel Hsu as well as a masterclass with Daniel Barenboim and a young Spanish pianist which I've included at the end of the post.

Here is Daniel Hsu (and that's pronounced “soo”) playing the C-sharp Minor Scherzo by Frederic Chopin at WQXR's Chopin Marathon in New York City:

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'Characterized by the Philadelphia Inquirer as a "poet...[with] an expressive edge to his playing that charms, questions, and coaxes", eighteen-year-old Daniel Hsu, a 2016 Gilmore Young Artist, is an emerging young talent. He has taken many prizes in competitions...' [and] 'was recently named the First Prize winner at the 2015 Concert Artists Guild Competition.'
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More importantly, here he is playing the Beethoven Sonata he'll perform at Market Square Church on Wednesday. This was recorded at his February 2015 recital at Curtis:
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Originally from the San Francisco Area, he started studying at Curtis when he was 10, but he has other interests than just music: “Daniel enjoys computers and programming. One of his many projects include contributing to Workflow, a recipient of the 2015 Apple Design Award, which has been praised not only for its design and technical innovation and creativity, but also for improving the experience of using mobile devices for visually impaired users.”

Just in case you think he spends all his time sweating over a keyboard in some cramped little practice room...

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This sonata is in three movements, though you may think there are four: after the rather contemplative opening movement, a wild and rather furious scherzo gives way to a long and tragic-sounding slow movement, patterned after an operatic recitative with great flexibility and an almost improvisatory nature. This leads to an achingly lyrical passage that then goes directly (after a brief suspended pause) into the fugue which, on first hearing, you'd probably think is now the finale. But then the fugue stops and returns to this slow movement before resuming the fugue, now with the theme inverted. It is all part of the plan, so to speak, Beethoven “experimenting” with form and structure, mixing up one's expectations. His next sonata would only have two movements: after a dramatic opening in his standard dramatic key of C Minor, he spins out a set of variations in C Major that turns into a combination of slow movement and finale, though it's hard to tell whether it's a slow movement or a finale at times (and always a contemplative, thoroughly human finale, nothing heroic about it) that leads to one of the most transcendent conclusions in the whole piano literature.

From Beethoven's Manuscript: Last Movement, Op. 110 - mm130-135, before the start of the "2nd Fugue"

Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas throughout his career, publishing his first ones in 1795, releasing fifteen of them (up to the famous “Moonlight” and “Pastoral” Sonatas) by 1801 when he'd just produced his first set of six string quartets and his first symphony. It was after that he told a friend he had decided to set out on a “new path” and began what we call his “Middle Period” during which he wrote ten more (and published a couple he'd not gotten around to before that date from the mid-1790s, just to confuse everybody). During this period – about 1801 to about 1815 or so – he wrote most of those works that gave rise to the image of the “Heroic Beethoven,” especially the likes of the Eroica Symphony, the 5th Symphony, and two great sonatas, the Waldstein and the Appassionata.

Then something happened – well, actually, two things, enough to change anybody's life. His deafness, which had been bothering him since before 1800, eventually became more severe until by 1818 the only way he could communicate with anyone was through the “conversation books.” And then, after his brother's death in 1815, he became embroiled in legal battles with his sister-in-law over the custody of her son until he won full guardianship in 1819. Given the standard image we have of Beethoven, it is difficult to imagine him trying to raise a teenager. The boy was 9 years old when his father died, and 13 when he was sent to live with his irascible and by now completely deaf uncle after his mother lost her last legal appeal. 

Schimon's portrait of Beethoven, 1819
And there is also a long history of illnesses that plagued Beethoven through his middle age – we forget he was only 56 when he died – and some of that involves the three piano sonatas he promised a publisher in the summer of 1819.

(Comments have been made about the expression in Ferdinand Schimon's famous portrait of Beethoven (see right). Schimon worked on the eyes the day Beethoven had invited him for a cup of "sixty-bean coffee.")

Beethoven had tried to negotiate a 120 ducat fee for the set but Schlessinger offered him only 90 ducats (and I have no idea what a ducat was worth in those or any other days). Beethoven finally agreed to the terms the following May and promised to have them in three months' time but a bout of jaundice and rheumatic fever quickly put him behind schedule. Now, Beethoven suffered from numerous intestinal complaints from 1800 on and he was, his deafness aside, frequently a “chronic invalid” in the last years of his life, leading to treatment for what was then called “dropsy,” an old term associated with the “swelling of the soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water,” a condition we now call “edema” and is usually associated with congestive heart failure.

So, as a result of “all-of-the-above,” Beethoven completed the first of these three sonatas, the E Major published as Op. 109, possibly in the Fall of 1820: he wrote to the publisher about “completion” but it's unclear from the context if he's talking about only having finished sketching it or actually having finished composing it. By the way, he'd started work on this sonata even before he began discussions with the publisher. He'd completed the mammoth Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, the year before, so another and contrasting sonata would seem to be in order. But before it progressed very far, he set it aside to begin another mammoth work, the Missa Solemnis, which he did not complete until 1824.

The second of these three sonatas, then – our Sonata in A-flat – was not ready for the publisher as promised by mid-December: the manuscript's final page is dated December 25th, 1821, just a week after his 51st birthday. Whenever he sent it off to the publisher, Beethoven received a check from Schlessinger for 30 ducats on January 22nd, 1822.

Given the epic proportions of some of Beethoven's earlier sonatas – like the Waldstein, the Appassionata and the recent Hammerklavier, generally regarded as one of the longest and most technically difficult sonatas in the repertoire at the time (and still one of the most challenging, Brahms and Liszt notwithstanding) – these three late sonatas, to include the two-movement C Minor Sonata, Op.111, are more introspective, and, on the whole, lyrical (though they certainly have their dramatic moments).

One of the hallmarks of his “Late Period Style” is the fugal writing, an intense and, unfortunately, often too cerebral form of counterpoint often called the “learnèd style,” usually dismissed as “academic.” While we're familiar with Bach and his fugues – even three-voiced fugues for a solo violin, as heard in our recent concert with Kristof Baráti – most of Musical Europe in the early-1800s had little familiarity with Bach or with fugues, at least in any natural sense. They were usually relegated to old-fashioned church music and considered “relics of the past.”

And so here was Beethoven, writing this Grand Solemn Mass for his friend (and student) the Archduke Rudolph, the Emperor's youngest brother, who was about to be installed as an Archbishop (alas, Beethoven, already late with his piano sonatas, would prove to be late once again with the Mass: it was not finished until three years after Rudolph became the Archbishop of Olmütz and had already been named a cardinal).

But the dedication of the Mass may well reflect what was going on in all the music Beethoven was composing at this time – not just these sonatas, but also the impending 9th Symphony, the “Choral Symphony” with its “Ode to Joy” and, of course, that Mount Everest of the quartet literature, the five “Late Quartets.”

“From the heart – may it return to the heart.”

There was an on-going debate, especially when one considered such things as fugues and counterpoint, that “intellectual music” was considered inspired by the brain and only of interest to the intellectually minded, a criticism not only of his late quartets and especially the Grosse Fuge which so scared his publishers he was asked (and reluctantly complied) to replace it with a “more congenial” finale (which turned out to be the last music he completed). Even so “romantic” a work as Brahms' String Sextet in B-flat Major would still be considered “more trigonometry than music” in 1860.

The two fugues in this last movement of Beethoven's Op.110 may be his attempt to “humanize” the fugue – the second is really a continuation of the first, now playing the fugue's subject (or theme) upside down (inverted), more of a challenge than it might seem to the uninitiated. They are certainly neither bombastic nor forced and don't even appear to be intellectual (it is amazing one of the most challenging moments of counterpoint in all music, the final moment of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, goes by so painlessly in its effortless and enthusiastic joy, it is often over-looked!). If anything, they are leisurely, contemplative, and far from the pompous showiness of an expert trying to impress you with what he knows ("see how well I can write a fugue?").

But Beethoven has set his performers a challenge: while he has written it to sound “effortless,” the pianist must now work on the technical control to make it sound effortless. And therein lies the greatest challenge to most of Beethoven's late music: getting it all somehow back to the heart.

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For those you who've had a chance to attend the recent masterclass with Kristof Baráti or, a couple years ago, with Ann Schein, you'll enjoy the comments and suggestion the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim makes in this masterclass about Beethoven's Op.110 Sonata – or rather, the first movement of Op.110 – or... well, sort of...

Most people sitting there listening to a concert have little idea what goes into the performance – not just playing the notes (which is only a small part of it), but how to play them: imagining things like phrasing and dynamics but also the colors one can produce from a piano (at one point, Barenboim suggests he think of chords in the left-hand played by cellos and basses, the rippling right-hand like woodwinds), articulations to make things clearer, how to produce on a modern piano the "core" of a sound that might have been part of the sound-world of the 1820s ("it's Beethoven, I know," the pianist says on occasion, "not Debussy" when Barenboim criticizes his being too colorful).

The film begins with introductions, meeting the young Spanish pianist, Javier Perianes, who then plays the 1st Movement of Beethoven's Op.110 starting at 3:36 until 9:48. The whole first movement takes slightly more than six minutes. But that's okay, the entire clip is about 55 minutes long, right? The whole sonata usually takes about 20 minutes to perform.

Then, at 10:00, the “Masterclass” begins: “You play this, of course, wonderfully,” Barenboim tells him, “but...”

Over half an hour later, they have not yet gotten past measure 37, barely the first two minutes of the music! Around 44:30, Barenboim tells him “that's all we have time for for today.”

If you can, I urge you to watch this video of a master at work – or come back to it later. Even though they only cover a couple minutes of Beethoven's sonata in the process, the suggestions Barenboim makes, the possibilities the pianist has to choose from in interpreting the notes written on the page are staggering, and well worth your time.

Something also to think about when you listen to a young pianist like Daniel Hsu coming to terms with one of the challenging works that take an artist far beyond the role of merely playing the notes to provide you with a few minutes' entertainment.

- Dick Strawser

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