Thursday, October 7, 2010

10/7 Beethoven as a Pianist

Brand new before Beethoven played on it.
Beethoven first came to fame in Vienna as an improvisor on piano.  In fact it's reported that when he improvised for Mozart on his first visit to Vienna, Wolfgang said to his friends in the other room, "Watch out for him, he will have something to tell you!".  Later on he became quite the parlor-prize when the nobility asked him to play piano at one of their soirees.  He never really liked doing this kind of display, since it made him feel more like a servant than an equal.  However, once he touched the pianoforte keys, he couldn't help but play for an hour or more.  He was able to bring tears to some of his listeners, after which he would accuse them of being sentimental fools! That's one tradition which probably wouldn't go over well at Juilliard.  So what did B sound like as a pianist?

Anton Schindler writes:
"What the Sonata Pathetique was in the hands of B (although he left something to be desired as regards clean playing) was something that one had to have heard, and heard again, in order to be quite certain that it was the same already well-known work. Above all, every single thing became, in his hands, a new creation, wherein his always legato playing, one of the particular characterictics of his execution, formed an important part. In his lessons, B. taught: always place the hands on the keyboard so that the fingers do not rise any more than is strictly necessary, for only with this method is it possible to create a tone and to learn how to 'sing'. He hated staccato playing, especially in the execution of passages; he called it 'finger dance' or 'leading the hands into the air'. The pieces which I myself heard B. execute were, with few exceptions, always quite free of tempo limitations: a tempo rubato in the truest sense of the word, according to the demands of the contents and situation, without however, the slightest tendency to caricature. It was the clearest and most comprehensible declamation, in the utmost degree, as perhaps can only be elicited from his works.

"His older friends, who carefully followed the evolution of his spirit in every aspect, assure me that he developed this style of execution in the first years of the third period of his life, and that he turned completely away from his earlier manner of playing with fewer nuances. From this it is clear that his urge towards discovery had already found the ways and means to open up with confidence the portals of the mystery to both lay and initiated.

"He wanted the quartets to be performed in the same manner as the sonatas, for they paint states of mind, as do the majority of his sonatas."

I agree with Schindler, it's interesting that B evolved his technique from an earlier, more "straight" interpretation, to a more "expressive" style in his later years.  One wonders if the musical culture of the times influenced B, or the other way of those chicken/egg questions perhaps.

Carl Czerny writes more:
Beethoven’s improvisations aroused considerable attention in the first years after his arrival in Vienna, even including the admiration of Mozart. It assumed various forms, depending on whether he improvised on themes of his own or on themes given to him by others.

First: In the form of a first movement of a sonata or of a rondo finale: the first part would come to a regular close and he would use a related key for the middle melody. In the second part he would give free rein to his improvisation, making, however, every possible use of the main theme. He further enlivened the tempo allegro with bravura passages which were generally even more difficult than those found in his [written] compositions. ’
Second: A free variation form, more or less on the lines of his Choral Fantasia, Op. 80, or the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony, both of which provide an excellent example of the style of his improvisations.
Third: A mixed genre in which one idea would follow another, in the manner of a pot-pourri, as in his Fantasia, Op. 77.
A few insignificant notes often sufficed as material for the construction of a whole improvised work, similar to the finale of the Sonata in D Major, Op. 10 No. 3.

When he had finished such improvisations, Beethoven would break out into hearty and satisfied laughter. No one could equal him in the dexterity of his playing of scales, his double trills or his leaps: not even Hummel. His deportment while playing was exemplary: quiet, noble and beautiful. Nor did he indulge in any form of grimace. As his deafness increased, he tended to stoop. His fingers were very strong, not long, and the finger-tips were broadly shaped from much playing. He often told me that in his youth he practised an enormous amount, sometimes until long after midnight. When he taught he also insisted on a proper position of the fingers, according to the school of Emanuel Bach, which he used in teaching me. His own span was barely a tenth. He made considerable use of the pedal, far more than is indicated in his [published] works. His interpretations of the scores of Handel and Gluck and of the Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach were unique: in the first he knew how to endow them with a full-voiced amplitude and a spirit which gave a new form to these works. He was the greatest sight-reader of his day, even of orchestral scores. As if by divination he could grasp an unfamiliar composition simply by leafing through it at speed. His judgments were always correct yet, especially in his younger years, sharp, biting and inconsiderate. Many works which the world admired, and still admires, he viewed from the high point of view of his genius in quite a different light.

Extraordinary as his improvisation was, his interpretation of those of his own compositions which had already appeared in print was less successful He would not take enough trouble or time to practise again [something already familiar to him]. The success therefore depended on chance, or on his mood. Since both his playing and his compositions were in advance of his time, so also were the pianofortes of the time (up to 1810) often unequal to carrying his gigantic interpretations, being, as they were, still weak and imperfect. Because of this it came about that Hummel’s pearly playing, with its brilliance calculated to a nicety, was far more comprehensible and attractive to the general public.

Nevertheless Bethoven's interpretation of adagios and his lyric legato style exercised an almost magic spell on everyone who heard him and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been surpassed by anyone..

I recall reading another story about B. performing a Mozart concerto and the page turner being completely occupied with untangling the strings from the pianoforte as B was always snapping them with his forceful attack...

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