Wednesday, May 18, 2011

5/18 Beethoven and the Piano

I recently read through Jeremy Siepman's The Piano, a nice little 'layman's' volume about the history of the piano and some of it's most famous practitioners.  It normally comes with 3 CDs but the one I got from the "used" book deposit was sadly missing these discs.  Ah well, there's always Youtube.  It had some great things to say about our man B. are some selected highlights (below the video of P.C. 4):

Beethoven - Piano Concerto 4 (Piano: Lukas Geniusas, w Anatoly Levin (conductor))

In 1792, the year after Mozart’s death at 35, a pianistic bombshell burst over the Viennese musical scene. The detonator was a squat, swarthy, uningratiating young man of 22. Born in the provincial city of Bonn in Germany, he was to change the face of Western music to a degree unmatched by any musician before or since. Even as a youth, he fairly bristled with arrogance.

As a pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven was the first to overwhelm the instrument with the force of his own personality. Compared to Mozart or Clementi, his playing may have been a trifle rough and elemental...a born iconoclast, he was prepared to rock any boat, wring any withers, and to challenge all comers. He was the first pianist regularly to overpower his audiences, drawing them into a world of emotional intensity and spiritual daring the like of which had never been experienced before. Particularly in his incomparable improvisations, he often moved his listeners not merely to tears but to uncontrollable sobbing. He tore aside the curtains of eighteenth-century reserve and laid bare the realities of life with a courage bordering on ruthlessness. Even before his Viennese debut, critics recognized the sheer danger in Beethoven’s playing.

As early as the middle 1790s Anton Reicha recalled turning pages for Beethoven in a concerto: ‘I was mostly occupied in wrenching the strings of the piano which snapped, while the hammers stuck among the broken strings. Back and forth I leaped, jerking out a string, disentangling a hammer, turning a page — I worked harder than Beethoven.’
Nor was the composer’s frustration confined to matters of volume. He chafed under the restrictions of the piano’s range. The standard grand of the early 1800s had a compass of only 5 1/2 octaves (as against the 7+ we take for granted today). It was a great day for Beethoven when Broadwood of London sent him in 1818 a magnificent instrument with a compass of 6 1/2 octaves and a reservoir of power then unknown in Viennese instruments. And though he soon reduced it to a ruin, ‘its strings broken and tangled, like a thorn bush whipped by a storm’ (Johann Stumpff), ‘its innards blackened by overturned inkwells’ (Ferdinand Ries), and its upper registers mute - ‘as dumb as the musician himself was deaf’ (Sir John Russell) — it inspired him to some of his greatest achievements. Indeed it received its musical baptism with the low C which ends the first movement of his last sonata, Op. 111.

Oddly enough, Beethoven, perhaps the most universal of all composers, was not, in the opinion of many professional singers, a great songwriter. The essence of his pianistic output is to be found in his unparalleled collection of 32 sonatas, which trace his emotional, stylistic and instrumental development from the blazing self-confidence of his ‘angry young man’ phase, through the crisis of his middle years, when the onset of deafness had him hovering on the brink of madness, to the transcendent spiritual and pianistic odyssey of his last 6 sonatas and the towering ‘Diabelli’ Variations. Hardly less remarkable, though, are the 5 mature concertos, the 9 trios, the 10 violin sonatas, the 5 cello sonatas and a host of lesser pieces. What gives this music its unique importance is the unequalled scope of its spiritual journeyings, the unpitying intellect controlling its expression, and the sheer genius and boldness of its formal daring. In its very universality, Beethoven’s music posed a challenge to his successors which few were equipped to address.

Beethoven’s final sonata, Op. 111, widely felt to be the greatest piano sonata ever written, is perhaps the most comprehensive self-portrait ever entrusted to the keyboard. Here, to a degree unmatched in any other work, we find Beethoven the titanic struggler with Fate (the turbulent, highly disciplined 1st movement, which uses every resource available in the piano of his time) and Beethoven the transcendental mystic (2nd movement), whose journey through the extremes of pain and despair resulted in music whose purity, serenity and awe are beyond the power of words to describe. Formally a theme and variations, this valedictory movement amounts by general consent to the most profound amen in pianistic history.

In purely instrumental terms, Beethoven expanded the tonal palette of the piano into realms scarcely hinted at before. His late sonatas are as supremely idiomatic as anything by Liszt, Chopin or Debussy, all of whom he prefigures in one way or another (not least in the mystical haze of his pedal markings in such works as the so-called ‘Moonlight’, ‘Tempest’ and ‘Waldstein’ sonatas). At the same time he seems frequently to have envisaged the piano as a kind of surrogate orchestra. Certainly no pianist, no composer, had ever made such revolutionary demands of the instrument before.
The Classical concerto reached its climax with Beethoven, who also forged the key to the Romantic concerto of the nineteenth century. Among Beethoven’s major innovations was the increased importance of the orchestra, to the extent that his last two, despite their three-movement layout, can almost be perceived as symphonies with piano obbligato. He was also the first composer to link movements together without a break (specifically, the middle and last movements of his Fourth and Fifth Concertos).

If Beethoven’s first two concertos can be seen as further developments of the Mozartian model, the Third, in C minor, introduces us to a new figure in the history of the form, and again it mirrors developments in the outside world. Here we get our first glimpse of the Romantic hero in the concerto, the glorious (sometimes vainglorious) individual who dares to stand apart from society and hurl thunderbolts at conventional assumptions.

In his Fourth Concerto he begins the work with a short piano solo, which the orchestra then answers with one of the most magical key changes ever conceived. And in the Fifth (the ‘Emperor’) he allows the orchestra a single introductory chord before the soloist grandiloquently enters with a long, brilliant and resplendent cadenza, enhanced by two widely separated chords of support from the orchestra. With the piano’s heroic credentials firmly established, the orchestra then takes over with an exposition of extraordinary grandeur. For all the heroics of the solo part, this is no Romantic ego-trip but one of Beethoven’s most tightly ‘organic’ works - yet the prevailing feeling is expansive rather than compressed.
Graf Pyramid Piano 1829 (click to enlarge)

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