Sunday, April 20, 2014

Special Resurrection Edition: Chopin's ballades and Beethoven's Op. 111 Sonata revisited

[Click to enlarge]

Agustin Anievas, piano. EMI, recorded in London, June 1975

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Feb. 21, 1960 (mono)

by Ken

Sometimes when I go back to an old "Sunday Classics" post I take heart in the realization that if there's nothing else to be said for it, there's the music. It happened again this week with a May 2012 post I happened to be looking at, "A vision for the future in Beethoven's last piano sonata," for a reason I'll explain in a moment.

After a tease of Beethoven's immensely compact and cryptic yet approachable Op. 111 Piano Sonata, we heard the second of Chopin's four miraculously dramatic ballades, much as we just did above. (In fact, as regards the performances, exactly as we just did above. The score page is new, though. And in the original post I did include this compact note about the two performances: "first a lovely performance by Agustin Anievas, then a more searching performance by Sviatoslav Richter (from the same Prague broadcast from which we recently heard the First Ballade).")


What had occasioned the original post was the anticipation of hearing a live performance of the four Chopin ballades and the Beethoven Op. 111 Sonata. As I wrote at the time:
I wasn't sure how the two would go together. It's not a huge amount of music quantity-wise -- figure something under 30 minutes for the Beethoven sonata and maybe 35-40 for the combined Chopin ballades -- but golly, if you want to talk quality! (In the event, after all our talk about piano encores, there weren't any!)
As far as I can tell, this is the sum total of what I wrote about the concert performances, except that I did name the pianist in question. (You'll see why I specify this in a moment.)

At this point I proceeded with Beethoven Op. 111, the last of the composer's three last piano sonatas, Opp. 109-11, which I had described as "astonishingly different musical visions that are almost textbook specimens of the composer's haunted and visionary 'late' period." At the top of the post I had teased readers with the opening of the sonata -- the Maestoso introduction and the main Allegro of the exposition -- as recorded by "that great Beeethovenian" Elly Ney in May 1936:

Angry? Defiant? Just powerfully assertive? And yet there's something else going on at the same time, almost at war with those violent outbursts. I tried to find an earlier stopping point, and just couldn't -- I took it right up to the repeat marking. (It's only the Allegro section that gets repeated.)
When I returned to Op., 111 in the post, I teased readers again, but this time with a real tease: the hilariously silly recording of the first movement by Glenn Gould. However, I reminded readers that GG hated late Beethoven, a fact of which the folks at Columbia Masterworks were blissfully unaware when they suggested that he follow up his triumphal Masterworks debut recording, "the still-dazzling 1955 Bach Goldberg Variations," with an LP of Beethoven's Opp. 109, 110, and 111. I had already harked back to GG's magisterial performance of an early Beethoven sonata (he loved early Beethoven), referencing the Friday night preview in which we heard two "extraordinary -- as well as extraordinarily different -- performances of Beethoven's first piano sonata, the F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (a set of three sonatas, like the set of three piano trios that makes up Beethoven's Op. 1), by Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould."

After that we heard three performances of the first movement of Op. 111:
First . . . the best kind of traditional performance, beautifully resonant, even noble, from Wilhelm Kempff; then something just as noble but tauter and harder-driving, from Richard Goode; and finally, going in the opposite direction, something really special, darker and more tempestuous, from the great Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva.
And then we moved on to "one of Beethoven's most luminous creations, the sonata's concluding movement, the "Arietta":
You'll notice straight off that we're staring here in about as different a place from the first movement as one could imagine, an "Arietta" that might equally well be thought of as a hymn, which then . . . evolves, and changes shape, and twists and turns. It's a musical travelogue that has more of the character of a fantasia than what we think of as a sonata. (Which reminds me that we really have to get around to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy one of these weeks. We did Beethoven's weirdly wonderful Choral Fantasy back in March 2010.) [Editor's note: We did finally get around to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, in July 2013 -- preview and main post.]

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that another, perhaps nonlinear descendant of the Arietta is, or rather are, the Chopin ballades?
And we heard three performances of the "Arietta" as well:
The Beethoven Op. 109-11 Sonatas were specially favored repertory for Rudolf Serkin, which may partly explain why his son Peter, when he approached the late Beethoven sonatas, approached them very differently, starting with the use of a period instrument. Finally we hear Claude Frank, a wonderful pianist in his own right who happens to be a longtime student of Artur Schnabel.
Finally, to top it off we heard both of Artur Schnabel's recordings of Op. 111, which I think we'll hear again now, as long as we're talking about the piece again.
In June 1942 Schnabel, then living in the U.S. during the conflagration in Europe, recorded the last two Beethoven piano concertos with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony. The same year, in four days in June in New York, he rerecorded two of the first Beethoven sonatas he had recorded in the Beethoven Society cycle: Opp. 109 and 111. Under wartime conditions they went unreleased, and after the war were apparently forgotten, and weren't released until 1976.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
i. Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato
ii. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

[2nd movement at 8:18] Artur Schnabel, piano. EMI, recorded in London, Jan. 21 and Mar. 21, 1932 (digital transfer by Bob Varney)

Artur Schnabel, piano. RCA, recorded in New York, June 15-16, 1942


You'll recall that the 2012 post came about as a result of the thought process occasioned by the prospect of hearing Beethoven's Op. 111 and Chopin's four ballades in recital. As it happens, DWT recently received a plaintive e-mail from the pianist in question, which Howie conscientiously forwarded to me:
My name is [name redacted].
I am the pianist you wrote about in your blog back in May 2012.
I am very sorry that you did know enjoy my performance at Carnigie Hall.
( Beethoven sonata and Chopin Ballades)
I am e mailing you to ask if it would be possible for you to take down the blog you wrote about me since it is hurting my career. I have worked hard and I am still trying my best to have a successful career. I hope I will have a chance to play for you in the future so that you can have a different opinion of me.
Thank you very much for your time.
This occasioned some immediate concern from me. I didn't recall much about the events of May 2012, but it troubled me to think that what I wrote was hurting this young man's career. Oh, there have been times in the past when I not only wrote but took money for writing the most informed and honest impressions I could about musical events both live and recorded. I thought, though, that if there was one thing on which general agreement had been reached, nothing that happens in "Sunday Classics" has any bearing on the real world. In fact, it can barely be said to exist. Why do you think I stopped doing it?

The May 2012 date made it fairly easy for me to dig up the post we've been talking about, the only one I can find that in any way relates to the young man's recital. And I was relieved to find that what I wrote about him . . . well, you've seen what I wrote about him. I suppose careful parsing might suggest that no, I wasn't blown away by the actual performances, though I think I did make it clear that this is staggeringly difficult repertory for a young performer to program, and in particular to program together. I guess there was implicit criticism in my suggestion that if I were going to play this particular program, I might do the Chopin before the Beethoven. I would say that more strongly now: I'm hard put to think of any music I would even think of playing after Beethoven Op. 111. Why, that would even free this listener of any question about the possibility of encores.

Beyond that, even allowing for a personal interest in clearing my conscience, I'm hard put to see what I wrote which might be hurting the gentleman's career. Nevertheless, I did change the reference to his name to "a young Korean pianist." Now I imagine that his career, relieved of this impediment,m will take wing.

As I hinted at the top of this post, though, looking back at the original post did give me some pleasure -- the pleasure of the music, which I took the opportunity to resample. At the same time, I couldn't help feeling that back in May 2012, Chopin and Beethoven had called and, finding no one home, left messages transmitted by Agustin Anievas and Sviatoslav Richter and by Elly Ney, Wilhelm Kempff, Richard Goode, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Rudolf Serkin, Peter Serkin, and Claude Frank -- but that none of the messages seem to have been heard.

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