Monday, February 23, 2015

The Infinite Variety of Beethoven

Well, this appears to be the year for late Beethoven.

Steven Osborne, in his wonderful recital at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, gave us the composer’s Op. 90, Op. 101, and Op. 106 sonatas. Next Sunday, Sir Andras Schiff will perform Op. 109, then Nelson Goerner will essay the Op. 106 again, and Paul Lewis will return in May to play Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.

Beethoven’s Sonata in E Minor, Op. 90 is truly an unjustly neglected work. It is a work of great contrast and beauty and, strangely enough, much of it reminds me of the sonatas of Schubert, in how the materials unfold and in its melodic invention, especially in the slow movement. Osborne certainly made a strong case for this, probably really the first of the “late” piano sonatas. There were some magical moments in his playing, namely, in the final ritardando before the end of the first movement (m. 233), and at the end of the second movement, the ritardando (m. 281) followed by the accelerando that ends the work. In the slow movement, Osborne managed to make each return of the theme beautiful and convincing. Anton Rubinstein reportedly moved audiences to tears with his playing of this movement. I thought Osborne’s performance of this work was just as moving.

Between the two sonatas of Beethoven, the pianist performed Schubert’s little KlavierstΓΌck in A Major, D. 604. Like a sorbet between two main courses, this miniature, exquisitely played, was just what the audience (and maybe the pianist as well) needed to “clear the palate”.

I feel that the Sonata in A Major, Op. 101 is, pianistically speaking, the most difficult of the sonatas after the Hammerklavier. Other than technically challenging, it is terribly difficult to capture the constantly shifting moods of the music. Other than more than rising to the technical challenges Beethoven set for the pianist, Osborne successfully gave us a coherent account of the work, giving us a sense of the organic unity of the music. His playing of the march in the 2nd movement, to me reminiscent of the march from Schumann’s Fantasy, Op. 17, was blistering. More than the excitement the dramatic moments of this work can generate, what stayed in my mind with Osborne’s performance of this work, indeed for the entire concert, were the intimate moments, like the slow movement of this sonata (Langsam und sehnsuchtvoll), especially with the return of the 1st movement theme at m. 24.

Any performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in B-flat Major (Hammerklavier) is an event. Lasting 40 to 45 minutes, the challenge, other than the superhuman technical hurdles, is for the artist to hold all the disparate elements. I felt that Osborne more than rose to the challenges in every aspect of this great work, not neglecting any details in the score, but also clearly seeing the way ahead of him, and aware of the larger structure of the work. Osborne’s playing of the Adagio sostenuto movement, the emotional core of the entire work, was rapturous. In the final fugue, where Beethoven emancipated the trill as a mere ornament, Osborne succeeded in making the texture of this rather wild and dense movement clear and tremendously exciting.

I would have thought it impossible to follow such a work with any encore, but upon the urging of the enthusiastic audience, Steven Osborne granted us a little morsel, Brahms’ Intermezzo in E-flat Major, Op. 117, No. 1, a work as intimate as the Hammerklavier was dramatic, and played it as a benediction and thanksgiving for the afternoon of great music.