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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonatas

  • Piano Sonata #14 in c# "Moonlight," Op. 27, #2
  • Piano Sonata #21 in C "Waldstein," Op. 53
  • Piano Sonata #31 in Ab, Op. 110
Eugene Istomin, piano
Reference Recordings RR-69CD
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I still remember the day my father brought home Schnabel's LPs of the sonatas 20-22 and the first piano concerto with Sargent and the London Symphony Orchestra. At the time, I knew only the "Moonlight" and the "Pathétique" sonatas. Of the concerti, I had heard only the one for violin, which bored the earwax out of me (I was young; at 10, it had to be Tchaikovsky or nothing). I immediately fell in love with the "Waldstein" – one of those rare times when I saw everything instantaneously and clearly, like in a lightning flash – and with #22, and began to save up for more Schnabel records. I admit much of Beethoven leaves me yawning – and it's entirely my fault – but not the piano works. Well, OK, some of the sonatas seem eminently forgettable, but out of 32 sonatas total, the number I kvell over ranges from the mid-to-high 20s.

Only in the past ten years, however, have I come to view the sonatas as vehicles for exploration, where the scenery changes depending on who drives, rather than as ideals toward which performers strive. For me, very few works legitimately demand a listener's spending time among different interpretations, since the range of valid interpretation seems rather narrow. For example, I doubt one would find much reward in comparing versions of mature Stravinsky. Some performers would do better than others, of course, but the nature of the interpretations wouldn't vary all that much. Beethoven – like Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, and Schoenberg – gives interpreters a country in which to find themselves. In the highest Beethoven playing, it seems to me, we expect not a king and/or queen of the mountain, but an individual path.

Thanks to Istomin's penchant for playing out-of-the-way towns and villages, I had the good fortune to hear him perform the Beethoven third concerto in New Orleans. From his first entrance, I knew I listened to someone willing and daring enough to hold a dialogue with the score. Almost every phrase seemed newly-minted, and, best of all, I hadn't heard it before. Daring reached its height in the finale, with its sharp bifurcations of soloist and tutti. Istomin represented the split as a clash between two different tempi: that is, the orchestral passages in one time, the solo passages more deliberate. This was obviously planned, for when Istomin joined the orchestra, the two meshed perfectly. The effect was to concentrate wonderfully well the listener's attention to the ensemble byplay. I felt as if I had experienced a long, aural "double take," especially when soloist took up the orchestral material, as if I hadn't really heard right the first time.

Consequently, when I heard of this all-Beethoven recording, I jumped at it. For a major pianist with a respectably large discography, I can't think of a solo Istomin CD or LP other than this one. Most of his work features his ensemble playing (with the Stern-Rose-Istomin trio) or him fronting an orchestra. Given my experience with his Beethoven 3rd, I had high hopes for this disc.

You may have thought you heard the "Moonlight" before, but you haven't heard Istomin's. From the opening movement, he finds an unexpected approach. Most pianists (including my favorite in this work, Radu Lupu) want to turn the "Moonlight" into "Claire de lune" – little wisps of atmosphere. As you recall, the texture consists of three strands:

  1. Right-hand melody, with the "dum-de-dummm" rhythm
  2. Arpeggiated chords in the right hand
  3. Bass

Most pianists make the melody prominent, the bass slightly less, and push the arpeggiated chords to the edge of consciousness, probably viewing them as harmonic filler. In other words, the usual texture is 1-3-2. Istomin makes the texture 1-2-3, thus giving increased prominence to the arpeggios. At first, this put me off. Given that Istomin could do anything, why would he want to do this? Then I realized that somehow this emphasized the instability of the harmony, which I felt more keenly than ever before. Also, Istomin manages eventually to meld the arpeggios with the melody, so that, in a sense, we have listened to three melodies all along – right hand, arpeggios, and bass – as opposed to a top harmonized. The realization for me occurred in retrospect – another "double take" on the same material.

Usually, pianists turn the Allegretto into a delicate Mendelssohn song without words before the fact. Istomin comes up with something unusual and wonderful. He hesitates slightly at various points, so that the line stutters and thus ties to the syncopations later on. In other words, Istomin is not merely idiosyncratic – that is to say, he's not merely bizarre. One can easily cultivate inane eccentricity, but Istomin always makes some structural point. In the third movement, Istomin conjures up rain, thunder, and lightning.

We complain a lot about cookie-cutter performers who sound like each other, and what we really complain about is a performer without insight. Yet, for Beethoven at least, we're pretty well off, with artists like Istomin, Goode, Lupu, Sherman, Rosen, Brendel, and Fleisher – all of whom take distinct approaches.

The "Waldstein" turns out to be the Beethoven sonata I return to most often, and the performer is Schnabel. I've never heard anyone else match his fire, subtlety of dynamic, or sheer sweep and at the same time resolve the structural problems so surely and imaginatively. Perhaps it's due to my infant imprinting. On the other hand, Schnabel's "Waldstein" has plenty of clams, clunkers, and flubs. Istomin does as well as any pianist other than Schnabel, and I must say his is certainly among the most cleanly-played "Waldsteins" I've heard. The first movement, indeed, glitters, and, from the development to the end, Istomin builds up enough steam to pile-drive rocks to powder.

I almost wrote that the "Waldstein" Adagio was the most remarkable in all of Beethoven before I caught myself. There are so many remarkable movements in Beethoven, it's about as stupid as pointing out the "highest" star. In a way, Istomin sees through time here. Schnabel, for example, takes the movement much as he does the slow movement of the "Pathétique." But while the "Pathétique" really falls into the category of song – with a definite beginning, middle, and end – the "Waldstein" Adagio is far more fragmentary, really an extended introduction (4 minutes, about twice as long as "extended") to the last movement. Istomin makes me realize how much Mahler's "schönen Trompeten" owe to Beethoven's opening horn call and that Mahler follows Beethoven out into the night world of half-perceived shapes and songs just this side of the edge of sleep.

Istomin begins the final rondo by hanging back and deliberating on the main theme far more than other players do. I began by complaining about this and then, all of a sudden, found myself out of my chair because I couldn't contain my excitement. Istomin's deliberation allows him to build momentum like gangbusters; he can always turn it up a notch because he hasn't blown it all away too early. It's like a roller coaster increasing its inertia on its way up a soft grade. Furthermore, since the Adagio really begins the rondo, it's a huge grade indeed. It doesn't seem like much until you look over the side to a long way down. By the time Istomin hits the rondo theme in double time, you may find it hard stifling a whoOp.

I've never liked the opening movement to the Op. 110, no matter who's played it. Compared to what follows, it's pretty weak tea, so apparently routine, despite a couple of cool modulations, that it becomes a self-parody. Istomin didn't change my mind.

The second movement, however, with its opening call to arms and skids to off-the-beat, hits like a quick shot. I've never quite understood how pianists find the beat again once Beethoven, in effect, shifts the measure over by an eighth note. Istomin plays with real authority here.

Bernstein, excepting only the Grosse Fuge, once remarked that Beethoven's fugal movements were "schoolboyish." Other than the rather tame passages in the Mass in C and Christus am Ölberg, I have no idea what he means. In his final period, Beethoven just about reinvents the fugue, not only transforming the way the fugue unfolds, but how the fugue functions within the larger musical structure. In my opinion, not even the fugues of the contrapuntally innovative Brahms (with the examples of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann behind him) serve up music so radical and – to be frank – so off-the-wall. With Brahms, the fugue not only honors the past, but gives cohesion to Romantic effusiveness. With Beethoven, the fugue threatens to fly apart (usually it ends just in time). The final movement of this sonata stunned me from the very first, even (as it turned out) at a student recital by a middling player. The movement's shape starts out as Prélude and fugue. The Prélude immediately pushes the listener off-balance with odd harmonic shifts and then launches into Beethoven's own brand of cantabile. The fugue begins conventionally enough, with a subject of rising fourths which could have come from a counterpoint textbook, but it soon begins to break up and dissolves into a return to a return of the cantabile section of the Prélude. The Prélude itself breaks down into fragments, then to a single chord repeated and arpeggiated. The arpeggiation then melts into the fugal subject turned upside-down. But this is no mere pro forma repetition. In the second half, Beethoven not only plays games by pitting the inverted subject with its original form, he also begins a conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces – between preserving the fugal texture and smashing it up into the typical hell-for-leather Beethoven coda. You see this on an even grander scale in the "Et vitam venturi" fugue of the Missa Solemnis.

The performance doesn't come down to a mere matter of Istomin "rising to the challenge." This is some of the greatest Beethoven playing I've ever heard. It is at once an interpretation unique to Istomin and one which transports you inside the composer's head. The performance takes you by the shoulders and turns you firmly to the creator rather than to the executant's personality. Furthermore, like all great performances, it leaves you vibrating not with certainty, but with awe and wonder. You look at some passages by Shakespeare and can't figure out how anyone could put together words so naturally and so powerfully. You listen to this performance and wonder how Beethoven put together phrases so arbitrarily and so inevitably. I've just got to find more solo work by Istomin.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz