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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Three Oranges  23

Late Sonatas for Piano

  • Piano Sonata #30 in E Major, Op. 109
  • Piano Sonata #31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110
  • Piano Sonata #32 in C minor, Op. 111
Barbara Nissman, piano
Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-23 62:44
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Nonesuch.

I've never believed in a "definitive" Beethoven, especially as far as the piano sonatas are concerned. Consequently, the approaches I like tend to differ markedly from one another. I ask only that the interpretation convince me. Beethoven – like Chopin and Debussy, among others – allow a performer the freedom to discover something personal. Barbara Nissman points out that this goes all the way back to Franz Liszt, the man who made Beethoven central to the pianist's repertory. In contrast to the standard view of Beethoven's three periods, Liszt advanced the radical idea that Beethoven's music naturally divided into two types: that which fulfilled its classical form; that which broke that form. For example, the "Hallelujah" chorus from Christus am Ölberg satisfies the old form, while the fugues in the Missa solemnis smash the old form and in the process broaden what a fugue can be. The late sonatas, in this distinction, exemplify Beethoven's "break the mold" type.

At the same time, one also notes an antiquarian streak -- not pastiche, but a reinterpretation of older compositional processes. Beethoven knew the music of Bach and even programmed it during his piano-virtuoso days. He read the first biography of Bach by Forkel. His late music alludes to Bach, both subtly and obviously. It becomes increasingly contrapuntal, often in the service of increasing rhythmic excitement and the composer turns to such forms as canon and fugue.

I have loved Nissman's Beethoven. Her Hammerklavier and Diabelli Variations, for example, strike me as among the finest recordings of these works. I eagerly await her new Beethoven recordings, mainly because I never know what she'll do. She is both unpredictable and convincing, and these late sonatas give her the opportunity to meditate and explore. All the performances on this disc give a sense of re-discovery. Her interpretations resemble no others I've heard and in many ways rethink each sonata. However, they also don't give off the air of "look at me" but keep attention firmly on Beethoven.

Right away, Nissman lets you know that her interpretation is her own. She challenges the listener to see Beethoven her way. She derives her approach from Franz Liszt, one of her musical heroes (she has produced a marvelous DVD on the composer, ending with a lecture-demonstration of the Sonata in b). In her liner notes, she quotes him:

If it fell to me to categorize the different periods of … [Beethoven's] thought, as revealed in the Sonatas, Symphonies, and Quartets, I should not, in all honesty, come to a halt with the now fairly generally adopted division into three styles … but I should frankly ponder the big question: namely, how far does the traditional or accepted form necessarily determine the manner in which the thought is organized? The solution to this question as it emerges from the works of Beethoven, himself, would lead me to divide those works not into three styles or periods – but quite logically into two categories: the first, that in which the traditional and agreed form contains and governs the master's thought the second, that in which the thought stretches, breaks, recreates, and shapes form and style in accordance with its needs and inspirations. Proceeding thus, we doubtless come straight to those unceasing problems of authority and liberty.

In other words, Liszt reframes the classification from a static to a dynamic one, which we might expect from a genius composer and performer, rather than from an historian, since the first two think about how to shape time, while the last maps its course almost from an aerial view. We could also characterize the opposition as between Classicism and Romanticism and Coherence vs. Chaos. In Beethoven's late work, the latter antithesis comes increasingly prominent and the balance between the two more precarious.

This balance I believe Nissman's primary concern. In many ways, she's an ideal proponent of this view. On the one hand, she always has a strong grasp of a work's overall architecture. On the other, she comes up with moments that seem both spontaneous and miraculously right. One might say she flirts with chaos, but never yields to it.

Beethoven worked on his last three sonatas more or less simultaneously, hopping back and forth among them. He released them as three separate opus numbers, rather than as parts of a single opus, which may mean that he thought of them as striking out in three different directions. They follow the prodigious Hammerklavier Sonata, a work which seems like some titanic summing up, but this trio definitely seeks new frontiers. Nevertheless, because of their contemporaneity, a definite theme emerges, and that theme is Bach – a bit of a surprise, since Bach was known mainly to cognoscenti and specialists at the time and, at least superficially, has little to do with Beethoven. In Bach's music, one senses a massively stability among musical elements: form, vertical sonorities vs. horizontal lines, and rhythms that, although surprising, seldom put the main tactus in doubt. In Beethoven's music, forms are jagged and threaten to break down, harmonies wrench the listener to remote planes, and counterpoint often becomes so frenzied, it breaks down altogether.

Sandwiched between the monumental Hammerklavier and Sonata #31, Sonata #30 tends to get ignored. Yet Beethoven has packed in a lot, including innovations that other composers pick up years later. The opening movement begins with a singing theme that may have given hints to Schubert and Mendelssohn. Oddly shaped, it has a relatively short exposition and a longish development and consists of two parts: a skipping pastoral and a reflective sigh. The movement challenges pianists to make sense of its architecture. The first movement leads to a raging scherzo, over in a blink, but powerful enough to wring you out. Unusually, Beethoven treats the bass line as another theme. He also writes highly contrapuntal music, full of tricks, and pits the bass idea against the treble.

The last movement, a variation set of six, runs more than twice as long as the other two put together – talk about odd shapes and proportions. In it, Beethoven pays homage not only to the Baroque, but specifically to J. S. Bach. Beethoven played Bach early in his career, and many of the late works have clear debts to specific scores, particularly the Goldberg Variations.

Sonata #30 opens modestly, which leads some writers, remembering the sublimities of the Hammerklavier, to underestimate it. Between three and four minutes long, it counters expectations of a sonata first movement, which usually runs to the discursive rather than the terse. Right off the bat, Nissman signals the idiosyncrasy of her interpretation. Where others try for a Mendelssohnian Song Without Words before the fact, airy and light, Nissman introduces a bit of steel in her touch, to remind you that this piece looks both forward and back, to the Classical and to the Romantic eras, and has plenty of lyricism besides. The piece dances and rests and dances again, which can play havoc with one's sense of the entire movement. Nissman, however, seems to take it all in one long mental breath, despite expressive hesitations in the line. The forward impulse never falters. Indeed, her presentation of the architecture stuns me here. It's almost palpable. I've not heard a better reading.

The second movement is an odd scherzo, in that it's not really the standard scherzo and trio, but an exposition, development, and recap. Beethoven includes a sort-of second subject, but he doesn't develop it. Furthermore, its exposition is quite short. The movement tempts many pianists into indiscriminate pounding and abrupt transitions between loud and soft. Beethoven does have what I call "edges," although there are many ways to negotiate them. Nissman's loud passages become more exciting because she can build from loud to louder without ever running out of room. In other words, her sense of the music's forward movement gets the listener's breath moving faster in anticipation of the climax. Her quieter passages are full of character and subtlety and never quite detach from the loud ones. Remember, this movement runs only two-and-a-half minutes. A pianist can easily do a flyover. Despite her racing tempo, Nissman allows you to notice the unusual detail.

The theme of the finale is a bit of Olympian calm, a quality with the slow movement of the Pathétique, or at least that's how Nissman plays it. It's in slow triple time and in two large parts, repeated, just like the Goldberg theme, and it moves like a sarabande, a resemblance made stronger by Beethoven's embellishments. I love Nissman's exquisite changes in the repeats. Variation 1 subtly changes the rhythm from sarabande to something like a slow waltz. Nissman shades the dynamics and tempo masterfully and yet unpredictably. It sounds like she makes up the music on the spot. Variation 2 is quick and pointillistic, beginning with alternating fragments between the left and right hands and trading with a more sustained, chordal idea. The quick sections call to mind Goldberg variation 20. The chordal idea traps many other pianists, who become stuck on the chords and their rhythm, much like string quartets often get stuck on the long chordal dotted-rhythmic passage in the Grosse Fuge. Nissman keeps it moving. Variation 3 will strike many of the most Beethoven-like of the set, as peppy and as brief as a string of firecrackers. The slow Variation 4 reminds me of a movement from one of Bach's keyboard suites, perhaps an allemande, mainly because of its primary ornament. It features hemiola, a rhythmic device that allows six eighth-notes in a measure to be sounded as two groups of three or three groups of two, thus destabilizing a steady pulse. Nissman brilliantly pushes this instability almost to dizziness. Variation 5 brings to mind the Goldberg quodlibet and perhaps the fughetta in its vigor. Though less strictly imitative than either, it nevertheless makes use of an "allusive" counterpoint – that is, pieces of a phrase in one part echoing in others. Variation 6 for me is the most interesting in its conception. It begins very much like the slow movement that introduces the finale to Beethoven's Waldstein Piano Sonata #21 – slow and stripped-down in its ideas. It builds up speed with each new period. It sounds like a pitcher winding up for a fastball, but Beethoven pulls a switcheroo. He lets the tension out, and, as in the Goldbergs we end on the original theme. Nissman negotiates the changes of speed not merely successfully, but poetically, and the emergence of the theme is downright breathtaking.

I've often thought of the futility of trying to determine Beethoven's greatest piano sonata. It's like trying to decide between King Lear and Oedipus at Colonus. I have, at various times in my life, had a favorite, but even that changes as I reacquaint myself with others. Sonata #31 has shown up several times, and I keep hearing new things in it. It splendidly exemplifies the struggle between order and chaos in late Beethoven. On the one hand, it brandishes shards and edges. On the other, the sonata as a whole strongly coheres; indeed, it's one of the most coherent in the entire cycle. In addition, this sonata reflects Beethoven's serious illness at the time the most directly of the final three.

The first movement shows the composer in a tender mood, sighing and working himself up, only to sigh again. It assumes the form of an odd combination of sonata and variation form. Strictly speaking, it either lacks a second subject or the second subject is the first, but in minor mode, so it sounds like theme and one long development, with a varied recapitulation at the end. The subject itself prominently features falling thirds and rising fourths, which will have great consequences later on.

In tripartite form (A-B-A) with a coda, the second movement, another short, furious scherzo, begins with the same note on which the first ends, but instead of an A-flat key signature, it stamps around in f minor, with a head-snapping leap to C in its second phrase and a transition back to A-flat by means of a side-slip through f minor. All this emphasizes the fragmentary and unstable nature of the music. Compounded of two folk songs ("Unsre Katz hat Kätz'ln gehabt" – "Our Cat Had Kittens" – and "Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich, wir sind aller lüderlich" – "I'm a Slob, You're a Slob, We're All Slobs"), the first subject contains no less than seven sharply distinct fragments. To add to the chaos, Beethoven often blurs the measure's downbeat and the meter, so the listener loses the rhythmic ground beneath his feet. Emotionally, it consists of dramatic mood swings, from uneasy to angry to manic. The central section has a sparser texture. I suppose one could call it a trio. However, where a scherzo trio normally provides a point of relaxation from tension, this one instead keeps up the mania, but in a different way. The first section is filled with heavy accents. This unlooses flighty runs of notes, with the left hand often not seemingly knowing what the right is doing. The melodic fragmentation reaches its extreme. The first section returns, but adds a surprising coda. It pretends to end emphatically, but immediately the oomph goes out. The movement ends on a sigh. This little coda poses the biggest interpretive challenge to the pianist. Nissman perfectly judges the loss of intensity.

The third movement begins on the last pitch of the previous movement – the same ploy Beethoven had resorted to in the transition between movements 1 and 2. Beethoven thus emphasizes the sonata as a complete statement, rather than three isolated movements. Many recordings use a standard track separation between movements, thus working against the cohesion Beethoven builds in. Nissman uses less, but it's still too long to me. It's a tricky thing.

One of the greatest movements in all of Beethoven, the finale perfectly illustrates the tension between Beethoven's impulse to disintegration and inner necessity for order. It falls into seven distinct sections: recitative, aria, fugue, aria, fugue, windup, and coda.

The recitative belongs to Beethoven's "searching," "what shall I talk about" introductions, like the opening to the finale of the Ninth. If we judge by the number of revisions, crossouts, corrections, and second and third thoughts per page, this gave Beethoven the most trouble. Beethoven's marking is una corda, referring to a pedal that the modern piano no longer has. Each piano key normally strikes three strings. The una corda pedal shifts the keyboard action so that the hammer strikes only one string (una corda). Beethoven's piano had another pedal that let the hammer strike two strings. So you could achieve a range of dynamics with subtle timbral variations across one, two, or three strings. The modern piano has lost this second pedal. The player must compensate for the lack of the mechanism with his own skill.

The finished recitative takes up and rejects one idea after another, until it hits upon a quote from Bach's St. John Passion, the chorale tune "Es ist vollbracht" (it is finished), the cry of Jesus on the cross. Remember that Beethoven suffered from a serious liver ailment at the time and could easily have thought this was his testament. He takes up the tune, but in the manner of a classical aria, marked dolente (sorrowful). Out of this comes a triple-time fugue, whose subject consists mainly of pairs of sequentially rising fourths (remember the opening of the sonata), followed by a descending scalar line. After the lament of the aria, it seems aspirational, nobly joyful, as if prayers have been answered. But the fugue runs out of gas in the middle, making way for the return of the aria, this time marked "ermüdert klagend" (wearily lamenting), presumably more desolate than a mere dolente. At its end, a series of ten chords sound like deep bells striking and fading into the air. Out of this, Beethoven takes up the fugue again, but with a difference. Whereas the first fugue assumes the solidity and stability of a Bach fugue, this one might be described as manic. Beethoven crams in all sorts of devices: the fugue subject begins upside-down, we get stretto, diminution (the subject twice as fast), augmentation (twice as slow), false entries, the fragmentation of the first and second halves of the subject, with the second half becoming a theme in its own right. Beethoven flirts with chaos, throwing in more and more ideas and fragments so that the form threatens to burst. As the piece continues, the fugue breaks down altogether, and Beethoven finishes up in a manner more consistent with his sonatas, the fugal subject triumphant.

Nissman is magnificent all through. I've not heard a pianist with her ability to communicate the entire sonata's unity. In the finale, she weaves a dramatic narrative of grave illness and resurrection, and her transition from the second fugue to the conclusion takes the listener into increasingly ecstatic states. I have often said that I don't believe in a "best Beethoven interpretation." I do think this performance belongs in very elite company, and I do like it the best of the ones I've heard for its combination of architectural and narrative strength, textural clarity, and singing.

Sonata #32 draws a lot of metaphysical ink as the Last Beethoven Piano Sonata, almost as if Beethoven knew it was indeed his last. True, Beethoven concentrated on the string quartet until his death, but there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t return to the piano sonata. Nevertheless, the metaphysics persist because the sonata fits so well the requirements of a Last Sonata: visionary, wise, and so on. The only note it doesn’t hit is that of a grand summing up. Beethoven really doesn’t look so much over his shoulder as toward something new. Instead of the usual three or for movements, the sonata has two large movements. Contemporary sources report that Beethoven had originally conceived of three movements, but decided that two were enough. Both evoke the eerie and the enigmatic.

The first movement, in Beethoven’s Sturm und Drang c-minor, in some ways looks back to similar movements, like the opening to the Pathètique sonata. This comes down to a matter mainly of texture. However, formally and emotionally it breaks new ground. Grotesquerie and tenderness fight for control in a clash we won’t hear until Mussorgsky and Mahler. It opens with something like a French overture of the Baroque era. However, it is much more harmonically unstable, full of weird intervals like diminished sevenths (for example, A-flat down to B) and fourths (E-flat down to B, for instance). Despite their fullness, the implied chords shift the harmonic ground from under our feet. After a stammering introduction of the main motif, Beethoven presents his first subject group, a mixture of kobold, warm sighs, and heroics, with the emphasis on the first and third. The second allows us mainly to catch our breath. Often the writing is fugue-like, rather than truly fugal. Beethoven brilliantly suggests, as Bach often did, in predominantly two-part texture more voices than actually appear on the page. The main idea appears in three major blocks, none of which correspond to classic sonata form. It seems far more related to the Baroque fantasia.

The strangest part of the sonata comes at the end, where it reaches a key so remote, you wonder how Beethoven will find his way back to his c-minor home. Naturally, he does, and the sonata appears to end in the composer’s patented hell-for-leather finish. Again, Beethoven avoids even what his fans expect him to do, by finishing on a yearning coda, quiet and somewhat brooding. Furthermore, the idea seems new, but only “seems.” We’ve heard a glimpse of it at the end of the “Baroque overture,” as well as – thanks to Nissman’s uncanny ability to bring out inner voices – in subsidiary lines. It causes the sonata to end on a question: why do we end here and not in the expected emotional place? Yet, the strangeness seems right.

The C-major finale assumes the form of a theme with eight variations. Once again, the two movements relate to one another through the C tonality, thus suggesting a minimum pause between movements, which Nissman takes. The architectural plan is easy to discover: eight variations on a triple-time theme, with a coda. However, the piece abounds in rhythmic and psychological complexity. I’ve known it for decades and have never really “gotten” it. If the first movement is a gremlin, this one’s a sphinx. On top of that, it also presents radically new ideas, some of which don’t reappear for a century.

The theme is simple enough, split in two parts, both repeated. The first is in Beethoven’s “noble” vein – the wise man serene on the mountain and thinking great thoughts. The second introduces tension with slightly darker harmonies, but eventually serenity returns.

The variations begin as a variation set, but clearly the composer has conceived them as a rhetorical whole. The first four, for example, share the same basic pulse, despite differing rhythms and tone. A pastoral variation leads to a “fantastic” one, anticipating the capricious moods of Schumann. Many have commented on the jazzy nature of the third variation, mainly because of the “Charleston” rhythm in its opening strain. The fourth murmurs, and each measure subdivides into an unusual 27 beats (triple-time, triply divided twice, for those of you keeping score at home).

From here, however, the movement becomes less like a strict variation set and more like a fantasia. The demarcation lines blur, each variation line becoming less compartmentalized. Furthermore, both halves of the theme aren’t always present. The composer probes more deeply. I can characterize the turns in the narrative, but I admit to being psychologically at sea. Beethoven here seems to be talking intently to himself. The fifth variation links to its predecessor by retaining the 27 mensural subdivisions of the previous section, but it has a gossamer texture. A “tolling” variation follows, resolving into meditation. It dissolves into an impassioned variation that forms the climax of the movement. After, that Beethoven gives us a breather with the last variation, followed by a short coda, where the iconic main gesture of the theme sounds for the last time.

Nissman nails the conceptually easier first movement. She brings her considerable shaping power to the second and makes it into a coherent whole. Her rhetorical builds and fades can make you catch your breath. She has superb, sure dramatic instinct. I think her one of the finest Beethoven interpreters, a great musical mind who also has a beautiful, finished technique. Her command of piano color ravishes all by itself. The team of Bill Purse and David Barr, her producer and technician respectively, have contributed mightily to one of the best piano recordings I’ve ever heard. I’ve heard many pianists play these works, none better than her.

Copyright © 2018, Steve Schwartz