Beethoven at Yamaha

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Something Old, Something New: A Staple of the Piano Repertoire in a Novel Setting

By Lisa Yui

Between March 10-May 12, Beethoven at Yamaha, a nine-part lecture concert series of the thirty-two Beethoven Piano Sonatas, will take place at the recently inaugurated Yamaha Artist Services Piano Salon. A diverse collection of pianists will gather in celebration of this cornerstone of the piano repertoire. 

Since Eugene d’Albert gave concerts of the complete Beethoven Sonatas in the late nineteenth-century, and Artur Schnabel completed his recordings of the entire set in 1935, Beethoven Piano Sonata cycles have lost some of its glamour, becoming quite unexceptional, common, even. Numerous recordings, including those of Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Backhaus, Wilhelm Kempff, and more recently by Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode, Daniel Barenboim, and Seymour Lipkin, have been made. Each year there seems to be at least two or three “marathon concerts” in the city.

And so, why yet another cycle of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas?

First and foremost, it is great music. Pianist Frederic Chiu, who will perform in the March 31 concert, declares: “Why yet another Beethoven Sonata cycle? Because music is the greatest, most enduring of the arts, Beethoven was one of history’s greatest musicians, the piano sonatas were his greatest genre, and the piano is historically the most important instrument ever invented.” Calling Beethoven “a great composer” may seem as plain and bland an observation as calling Rembrandt “an excellent painter,” or Shakespeare “indeed a very fine writer.” Yet, truth deserves frequent reassertion. In Beethoven’s piano sonatas, we find testimony of the monumentality of his creative genius. As Louis Kentner proclaimed: “The essence of Beethoven, perhaps the greatest artist ever produced by civilization, lies in the piano sonatas.”

Let us even put aside for the moment the rightfully popular barnburners: Tempest, Appassionata, Pathétique, Les Adieux, Moonlight. For all the sonatas are a wonder: the Haydnesque wit of Op. 2, No. 2; the quiet joy of Op. 31, No. 3, the earthy muscularity of Op. 53; the startling originality of Op. 54; the concise humor of Op. 79 (with that middle movement that seems to uncannily foreshadow a Mendelssohn Songs Without Words); the colossal Op. 106; the sublimity of the Op. 111…. Beethoven never repeats an idea; he always manages to surprise.

Such variety seems to call for more than one pianist. The composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski says that, “Beethoven's approach to notation is dialectical:  It is precise, often atomic, while simultaneously allowing for a multiplicity of interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. This is why it continues over time to be read in new ways.  Yesterday I heard an old recording of Solomon, one of my childhood heroes, playing the "Moonlight." I would play the first movement almost three times as fast as he did.  But of course his tempo in his time was as interesting as mine might be in mine - I hope.” 

And so, the series has not one, but an impressive collection of thirty pianists that include myself, Frank Levy, Jerome Lowenthal, Frederic Chiu, Jed Distler, Frederic Rzewski, Mirian Conti, Phillip Kawin, and Peter Vinograde.

The concert on April 28 takes on a different route: Beethoven in the present. “Inspired by Beethoven” presents Frederic Rzewski, Jerome Lowenthal and Jed Distler in an evening of music primarily of works influenced by Beethoven. Distler will perform his composition, The 32 Beethoven Sonatas, a one-minute version of the entire thirty-two sonatas, along with Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor. Frederic Rzewski will perform the second movement of the Op. 57 Sonata, the “Appassionata,” followed by his own work, Andante con moto (14 Variations Without a Theme by Beethoven) (inspired by the slow movement of the Op. 57), with improvised cadenzas. Jerome Lowenthal has programmed a collection of cadenzas of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, including one dedicated to him by Mr. Rzewski.

Each piece will be introduced with historical and musical commentary by myself. The sonatas are not programmed in chronological order, though it seemed symbolically inevitable that the first concert open with Op. 2, No. 1, and the final concert close with Op. 111. It is rare that such varied programs be possible to create using only works by a single composer. Hearing all the sonatas within a concentrated period of time, one gets a clearer perspective of the development of Beethoven’s creative process.

All concerts will take place at Yamaha Artist Services, Inc., which opened its doors to a state-of-the-art facility in the 14-story French Renaissance Elizabeth Arden Building on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street (the historical original location of the Aeolian Piano Co.) in May 2004. The Piano Salon on the third floor is the first performance venue in the U.S. to install the Active Field Control (AFC) system, which allows enhancing the acoustic characteristics of a room--it can "tune" the room’s acoustics to transform it into a recital hall, symphony hall, rehearsal space, cathedral, all depending on the necessity.  The venue provides performance, recording and practice space for musicians, where they may select from its collection of concert grand pianos. Various seminars and masterclasses are scheduled, with such guests as John O’Conor, John Perry, and Oxana Yablonskaya.

Finally, attending a Beethoven Sonata Cycle is an event in itself, much like attempting to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in one summer, or watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one sitting: it is an experience that one should try out at least once. If you have done it before--well, as one indeed a very fine writer wrote, “Can one desire too much of a good thing?”