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Thursday, February 07, 2008

I can't hear the bass, but I can hear the pickerel

Beethoven’s famous Piano Sonata in C Major, Op. 53 (Waldstein) is a treasure in itself. From the very first note the piece engages the listener from with fast, repeating, and distinctly clear notes. Beethoven’s realization of a driving force is simple: eighth notes. The eighth notes in the first theme prove to be one of the most characteristic “repeating note” passages in piano literature. Even so, for a pianist this piece is treacherous. Waldstein is no push-over: between the intricate scales, tenacious flexibility, and distinguishing the left hand from right the piece is thorny to say in the least. Thorny to say that even the opening C major chord is disputed between being labeled as I [tonic] or IV [in leading to the G major chord in mea. 3]

Like most compositions, Beethoven has a theme: eighth notes. And sixteenths. And triplets. But does all this have substance? The triplet is a development of the rhythm found initially in measure 3 and throughout the whole piece. For example, in the measures 110-11 the left hand begins to move in triplets rather than sixteenths. Beethoven sets this up with the eighth, two sixteenths, quarter figure, transforming a duple feel into a triplet feel. Later still in measure 142 the sixteenth notes replace the faster triplets as the section moves on.

Beethoven has a habit of recycling his thematic material. In his first theme is composed of two sections: repetitive eighth notes (in the left hand) and a quarter tied to four sixteenth notes finishing with a quarter note (descending line in the right hand). The second part of the first theme (measure 4) is later built on in measure 23, a prolongation of the original statement made in measure four. In measure 92 the development continues: the key changes, the mood changes, and the listeners are now enveloped into Beethoven’s mastery of the tonal language. These new keys, inversions, and modes make the entirety of the work stretch over a brief 10 minutes. Small chorales often gap the rigid and rapid succession of notes, granting the audience a small time in which to breathe. Of course, each performer’s own persona plays the most vital part in deciding whether the piece will be purely pandemic or pleasurable.

The Musician’s Guide recording has Sergio Monteiro playing the piano. Although a well accomplished pianist and fluent on his instrument, Monteiro’s performance left me wondering: does Beethoven anticipate much liberty to be taken with Waldstein? I realize that creatively and professionally individuals make all sorts of decisions about music: when to cut off, the attack of notes, how long is the correct length to hold a fermata, how fast (or slow) to take Holst’s Mars. I enjoyed Monteiro and his interpretation but felt it was too free, too flowing and the sound of his instrument was distracting. Perhaps it was a period instrument. Even so, I decided to venture out and find a new instrumentalist (and in part to the breaks one encounters when listening to the many tracks strung together!). Using DePauw’s subscription to the music collection database at Naxos Music Library I found an excellent performance of Beethoven’s Waldstein by Mari Kodama, performed on PentaTone classics records. Simply put, her touch is beautiful. Her runs are clean, light, but driven. Her chords full, her chorales warming and tender. Then Kodama slams back into the driving eighth notes to take the piece home. Again, nothing personal about the performers or absolute about either performance – I just prefer Kodama’s interpretation to Monteiro’s.

Live long and prosper.

1 comment:

Scott said...

In your second paragraph, what do you mean by "substance"? The rest of the paragraph makes sense as a good explanation of how Beethoven develops the rhythms of this theme. But the second complete sentence doesn't seem to fit.

I like the comparison of the two performers. But I need more detail in your third paragraph. Explain exactly how the m. 4 statement is developed in m. 23. And what about all the marvelous mode mixture in the first 13 measures, which get repeated in variation at the recapitulation?

Monteiro isn't playing a period instrument. Here again, delve deeper into how the sound was distracting, and where exactly the performer was too free and flowing (give at least one example).