Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
To this day, almost two centuries after their creation, the late works of Beethoven, like the Sphinx, retain a touch of the enigmatic, the unfathomable, which shrouds them in mystery and holds us in awe even when our understanding falls short. Universally acknowledged as supreme masterpieces, studied with humility and reverence by all serious musicians, they remain a fascinating challenge for the listener. Our entire concept of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) would be incomparably different had he stopped composing in 1817.
The greatness and the daring originality of his middle period would remain, but the extra dimension would be missing, the knowledge that this man was not searching for success but for an unreachable artistic truth. It is this will to go beyond, to tackle the transcendental and to stretch his enormous powers and even risk shattering them in battle with the unattainable, that makes such a decisive difference in our view of Beethoven, like the difference between viewing a mountain whose grandeur is visible, compared to a neighbouring pinnacle whose summit is hidden by clouds and whose upper reaches are created by our fantasy. His exploratory extension of musical possibilities made some of Beethoven’s contemporaries fear he had gone mad or that deafness had rendered his music incoherent. Deafness of course did have its effect, but certainly not because of any impairment of the Master’s inner ear. The existence of some movements in the late works which are free of the radical new tendencies, and could at least in their outer characteristics fit into the middle period, proves that in his deafness he could still hear better than any other mortal. Its significant effect lies in its psychological repercussions, isolating him so totally from other people, rendering him lonely and forcing him to place the emotions which otherwise might have gone into normal human relationships entirely into his art.
Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op.101
The first movement of the A Major Sonata, Op.101. is exquisitely informal, as though roaming the hills of springtime without any appointments to keep. It resonates with a special sweetness, occasionally tinged with urgency by insistent use of syncopated chords, at times so continuously that one feels as though one were floating in musical space quite without beats or bar lines; it radiates a flowing, timeless continuity, which is enhanced by the fact that it avoids landing decisively on a tonic A Major chord until near the end. It displays little contrast between its themes, for there is ample contrast in the short development, which builds, from an indescribably calm and melodious beginning, to a passionate climax.
In startling contrast, the next movement is highly contrapuntal, harmonically radical, pianistically bold, and extremely colourful. It reveals a poignant depth of expression rarely achieved in what is essentially a scherzo type movement. Beethoven blends four disparate elements: the form, exhilaration and brevity of a scherzo, the rhythm and robust power of a march, the drama of a powerful return to the main theme, and in the Trio, highly lyrical writing full of canonic imitations, handled with a warmth and mastery typical of his last string quartets. The March’s reiterated, emphatically dissonant appoggiaturas superimpose a painful, expressive taste onto the jerky, playful rhythms. It is full of imitations and a natural unforced and inspired counterpoint which he did not always achieve when he was consciously creating “counterpoint” in a fugue. While the dotted rhythm remains obstinately unvarying, the sudden key changes provide plenty of colour and surprise, as does one short section in which the composer calls for a dreamy and radical pedal effect.
Measured by its length and quantity of musical ideas, the mystic Adagio is but a spun-out, improvisatory introduction to the Finale. But in terms of its emotional impact—it traverses from the somber to the fervent, the desperate, and finally the resigned—its importance is vast, testifying brilliantly to Beethoven’s powers of compression. It occupies itself almost exclusively with a simple turn followed by an eloquent ascent of a sixth. The Adagio leads to a halting, hallucinatory echo of the main theme of the first movement. This flashback gets stuck on a three-note descending motive, which it cannot shake off. In desperation, it resorts to a long, swelling trill that heralds the Finale’s main theme. Almost all the motivic material of the Finale can be traced to these opening measures. The mood is elated, noble and happy, a wholesome vision of Paradise until, at the end of the exposition, a new rhythm is introduced, which hushes all the other voices mysteriously, warning of the approach of something awesome. Up to this point there had hardly been a single minor chord, but now the music sags, exhausted, into minor, and then is harshly awakened by the first two notes of the opening motive.
This signals the start of the long fugue, whose subject is identical to the movement’s main motive. At first hushed and frightened, the fugue becomes fierce and bitter, creating a threatening intrusion to the happy mood. While it uses the same material as the rest of the movement, the fugue is in complete contrast to it, frugal, forbidding and severe. Just prior to the recapitulation, which appears so gloriously and triumphantly that it neutralizes the astringent quality of the fugue with a single heroic outcry, Beethoven does something very dangerous for the future of music, and almost unique in his works: he writes something which can be seen but not heard. In the middle voice of the left hand, deep in the bass, there appears a double augmentation of the main theme (which means that it is four times as slow as the theme was). Perhaps this passage was one of the very few miscalculations of the now totally deaf Beethoven. After the recapitulation, he pretends to start the fugue again, but instead passes into an enchanting coda, much to our relief. Here we bask briefly in an Elysian sweetness and playfulness before being awakened by the triumphant closing chords.
Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, Op.106 (“Hammerklavier”)
The “Hammerklavier” is the longest, the richest and perhaps the greatest of the 32 sonatas. No other sonata matches the heroic ecstasy of its opening movement, the profundity and sorrow of its Adagio, or the dizzying complexity of its last movement Fugue. It thrusts instrument and performer to the limit of their capabilities—and perhaps beyond, as it probes those frontiers of music where the genial borders on the deranged. The title represents a germanization of the word pianoforte, for as romantic nationalism swelled, there was a reluctance to borrow foreign terms. But ironically, Beethoven’s new Broadwood “Hammerklavier” was English; bigger, louder and better constructed than previous instruments, its range was also increased to over six octaves. The selection of appropriate tempi for this sonata is controversial, because it is the only sonata for which Beethoven provided metronome markings. Some performers try to observe them, but it is like trying to play the “Minute Waltz” in 60 seconds; the music simply does not wish to go so fast, and it becomes impossible to hear the magnificent details which are so abundantly present.
The triumphant thundering of the opening theme summons all available forces to start this heroic epic. Its main feature is a reckless upward leap, followed by a strongly proclamatory rhythm. Subsequently the music becomes exquisitely contrapuntal, and the highly chromatic nature of the lines makes them marvelously expressive. Nearly Chopinesque arabesques leap upward and flow back down with such poignant chromaticism that beauty approaches the borderline of cruelty, hurting and healing at the same time. The development is dominated by a fugal working out of the main motive. Few pages of music equal the ecstatic fervour of this polyphonic feast; each voice is strongly independent and propelled by surges of overwhelming expressiveness. After the recapitulation, a short coda surrealistically echoes the main subject. It is curious that Beethoven’s longest sonata contains his shortest scherzo. Its motive is related to the first movement’s subject, being like a compressed outline of it. Until the Trio of this Scherzo, nothing in the sonata could be thought of as bizarre. It is only in the Trio that things of a foreboding nature start to occur, and the music takes on a frightening and supernatural hue. A frantic cadenza returns us to a somewhat altered version of the Scherzo’s main part, whose slightly nervous good nature seems to be denying the evil rumours spread in the Trio.
The movement vanishes on a six-four chord, possibly the first time ever that a movement fails to end with the tonic in the bass. The incomparable Adagio is one of the longest piano movements ever written, but feels only moderately lengthy because it seems to suspend time, almost denying its very existence. Its main subject roams the fields of F sharp minor with a sorrow so desolate that it appears to have been frozen and made tangible. In the midst of this loneliness there shines one small ray of sweetness, as the music slides up to a brief, celestial strain in G major.
The forlorn mood is lifted in the transition theme, creating one of the most powerful contrasts in Beethoven’s piano works: the sound becomes radiant, the rhythm begins to flow, and the melody soars and pulsates with a highly affecting spontaneity. Compared to the massive proportions of the movement, the development is surprisingly short, consisting mainly of a long chain of heavily accented descending thirds. But in the recapitulation the main subject is so richly ornamented by improvisatory embroidery, that it appears to be a continuation of the development as well as the beginning of the recapitulation, a device which is both genial and irreplaceable at this point.
This time the first subject dies out with the longest imaginable ritardando and decrescendo, and the second theme turns to F sharp major, which alters the meaning of the whole movement, as the frozen quality of the F sharp minor opening finally thaws. Just as we are convinced that the end is near, Beethoven seems to say, “But let me say all this again in a different way.” It is difficult to stifle a momentary sigh of impatience, for the plot could hardly bear further prolongation unless the addendum were of compelling urgency and depth—which it is. Taking the erstwhile tranquil second theme, he infuses it with turmoil and urgency, and leads to a painful climax. After a brief, hushed review of the main subject, Beethoven adds seven extra measures (thematically unrelated to anything else in the work) which sum up and seal the movement with infinite nobility—perhaps the sonata’s greatest moment.
After this extraordinary Adagio, one needs a gentle shift of mood, for it would be crude to launch the relentless combat of the famous Fugue without first allowing the listener to return from wherever this music may have transported him. A breathtaking improvisation starts ever so distantly and tactfully with isolated notes and chords; it avoids any feeling of beats by placing every chord on a weak beat. Various exotic keys are probed, first sweetly, then brusquely and insistently. Soon a new pattern emerges, one of extraordinary mystery and rhythmically most eccentric. It sounds like a time bomb ticking, which soon explodes with a tantrum, releasing all its suppressed energies and launching the gigantic Fugue.
Certainly one of the most complex and dissonant pieces written in the 19th century, the Fugue is demonically possessed through much of its course, and its unmitigated persecution of certain motives is a striking example of Beethoven’s obsessiveness. Such violent tactics would be intolerable, were they not so stirringly combined with the expressive warmth of the highly chromatic contrapuntal lines. This combination is both distressing and touching. The fugue subject includes three of Beethoven’s favourite elements: a large leap (the same tenth as the one which opened the sonata), a trill, and scale-like passages.
There are two potential sources of confusion that could impair the recognition of subsequent appearances of the subject. One is that the subject is not as long as it seems, its last few bars being merely a tail which increases the drama of the second voice’s entry. The other is the incessant use of the opening leap and trill quite apart from its recurrence in the theme; these fragments do much to promote continuity, but they also tend to camouflage the real entries of the subject, which are surprisingly few—just ten, if we disqualify the altered and stretto entries.
In the course of the Fugue Beethoven pretty well presents us with a catalogue of contrapuntal techniques that can alter a fugue subject, starting with “augmentation,” which means the length of each note is doubled. The effect is angular and heavy, the accents on each beat sounding as though something were being forged on an anvil. A second such entry is started, but soon aborted and we are spared, as the music dissolves into a writhing avalanche of trills. The next device is “retrograde,” which means that the theme’s first notes shall be last and the last shall be first (as in heaven?). While this may be possible in other worlds, in music there is no logical way to reverse the direction of time, aside from playing a tape backwards.
The problem is best illustrated by asking: how can one retrograde a single long note? One would have to start with the end of the note and end with its beginning, no small accomplishment! This would be mere pedantry, except that the rhythmic position of a note depends entirely on the moment when it starts. For example, the eighth rests after the quarter notes in the theme are not of prime significance; in the retrograde, however, these rests are responsible for its main characteristic, the sudden halt of the running notes, which then fall back onto the same note with all the elegance of a hiccup. If this motive is not elegant, it is extremely conspicuous, and is subsequently used unceasingly with great dramatic effect, coming in waves which interlock with other waves, often in opposite directions.
The next device is “inversion,” easily recognized as the theme leaps down to the trill rather than up. We now reach one of the most excited parts of the work; for a whole page almost every measure has a trill, leading to an apocalyptic battle of leaps and trills hurled like bolts of lightning, followed by a grandiose cadence in A Major. Almost the entire Fugue is angrily marked F or FF, with innumerable sforzatos along the way, but here we savour a touching moment, a soft and tender oasis, itself a small fugue. While this miniature fugue continues to flow, the main subject is reintroduced quietly. But the lamb cannot coexist with the lion and, rather than be swallowed, it adopts the characteristics of its oppressor (all too common in history); within a few measures this erstwhile innocent theme booms out in the bass for all it is worth—a magnificently dramatic transformation. The last device we encounter is “stretto,” in which two entries of the subject overlap, the second often starting just a beat or two after the first. This greatly heightens the tension, and we smell the end approaching. Two more normal entries, the last one the highest in the piece, bring us to a precipitous cadence in the tonic, followed by a fantasy-like coda in which arpeggios, leaps, and trills flurry about in an intoxicated state, until they lose their fiery energy, sagging and slowing down as though expiring. A trickle of notes from the main theme attempts, and finally succeeds in reviving the dying colossus. With superhuman effort it regains its tempestuous power, repeating the opening leap and trill obsessively until it becomes unbearable and crashes defiantly to its end.
[These notes are abridged from the notes in Anton Kuerti’s recording of “The Complete Beethoven Sonatas Diabelli Variations,” Analekta.]
© Anton Kuerti