Fulfillment at the Close

I would like to live long enough to see this happen: A pianist’s recital ends with Opus 111, the last of Beethoven‘s 32 sonatas; as its final cadence -- music touched by an angel -- merges into the surrounding silence, the audience shares that silence for some minutes and then, in silence, leaves the hall. As often as I’ve wanted this to happen -- after performances by Schnabel, Pollini, Brendel and a few others in the galaxy -- it never has; sooner or later some undeserving helot out front, endowed with itchy palms, assumes the right to break the spell and open the floodgates. That happened again the other night at the end of Stephen Kovacevich‘s all-Beethoven recital at the Music Center, after a performance as close enough as never mind to meriting membership in that galaxy.

Scholars, program-note writers, even novelists, have haggled for years about Opus 111, specifically about why Beethoven cut off the work at the knees after only two movements. (The other two-movement sonatas among the ”32“ are of slighter substance.) Simultaneously hard at work on the Ninth Symphony, he is supposed to have snapped ”I don’t have the time“ to his friend Anton Schindler -- who then, naturally, bestowed immortality upon the remark by including it in his Beethoven biography. Some of the most turgid pages in Thomas Mann‘s Doctor Faustus describe the struggles of the pedant Kretschmar to ”explain“ Beethoven’s decision.

There is no more convincing explanation, however, than the one Beethoven has provided in the music itself -- in, for that matter, just the final three notes of its 18-or-so-minute second movement. The kernel of this movement is a three-note figure, heard at the outset and then built upon, a questioning motif whose answer will be long withheld. The music blossoms outward in many ways: first in a series of variations which become so complex that the printed page turns black from the abundance of notes; then in a recession toward barrenness, to a point where right and left hands play one-finger tunes at opposite ends of the keyboard. At no point in this progression is there any real ”answer“ to that three-note ”question“ -- until, that is, the closing bar, soft and sunlit, where a perfect C-major cadence, again a single breath of but three notes, fulfills the music‘s long-unanswered question and moves us onto some other plane. Neither applause nor further music is the logical consequence of such an ending. Neither Beethoven nor Kovacevich could control the former; Beethoven controlled the latter in the best way possible. (Kovacevich did reward his ovation with one assuaging Beethoven Bagatelle, but only after the tumult had fully destroyed the serenity of the preceding moments.)

Kovacevich is part of that other galaxy, along with Murray Perahia and Richard Goode: American pianists on one or the other side of 60, brainy, dedicated and admirably resistant to notions of quick crowd wooing via Rach 3 and Mussorgsky. As a cocky teenager in Berkeley, he told me of his planned stairway to eminence through studies with the formidable Myra Hess; I advised him not to quit his day job, or words to that effect. Now he’s exactly where he planned to be (and neither of us has a day job).

His Beethoven program last week was full of interesting correspondences. As in Opus 111, the last movement of Opus 101 builds a rich and varied structure -- angular and sharp-edged rather than seraphic and serene -- out of a tiny fragment of a theme (only two notes, this time). In both works you are held in a tension that borders on agony as the music unfolds. In both works the final resolution carries you to a state close to ecstasy. You have to wonder at the composer‘s control over his inner demons -- with a body in which deafness was probably the least painful of his chronic afflictions -- that could produce the sublime substance of such music and, even more, the shaping of that substance into the vast time structures that hold us all in its grip. The truly brainy among pianists know to penetrate the notes of this music and also the spirit behind them; this is what I heard from Kovacevich the other night, to his credit and my pleasure.

By coincidence or design, last week’s Philharmonic program included two great works also cut off at the knees. The first was the two surviving movements -- miraculous in every bar -- of the B-minor Symphony that Schubert abandoned short of completion, for reasons we will never understand. The other was the tense and disturbing Adagio completed by Gustav Mahler for a projected 10th Symphony that he did not live to finish. (The entire work, completed by other hands from surviving sketches, was performed by the Philharmonic earlier this season, conducted by James DePriest.) In between came more of Kovacevich‘s Beethoven, a spirited tear through the early C-major Piano Concerto.

Heinrich Schiff was on the podium: extraordinary cellist, extraordinary conductor. (I had missed his cello concertos the week before. Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony was also on that program, a work that -- after 57 years of professional writing -- I have earned the right to abjure.) His conducting of Schubert and Mahler had a cellist‘s touch, the remarkable warmth of tone that came from a fine control over balance. The tunes in the ”Unfinished“ are so captivating that we can overlook another of the work’s compelling qualities: the scoring, most of all the romantic use of trombones that Schubert can be said to have invented -- in this work, the Rosamunde music and the Ninth Symphony.

The ”Unfinished“ is one of those works easily dismissed with an ”oh no, not that again“ shrug, until an exceptional performance grabs us by the ears and obliges our rediscovery. From the opening whisper of the cellos (even though joined on Friday -- aaargh! -- by the electronic squeal of cell phone or hearing aid that blights our concert life nowadays) it was obvious that Schiff and the orchestra had something new to tell us about this work --and, therefore, that Schubert did, too.