Common knowledge has it that the 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven, composed over 26 of his 57 years, encapsulate the most revealing portrait of his creative life. By the same token, it has been said, performances of these works can also stand as a set of opinion pieces on Beethoven’s artistic life by every pianist who takes them on — and, by that token, by Beethoven himself on every pianist who braves their demands. By my latest count, we have access to 15 recorded sets of these implicit essays, plus the one that is currently taking shape under the fingers of András Schiff, in Disney Hall, several other halls, and on ECM discs.

No, I haven’t heard all the other 15, just some. They offer varying testimonials of the vulnerable genius, the legendary creator who found his piano his most willing companion to accept his earnest and sometimes violent musical thoughts, beyond the expressive power of the string quartet or even the small symphony orchestra. There’s a great scene in the Abel Gance Beethoven movie, the best of the lurid bunch: Ludwig at his piano composing the storm music for the “Pastoral” Symphony. There’s a fevered outburst on the piano, then a segue to a lightning flash, another run, another flash; it’s nonsense, of course, but that’s what’s really going on in Beethoven’s mind in the “Pathétique” Sonata or the “Appassionata,” or the fugues in Opus 106 and 111.

There’s some of that in the finale of the very first sonata, Opus 2 No. 1, which Schiff captured quite appropriately in the first of his Disney Hall concerts. On the whole, from the evidence of this first live concert and other performances on disc, I find his playing uneven — sometimes dry and overly precise, more like his excellent Bach recordings; sometimes marvelously relaxed and serene, like his Schubert on a wonderful DVD. What I’ve liked most of all so far was his performance of the slow movement of Opus 2 No. 3, which is, indeed, a foreshadowing of Schubert. What has puzzled me the most, so far, was his decision to drop the da capo, the specified reprise, in the Menuetto of Opus 2 No. 1, especially since he has otherwise been meticulous about observing repeats. He explained this decision in one of the lectures he once gave on the Internet, but even that strikes me as frivolous, especially as he doesn’t make similar omissions in other sonatas.

At home, I listen to my EMI discs by Alfred Brendel, the second of the three sets he has recorded, wise and spacious. Then, of course, there are the performances by Artur Schnabel, whom everyone of my generation revered for his wisdom, his poetic quirks and the cantankerous insights in the footnotes of his printed editions. Times were when there were the Schnabel discs and no others, and now Naxos-UK has issued them in Ward Marston’s excellent remasterings. I still refer to them, most of all for the sheer poetry Schnabel could extract from the slow movements of the late sonatas. But the fact remains that elderly fingers did not always fulfill his visions, and such passages as the finale of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata can be painful.

Old Pals

I have been too long away from the California EAR Unit. This sovereign new-music group, born at CalArts, more recently dispossessed at LACMA when that institution foolishly abandoned serious programming, is now at REDCAT, where last Wednesday’s program was mostly the same old same old, with mostly the same old personnel. Louis Andriessen’s 1986 Dubbelspoor led my favorites’ list: quiet for Louis, a lovely sequence of crystalline tones led by the glisten of Amy Knoles’ percussion magic. I also liked Raphael Biston’s .oscil, music for “bent” timbres and interesting sudden bursts. From Australia’s Lisa Lim and CalArts’ Ann Millikan there were large, rather unformed pieces, whose bloviating program notes tended to promise more than what occurred; and from Franco Donatoni, onetime teacher of Esa-Pekka, a short concluding piece that teemed with his customary bustle.

Philip O’Connor’s clarinet and Eric Clark’s violin are new to the group since LACMA; Amy, Erika Duke Kirkpatrick’s cello, Dorothy Stone’s flute and Vicki Ray’s piano are the steadies from as far back as I can remember. That’s remarkable; the EAR Unit is one of the country’s foremost long-term ensembles serving music’s cutting edge. Its members do other things, of course: studio work, teaching. But they continue as well as the EAR Unit, and they are part of what outsiders have come to recognize as the unique ferment here in Los Angeles. They call it the “Continental Shift,” and other envious names.

The Dark Side

Deplorers of Sibelius’ music, among whom I occasionally number myself, list the Fourth Symphony as the Great Exception, the expressive marvel that uses the fewest notes to state the most profound matters. So it is; this icy, barren work of half statements and unfinished thrusts engages our participation, obliges us to complete these paradoxes in our own imagination, and results in the link between listener and creative artist that is the goal of all great art. It isn’t just a matter here of the composer leaving blank spaces for us to fill in; it’s more that he engages us to join him along his rock-strewn creative path, which he has, this once, made enticing. For this latter process, there was the enormous assistance of Esa-Pekka Salonen and his orchestra, this past Thursday, appropriately turned gray-toned for the occasion.

The Seventh Symphony ended the program, as it did Sibelius’ symphonic career. In between came Steven Stucky’s Radical Light in its world premiere. It’s a 17-minute crescendo and decrescendo, insubstantial up against other recent Stucky works, all of which I tend to admire for their attractive presence on a middle-ground, conservative plane. Less happens in the new work, perhaps, but its orchestral language is bright and appealing, with moments of jeweled twinkle that will attract friends, myself among them. 

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