Op 111 - Pollini, Trifonov, Richter, Schnabel, Dinnerstein & Sokolov
Pollini is one of the great pianists to engage with audiences in concert and in recordings. His fan base is immense and devoted. He won the 1960 Chopin Competition at the age of 18 and has pretty much been public property since then. But if I'm honest I just don't get his playing some times and so I approached this reading with some trepidation. Pollini recorded the last three sonatas in the mid 1970s for DG but this is a later live performance. I stand ready to be surprised by the great pianists - it's never happened with Pollini in the classics.
There's almost too much energy in the opening which waylays the portent. It's quiet middle has little repose or, at the other extreme, the edge of other readings. The low rumble of transition into the main section is a bit heavy handed too. The exposition of themes (however many you chose to count) has a train like regularity: it rattles along. There's a nervous twitch, ticking away, an eagerness to get on, even in those moments of repose. At the end of the exposition, after the brief Adagio, Pollini has a technical accomplishment that most would envy (especially in a live performance). The development is brief startling fugato, he tiptoes a pointe until it collapses into a dramatic whirlpool of notes sucking downward the ideas they support. The engagement with the early material again (where there's also some development and extension) has the air of desperation: I can't decide whether he's a man running late frantically looking for his spectacles or a prince overlooking his castle wondering if the battlements are high enough as an army advances. It has no sense of importance. It's a neat trick of scale achieved I think with a great deal of care at stabbing chords and moving phrases along swiftly. But it has a banal feel too. The coda is tinted with distant thunder, worryingly brief and somehow scant in terms of the drama at the start of the movement. Pollini has taken us to a place through a less treacherous path.
He sets the Aria in a modern, mobile and vague landscaping, its second half does not ask a question. The first waltzing dancing variation has a fairground, commonplace quality at first and Pollini again withdraws from asking too many questions in the second half where things become a bit less clear. The second variation is askew and Pollini does nothing to hide or point it up in the way some make it jazzy. The second half remains earth-bound. The infamous modernistic 3rd variation (boogie woogie? not in Pollini's hands!) variation is sadly without any tension at all - there's a smudginess here too, especially in the second half - in the studio Pollini would have I think made everything more pointed. It craves more consideration, less haste. It is hard to see this next part as a variation but Pollini mechanises it. The pace and blank phrasing rob it of wonderment and that drop to more exotic harmonies and tension is plainly done. The high figures are all there technically but it seems less Beethoven of the Missa Solemnise and more like Beethoven's intolerance of Classical norms from earlier in his career. These episodes are shorn of mystery - even the trills - and especially as we turn into the final pages where Pollini is flat. The great climactic summit of C major in Beethoven's last sonata for the instrument which he made his own is never sighted let alone reached. The coda subsides all trills (perfectly executed) but imperfectly set in a dull flat sea. The last 3 bars sound less Beethoven's ascent to a better place but the terse closing of a book. You can view these last Sonatas as so simple that they represent a distillation of Beethoven's study of the past and so his arias, variations and fugues and the like are simply retrospective and do not need over-playing. Like Brahms we might say he finally discovers the future is in the past - but I think it's much more complicated than that...
Daniil Trifonov: 9 December 2014, New York
Trifonov is a product of a Russian system which builds on piano competition success - at the age of 17 he won a Scriabin competition playing the kind of music which needs an adult rating sometimes. He's gone on to every kind of success. There's something astonishing his approach and thinking about music (he's also a composer) and his technique which is breath-taking and his touch which is fascinating. He seems to be in the most intense communication with the piano when he addresses it. He never seems to tease out the sound reluctantly. But on this occasion the 23 year old Russian's exquisite touch and technical skill are only part of the story.
The opening bars are taken slowly - very slowly and the effect is so telling. But once into the exposition he flies. Restless at first, the phrases are dissected into shorter units and despatched. The whole seems to be led by a very dominant bass, a strong surging impulse in the fast music but in the slow music all is restful (sort of). The ideas are developed with a straight laced approach to fugal elements - Bachian maybe - but then impulsive as the development breaks down back into the recapitulation and extension of the original ideas of the sonata. Here is the arresting side of Trifonov's playing as he picks away to reveal the startling originality of Beethoven's ideas: harmony dynamics and distorted inner rhythms are laid bare. This seems to be the place where the Russian is finding more energy - in the exquisite difference of Beethoven's daring sound world. He hangs onto that final chord until all its consequences are spent. And then he moves immediately into the Aria in a mood of a benediction.
This work of non-identical halves holds its greatest wonders in the strange second halves of these variations. The waltz doesn't even get started as four bars in Trifonov holds up the rhythm for a breath - it's wonderfully disruptive of a work that ought to disrupt. The next variation is more regular rhythmical, but here Trifonov changes harmonic colours - taking more risks than I've heard elsewhere with the landscape. There's an unfortunate hiatus before we start the third variation - this too is straighter than I had expected - though it is full bloodied and energetic it is not flexible. The mysterious disruption Beethoven introduces hereafter is enough for the pianist and his high passagework is exquisite - he warms to the off-colour drop back down the register and comes back with even quieter more concentrated high leggiermente passages. The transition to trills is bold and confident- this is fully realised Beethoven. No threat, no terror or reticence. The trills are exquisitely done though the cost is clear on Trifonov's face. This next section is as Denk say, directionless, but as the the baseline gathers momentum (Trifonov keeps it very restrained for now) the higher ground emerges from this fog of ideas. When he opens the full hymn like quality of this section we glimpse the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony and all Beethoven's calls to the human spirit. The pianist brings the work to a gentle close with breath-taking trills. The unison tumble of fingers to the closing chords is finely judged and Trifonov, despite his predecessors, refuses to be perfunctory in this moment until the last chord which is as short and startling as Beethoven instructs. If we are to assume that the young pianist/composer continues to play this work and he continues to quest beneath it's surface - he will be the man to watch.
Sviatoslav Richter: 12 January 1975, Moscow
Sviatoslav Richter (1915 - 1997) was an something of a ball of energy - his readings could be surprising or very conventional but his dedication and conviction were legendary. By the end of his life he played in darkened halls with just a table lamp to illuminate his music, in his early years he played through his own transcription of Tristan und Isolde for friends - he was by turns theatrical and very intimately anonymous. He certainly thought hard about his interpretations especially of the peaks of the Romantic and classical period. One can't really speak of a Richter "sound" as such it was more a radiating energy he created just by his intense application to the music. Its very evident here.
He opens full of nerves and skittish irregularity, the notes are there but they shiver. The first theme erupts and booms out and then in frenzy of notes bursts into a schizophrenic mania - at once blistering and shouty at the next: calm and plangent as a lunatic might be when playing with kitchen knife. The end of the first section tumbles over itself in a desperation. Richter is a man possessed in some of his performances. Beethoven is too in some of his sonatas. It is a frightening combination. The development strikes out and the fugato section begins with similar restless spirit. Watching the video it's easy to imagine Richter had given himself the additional impetus by heating the keys to 100 degrees - his attack is violent self-harm. The Recapitulation has a faltering air about all the calm episodes - nerves shredded, there's no respite. The mania is fitful and demanding. And incidentally at the limits of Richter's prodigious talent. The coda has a darker hue again and settles precariously and prematurely.
The theme is very straightforward - Richter never dwells in Beethoven, His tread is careful though especially through the delicate second half. The waltz is Schubertian picking out the off-centre, off-colour notes. The move upwards as the music splits again has hints of stress and its all in the inner lines, the second half almost breaks into song but he holds it back to a measured pace. The faster variation bursts in, the piano rocks and rings to the music but also it bulges and strains under its own excitement. Richter has Beethoven as the man who can hardly contain himself. The second half is more crazed than the first in this most modern of the variations. In Variation 4, a dissolute variation no theme and no rhythm, Richter is full of subterranean noises at first then a pixelated version of the high passage: these feel even further apart than the piano keyboard allows. When the music drops to a pulse Richter only then shows a sense of rest and ease. The high passage work becomes almost too concentrated for anything to be discerned. The mood change is like a shaft of sunlight moving to the trills which are so easily laid out to guide our way. As the music sinks to a stasis, Beethoven has the face of a man who has woken sweating from a nightmare but slowly gaining strength Richter glorifies him. The pulse is always relentless and I fear we will drop back into chaos if Beethoven misses his footing. Richter goes on - it is a triumphant confidence which survives such storms. But the close is perfunctory - it could happen again says Richter, there's no rest here.
Artur Schnabel: EMI recording, 1932https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p_-gwqkiGs
Artur Schabel was the Beethoven pianist of the first half of the twentieth century. As a teacher in Berlin and later in the US, as a composer and as writer he augmented his reputation but it was as a pianist of incredible technique that he is remembered. He died in 1951 so he missed the great explosion in recordings but his recordings in the 1930s were the touchstone of Beethoven in particular. There's a great confident authority about Artur Schnabel's opening section - declamatory at first then pensive and then it explodes into life. Schnabel puts in these tiny breaths between the elements of the exposition material and despite the age of the recording the delicacy of his touch is obvious. He takes deliberate care to delineate and in doing so he puts the contrast foremost from the start in this sonata, This approach sets the music up to oppose itself and yet be all of a piece at the same time. The transition to the development is impatient - angry even. The fugato builds to a ill-tempered high point. The there's salve in the cantabile sections in this muddled recapitulation. But the brusqueness is never far away - the coda resolves neither through song nor clamour.
Schnabel's aria is uneasy and in the first sections seems slightly slower on repeat (which I quite like even if it is an illusion). The first two variations are more Beethovenian than you might hear elsewhere: Beethoven's serious dance face glowers over them. The second faster one get's interesting in it's second half where Schnabel subdues the dance to let those important variations of dynamic and harmony show through. This holding back is perhaps preparatory for the third variation which is fast and furious and bordering in instability. As it seems to move in retrograde motion we wonder which way Schnabel is taking us. There's an obvious acoustic change for the next, fourth, variation which suits it. It is dark and telling against the high passage work with it's supreme delicacy - it is as though raindrops fall on frozen ground. The build up is tense as creator meets interpreter: even whilst Schnabel's fingers are getting round the trills, his dynamic control is matched only by a few. And yet there's no rush here and a fascinating calm falls on his reading which has quietly become completely compelling. The cycling figures, churning these ideas around and around, as the hymn-like song plays out above a tumultuous bass line. The 50 year old summons some of the subtlest playing you will hear in this closing section - of meditative calm and natural will. The storm of the first movement was personally and intimate. The peace of the last movement's ending is collective. Schnabel gets closer to Beethoven's humanity - his call to all peoples for peace - than anyone I've heard and he suggests more than those who have closed the book on Beethoven's sonatas with their readings, that this message is eternal.
Simone Dinnerstein: Berlin, 22 November 2007
A live performance from Dinnerstein opens in rapt silence. Her opening is slow and haunted, occasionally hesitant and at moments direct and yet the chords waver and tremble. The growling bass swells and the theme swirls upward from nowhere. At first there seems to be a lot of space between the notes and yet as the pace picks up, that slack is taken up and the notes tumble out. The use of the bass is carefully controlled, the very low register is a notch quieter than you'd expect. This has purpose later in the reading. There's not much pointing in the busy passages of development which adds to a sense of whirlpool effect but some of the quiet transitions are the most effective and affecting. There's a clear demarcation between the grand posturing of Beethoven's rhetoric and the beauty of Beethoven's poetic sound world: more Op 110 than Op 106 in fact. The little fugato is nodding towards Bach with rushed clusters of notes and expansive chords. The music is seldom regular and seldom without nuance - this might be called a Romantic reading. The movement moves through a series of impressionistic chords which bring us to a dimly remembered reminisce at the close. This is three musical periods all in a few minutes - it is a sophisticated approach. Dinnerstein was a determined piano student who ducked out of music school to study with a student of Schnabel for six years. Her Bach is renowned especially her Goldberg Variations which set her recording career going. This performance from a live concert(s) in Berlin was part of her second CD and she has gone on to greater success in the concert hall and on disc. She's not a Trifonov but she has a way with this music that is all her own.
She opens with a slowly moulded aria which has a careful bass accompaniment "placed and sounded" to disconcert just a little - we hear this in Solomon's recording of 1948. The second half is haunting - Dinnerstein brings some unusual colours out even if much else about the music is static. The first variation has little of the Waltz about it but harks back to a form which has much less emphasis. No holding back on the Bachian pedigree of piece or pianist in the second variation, it's second half sounding jazzier than most. The next variation is tumultuous and, for the first time in the reading, has humour and joy. The decaying form and pace of change hereafter gets an impressionistic feel from the pianist - the sparkling of high passages is reduced to a wonderful translucent shimmer. The low notes never really strike home but that has it's benefits. These alternating passages catch the listener for being more subtly played out than expected. We are left with a washed out canvas. The transition into the major is accompanied by some more full-blooded bass voices (at last) and the piano lights up too in higher register with the fluorescent triple trills. The final section is something of an amalgam of all the preceding flavours and textures of this beautifully restrained reading. The mighty Beethoven rhetoric emerges only as the music climbs to a ecstatic height. All these features undoubtedly helped by the most modern of recordings. At the last the music comes to rest, pausing between advance and retreat, like a wave loses its impetus on the shore line. The bald lines of the close are dwelt on as though the pianist doesn't wish to let go - and you can feel why.
Grigori Sokolov: Paris, 2003https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUKSGlbOoSs
I should declare an interest: in common with many I think Grigori Sokolov (b. 1950) is the finest pianist before the public today. His recording career has been slight over the years - a few records in Russia in the 70s, a few CDs of live concerts in the late 80s and more recently he's allowed a few more recitals out visa the DG label. He is a former winner of the Tchaikovsky competition - on that occasion the chair of the judges was Emil Gilels. This is no accident: Sokolov is the successor to Gilels and though they differ in other Beethoven sonatas - I dare say with the right matching of sounds, Sokolov 's reading of Op 111 would act as a suitable endpoint tribute to Gilels incomplete Beethoven Sonata cycle. Like Gilels, Sokolov can be a lion at the keyboard, and he has an unswerving poetic zeal in his search for lyricism within abstracted elements. Both have a power that is mesmerising but Sokolov has a technique which is a league better than Gilels. Hear him in concert if you can, but if you can't there are hundreds of examples of his art on YouTube captured by amateurs. He asks questions where other pianists just play notes.
Sokolov asks more questions of himself than of Beethoven in introduction section of this live performance: the music is full of doubt as he makes his way through the quiet chords leading up to the bass outburst. The first page of the exposition is perky and cocky even, quite common in Beethoven but whilst others have been looking for portent, Sokolov finds wit. The final dozen or so bars of the exposition where the waves of base notes rock under the high melody, Sokolov sculpts the bass runs into surges, ever so subtly nuanced but so effective. But we know it's way too self assured for what's to come. Sokolov chisels the music so there's a crystalline clarity to the way the notes are articulated. Sometimes he hangs on before each flurry of notes, tipping into the fast passages like a rollercoaster car going over the top. Atop all these effects, there's something well planned about the battle between musical ideas here. The balance he keeps is ordered and clear and quite matter of fact - for the moment. The development creeps in like a cartoon villain: much like some of the contrapuntal passages in the Hammerklavier Sonata. Towards the end of this briefest of developments Sokolov's pushes the left hand figures hard so we feel like a deep Sibelian ocean swell beneath us. Sokolov makes Beethoven bigger than he is - it won't be for everyone. In the complex and abstract recapitulation Sokolov allows Beethoven to do all the work. Every note is point perfect and delivered at pace, like Richter but with none of Richter's dramatic urges. It is highly classical in a way - more Middle Period Beethoven than Late Period. The transition into the coda is exact and Sokolov is careful to ensure everything that happens is delineated by the bass notes and to cap it off the last chord rings long in the Paris Hall.
Sokolov has, I think, purposefully not introduced us to the real depth of this sonata until he opens the second movement. The Aria is slow but what a mesmerising playing and such a line he weaves. It is in itself a moment of transcendent Beethoven. The waltz is slow and uniquely considered, calm and captivating. Sokolov seems to allow himself more freedom of expression in the second halves of these variations and the results seem to take us way out of the realm of Richter's melodrama to an inner sense of playing with thoughts. He refuses to up the speed for the next variation - the result is a walk with swagger - here the harmonic writing is revealed - like Schnabel. The third variation is jaunty too and so much the better without early signalling in what precedes it. There's what feels like complete rhythmical acuity here - like Trifonov but more deeply grounded - a hallmark of Sokolov's famed attention to detail.
As the Sonata breaks away from it's own melody, into something much more expansive at variation 4, Sokolov emphasises the bass line again - a curious self-propelled series of bass notes and chords disrupts the shape of the music more than ever. The reversal into the next section where the high line is all pulse and no glitter - this is not an effect - it is broken music. This hits home more obviously in bar 80 in the transition back to the bass section. There's an emotional weight to this movement and indeed this reading which has been waiting for revelation - it starts here I think. The returning high leggiermente is beautifully conceived by Sokolov - there's an internal ebb and flow in this page of delicate tracery. The sonata has become hypnotic and otherworldly. He moves through the trills with a similar distilled concentration. It is the pure realisation of Denk's idea of absolute patience and in some ways closer to impressionism than the Romantic high ideal - the music at this stage is ethereal. As we come into the final pages there is a renewed power about the music and Sokolov handles the grand oration this fifth variation with great dignity. We move from the public hymn to the private reassurance, Sokolov traverses the page with a ordinary progress of extraordinary thoughts. Beethoven brings us to a high trill, Sokolov emphasises it, it seems over the top at first, but descends to an earth bound close in unison. Sokolov's last chord is so quiet we look behind us to see if we've missed something. In retrospect it seems the preceding 3 bars are played as if the most severe distillation of the whole sonata - I'm sure Webern would have loved them played as such..