Beethoven jazzes it up

Welcome to the 104th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Sonata for Piano No. 32 in C minor op. 111 (1821-22)

Beethoven wrote the last of his sonatas in just two movements, breaking yet another taboo. His assistant Anton Schindler claimed he gave up on a third movement because he was running late with the ninth symphony, a story not many believe though it’s the kind of remark the composer might have tossed out to deflect further questions.

When a Berlin publisher complained the manuscript was one section short and asked if the rondo-finale had got lost in the post, Beethoven responded with a barrage of grievances about misprints and short payments for his last edition. By this time in his life, into his fifties and in constant pain, the composer was disinclined to take backchat from anyone, no matter how much he needed their support.

So just two movements and an average length of around 25-30 minutes, although some intepreters take almost that long on the second movement alone such are the relativities of time in this most flexible and open-ended of last-word masterpieces. The slowest pianist is probably the Russian Anatol Ugorski, taking 11 minutes on the first movement and 27 on the second, in its way a remarkable and inimitable feat. You can pop out to the kitchen and make a cup of tea between one note and the next. How the pianist maintains a line at such extreme length is a marvel to behold.

The second movement also contains what some claimed to be the birth of jazz. At around three minutes in, Beethoven rocks the melody unevenly from side to side in what can only be described as syncopation. Boogie-woogie might be even more accurate. Not every pianist is happy with this description. The Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff has dismissed it as close to sacrilege. but even a German traditionalist like Wilhelm Backhaus finds it impossible to suppress the jazzy nature of this theme. Edwin Fischer, in a performance of otherwise massive assurance, seems to be using all of strength and intelligence in this passage to stop the rhythm running off his rails.

While it is highly unlikely that Beethoven was familiar with the musical idioms of African-Americans, the rhythmic variegation tells us that he had left Viennese tradition and expectations so far behind him that anything was possible in his last works, even atonality. Beethoven himself considered the work ‘not very difficult’ but pianists were long daunted by such incalculable markings as 12/32 and the new-fangled metronome that the composer recommended only served to confuse them further.

In his great novel of ideas, Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann depicts a town organist, somewhere in Germany, giving a lecture on the opus 111 and its enigmatic conclusion. He sat on his revolving stool… and in a few words brought to an end his lecture on why Beethoven had not written a third movement to op. 111. We only needed, he said, to hear the piece to answer the question ourselves. A third movement? A new approach? A return after this parting – impossible!

This is not a work for a young artist to attempt. Ivo Pogorelich, who recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon at the age of 23, received such derisive reviews that he retreated into a shell of defensiveness that characterised the rest of his career. You can judge for yourselves how it sounds – after repeated listenings I still find it peculiar and immature. Harold Schonberg reported that at a 1985 Carnegie Hall recital he took a world-record 31 minutes and 31 seconds to get through the work. Pogorelich insisted that he was only doing what Beethoven wanted.

By contrast, the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt waited until she was past 60 before attempting this summit. Next morning she broadcast the outcome on social media: ‘It’s done! I performed Beethoven’s Op. 111 in public for the first time last night at a friend’s barn in Devon for 65 people. On a Bosendorfer. Very intimate. I got all choked up just talking about it at the beginning of the concert…..let alone playing it. Now I have the rest of my life to try to play it better, but I’ve done it and that gives a lot of personal satisfaction.’

In assessing 150 recordings of this work, I shall limit myself to the most thoughtful interpretations. Fischer and Backhaus come instantly into contention. Friedrich Gulda joins them with an ethereal serenity that is almost a summation of the complete 32 sonatas.

But how easy it is for even the most accomplished artists to fall short at the last hurdle. Clara Haskil, more of a Mozartian than a Beethoven specialist, sounds as if her shoelaces have come undone on the pedals; I mention her only to show how easy it is for the most accomplished of pianists to stumble over Beethoven’s trickery with speeds and expression.

Alfred Brendel is ponderous in the opening movement, and sombre in the second, never quite illuminating the sonata as he has done so often through his cycle. Daniel Barenboim gets slower and slower as if the work wears on, as if he imagines Beethoven is running out of energy (which the 9th symphony assures us he isn’t). Arthur Schnabel is both heavy-handed and a bit scatty, less authoritative than his finest efforts. That said, I am seduced all over again by his rocking rhythms in the finale. Claudio Arrau‘s fourth and last recording is wondrously humane.

And what of Emil Gilels? This is one of three sonatas in the cycle that he left to last and never recorded, we know not why. His arch-rival Sviatoslav Richter weighed in with three recordings, marked by coolness and detachment. Of the Russians, Maria Yudina is the one who penetrates most fully and sympathetically into Beethoven’s last sonata.

Ronald Brautigam demands to be heard on a tintinnabulating early instrument and Fazil Say has a take on some phrases that is all his own. Among very latest releases, I am hugely impressed by Filippo Gorini and Pina Napolitano. (I haven’t yet heard Angela Hewitt).

But my listening is coloured by time and place, by the year of Covid and all its mortal losses and future uncertainties. To hear the notes of Beethoven’s last piano sonata as music is all but silenced in public places is to enter the darkness with Beethoven and to emerge, like him, with a message of faith and continuity. Mitsuko Uchida achieves an ethereal closure that resembles an act of transmission, as if Beethoven had not laid down his pen at the end of opus 111 but handed it, full of ink, to Schubert.

 

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  • Nice but you missed lots of really great pianists.

    Let’s start with Rudolph Serkin who is considered by most, the greatest Beethoven pianist of all time. He played this beautifully. I also have to say that I enjoy watching him play: it’s so imperial, so old-style, so intense, and yet, so graceful.

    Other more modern pianists you could and should have included: Evgeny Kissin (a master in the great Russian tradition), M. Pollini and Daniel Trifonov. There are others.

  • Best performance of this I ever heard, I’m lucky to say, I heard live: Grigory Sokolov a few years back.

    I was also fortunate to hear Claude Frank tackle this live some decades ago, it was stunning. I don’t feel his recorded set does him justice but maybe live recordings will come out.

    For historic recordings don’t neglect Michelangeli; it was a speciality of his, and he can be found in video at RAI.

  • I have heard two extraordinary – and very different – performances of opus 111 just before the pandemic, by Maria João Pires and Mikail Pletnev. The latter was really exceptional in its opulence and variety. The best since Michelangeli in London many years ago.

    • Michelangeli’s studio recording of Op. 111 (1965) is my favorite. The last time he played Op. 111 in a recital was in London, May 13th, 1990. There is a recording of the radio broadcast, the interpretation was ‘perfect as usual’ in Michelangeli, but between the movements many in the public had terrible coughing fits, and Michelangeli just waited until everybody was silent again before playing the second movement; the public performed a John Cage work between the movements… 🙂

  • This overview is useful and enlightening, especially for a Brendel fan, and thank you. I think Brendel gets the celestal ending so well that I don’t want any other, but that just shows my limitations.

    Swafford has a lovely phrase about the triple trills, that they “set the piano alight.”

  • If I could only choose one pianist for Beethoven, it would have to be Backhaus (much as I love Kempff, whom I was lucky enough to hear twice in concert, Gilels, Fischer, Schnabel, Arrau etc…)

  • A strange thing. Of all great pianists’ op. 111, I come back again and again to the 23 year old Pogorelich’s recording. Despite any possible criticism it projects some quality of the music that no other pianist catches.

  • Claudio Arrau in old age filmed his performance of Op. 111 graphically revealing his struggles with the chains of trills toward the end of the Arietta con variazoni, fourth and fifth finger trills are especially troublesome to the player, who must find relief where he can. Arrau was once a good Beethoven player. This is painful to see.

  • Those interested in Op. 111 may enjoy the chapter in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”, Knopf edition of Helen Lowe-Porter’s English translation, of the music teacher’s detailed lecturr-recital of it that impressed Bruno Walter aed Furtwaengler in different ways.

  • I had the pleasure of hearing Uchida perform Op. 111 (along with Op. 109 and 110!) at Carnegie Hall a few years ago…the silence at the end of Op. 111, to end the program, was incredible. Probably still one of the most memorable piano recitals I’ve ever witnessed!

  • Beethoven had already broken the cited “2-movement taboo” in the op 54, op 78 and op 90 sonatas. (Also op 49 nos 1 and 2 although I think Beethoven objected to their publication). Also the op 5 cello sonatas are two movements. I don’t recall 2-movement piano sonatas by Mozart but there are 2-movement violin sonatas.

  • Friedrich Gulda, Craig Sheppard, and Charles Rosen all made excellent recordings of this wonderful and unique work.
    So did the great Hans Richter-Haaser, who I had the singular pleasure of performing with in the Emperor concerto.
    And please, hopefully for one last time, dear Norman: there is NO MYSTERY WHATSOEVER as to why Gilels did not complete his cycle of Beethoven sonatas for DGG.
    You say: “And what of Emil Gilels? This is one of three sonatas in the cycle that he left to last and never recorded, we know not why.”
    I say: We (all of us except, apparently, you, Norman) DO know why: the poor man DIED. He simply DIED.
    Why in God’s name do you persist in suggesting time after time that the fact that Gilels did not finish this project was for any other reason than because of his unfortunate death?
    I must ask, in all seriousness: are you some sort of a conspiracy theorist?

    • There is of course a conspiracy theory by Richter who who knew Gilels well and was a fellow-student in the class of Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1981, Gilels suffered a heart attack after a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and suffered declining health thereafter. He died unexpectedly during a medical checkup in Moscow on 14 October 1985, only a few days before his 69th birthday. Richter, , believed that Gilels was killed accidentally when a drug was wrongly injected during a routine checkup, at the Kremlin hospital. However, Danish composer and writer Karl Aage Rasmussen, in his biography of Richter, denied this possibility and contends that it was just a false rumour.

  • Are/were there actual recordings with Gieseking, Pires, Trifonov or Pletnev? I once asked an Arrau pupil why he made such a huge rallentando towards the end of (ii) and was told ‘because it marked the recapitulation’. Painful uphill struggle subjectively, though, and it broadened over the recordings as he aged.

  • Near the end of hhe Afietta therre is a quiet. slow R.H.upward arpeggio C-E-G-B natural seventh introducing the reredos-like passage; my mental picture is of hundreds of candles at an altar. Schnael alon, of all pianistts I’ve heard, makes a slight trnuto on th top B, giving it the intolerable touch of poetry in his earlier recording. Otherwise Elly Ney is an ideal performer; Op 111 was on many of her late recitals, she recorded it four times.

    Greg. I’m impressed that you performed with Hans-Richyrt Haaser, Although I never heard him live, I remember when he came to San Francisco and stayed with friends Brendan Keenan in Millbrae Highlands. He and Karajan made an ideal Brahms second concerto. Are you a percussionist like Reiner and Sir Rattle?

    I also remember when Gilels died suddenly inMoscow hospital for outine check-up before a Western tour, after receiving a wrong injection I missed himd also.

    • Hi Edgar,
      Yes, I am a percussionist, and I was the timpanist for the Emperor with Richter-Haaser.
      R-H was a very sweet and courtly man. During the rehearsal, the conductor said to me: “Watch me carefully during the passage where you play with the solo piano, so that we get it perfectly together”.
      At the break, R-H came up to me and introduced himself, and said “May I speak with you for a moment, privately?” We moved to a quiet corner, and he said “I know your conductor means well, but that’s not how the passage comes off. You are in the back of the orchestra. If we both play with the conductor’s beat, my sound will arrive in the auditorium before yours. No; you play and I will listen to you and play along with you. Then our sounds will go out together and it will be beauuuutiful!!”
      And it was a beauuuutiful performance!

      • A great story, Greg, consistent with all I’ve heard of Richter-Haaser. Many thanks. zDo you dare name the orchestra and conductor? I’d love to know if it doesn’t violate any oaths of confidentiality. My lawyers will talk to your lawyers and split the liability.

        Lrn Sperry was timopanist of Contra Costa S.O. Maybe this was San Jose or Oakland? San Francisco?

        Also, can yoou tell me if Ricardo Hernandez is still alive?

        • Hi Edgar,
          The orchestra where I played with Richter-Haaser was the now defunct San Carlos Symphony, so I think we need not involve the lawyers. The conductor was James Tippey.
          I know Len Sperry well; he was timpanist of another defunct orchestra, the Napa Valley Symphony, where I was percussionist. We carpooled up to Napa together many times.
          I do not know if Ricardo is still alive. Last I saw or heard of him was a home recital in Marin County at least ten years ago. Ricardo did not play on that occasion; he was a spectator like myself (the pianist was Antonio Iturrioz). Ricardo has/had a beautiful touch and sound, and he is/was superb in shorter pieces like Chopin preludes. He never, at least in my personal experience, plays/played larger or multi-movement works; I think they do/did not interest him as a player.

          • Many thanks, Greg. I know Tony Iturrioz well and helped him with his DVD on Leopold Godowsky, “The Apostle of the Left Hand”, with help from another friend, Marc-Andre Hamelin.

            Ricardo and I were Army buddies in Heidelberg, where I urged him to study with Prof. Friedrich Schery at the University, a charming Austrian with an English wife and her father rall through WWII in the house where we visited and he had lessons He played some larger works, Beethoven firt, fourth, and seventh sonatas I think, and others, but you’re right, he excelled in shorter works, some of which he oplayed extraordinarily well. He also visited Elly Ney in Germany and had advice from her.

            I know that Marin County contractor with an Italian surname; he helped Nyiregyhazi and had him play at his home when the great Hungarian was in the area to raise money for his ninth wife’s medical treatment. Those were heady days. The name Tippey is also familiar to me. I’ve written elsewhere about Len Sperry’s musicales and Erik Eriksen.

  • Other attentive readers of Thomas Mann’s stupending pages on Op. 111 and the Credo fugue in Missa Solemnis were Clifton Fadiman, Alfred Schnittke, Arnold Schoenberg, Theodor Weiss-Adorno, conductor Alan Gilbert, Hermann Hesse, Frank, Werfel, and Heinrich Mann. Not all necessarily favorable, notably Schoenberg, but Alan Gilbrt wrote a New York times article about it when he discovered. Ln addition to Furtwaengler and Bruno Walter, who also mentioned it in their letters. The book also mentions Klemperer, Ansermet, and Karl Erb among others.

  • I’ve not heard either of their recordings, but have heard both Pogorelich and Gorini perform the piece live in Seattle. About 15 years ago Pogorelich distorted the piece practically beyond recognition, in a freak show performance that went on for almost 40 minutes. Last year, the previously unknown Gorini stunned the audience with a mature, muscular performance of 111, as well as Op. 110, Bartok, and Stockhausen of all things. He’s definitely one to watch.

    Happy to see Craig Sheppard mentioned in a comment below. His complete concert cycle of the sonatas, which form the basis of the recording, was outstanding.

    Richard Goode’s recording also deserves mention.

  • There are any finel readings of Op. 111 that yet leave the listener unsatisfied. I remember a performance by Bernhard Abramowitsch of Mills College in al church alongside Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on 25 May 1968, the day my first son was born.

    Few works less need jazzing up than Op. 111. One syncopated, double-dotted variation gave rise to the quip, but the supernatural level this sonata operates on makes it inapt. Schnabel and Elly Ney bring out this aspectl.

    In it Beethoven reduced his musical contrasts to either/or, tension/relaxation, the greater the one, the more complete the other.

    It is this aspect that the fictitious stammering pianist-lecturer and German-American teacher demonstrates in Mann’s “Doktor Faustus”. As usual, there is an historic Kretschmar in Berlin’s music-world.

    Mann presumes to ask his readers to read it twice. I did better and wore out two copies. I am about to read it again in Helen Lowe-Porter’s uncanny English translation. Sometimes I think it’s she I love.

    Op. 111 and the “Hammerklavier” are extraordinary works beyond the demands of normal music-making, and require extraordinary performers to transmit the beauty and wonders of their tone-world.

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