Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Hammerklavier and Me

Piano music isn't my thing. Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich excel(led) on the piano, especially in Bach, but they were creatures sui generis. Mozart, I am sure, wrote some splendid things for the piano; however, his output - for many - begins and ends in the third movement of Sonata no. 11, K. 331. In any event, the piano - except with the score of a master and the hands of a genius - seems a bit underdone and overdramatic to me. Shades, I suppose, of Liberace.

I still try.

I have been listening to Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat major, op. 106, quite a bit lately. Of all, and I am sure that there are those who would disagree with me, I prefer Emil Gilels' 1984 recording of the Hammerklavier. To my mind, Gilels shows Beethoven off in all his majesty. Op. 106 is the sort of piece that exposes weakness, but Gilels seems to let Beethoven lead in the proverbial dance. Too many of these modern soloists insist on taking the composer out for a drive. That approach will lead, inevitably and invariably, to disappointment. A composer of the second rank, like Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky, is still in the driver's seat. A genius like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven is not only driving, but he designed the car and the freeway, engineered the gasoline, and has memorized all the pertinent facts. In any event, Gilels presents the Hammerklavier much as Pierre Fournier handled the Bach cello suites: he accorded demigod-like genius the respect it demands.

The sonata reminded me what a force of nature Beethoven was. One senses that Beethoven could, using nothing more than a piano, shake the gates of Heaven from their hinges. I don't care for piano music, but this sonata is something more. It is every bit as powerful as the finale of the 9th or the Kyrie from the Missa solemnis. Beethoven wrote piano music bigger than the piano, and that might be why I like it so much.


At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Tonendichter said...

I have the Gilels recording of the 106 but haven't listened to it yet. One of the pleasures I hold back, for when I'm a desert island I suppose... I've heard several performances of the sonata, including one by Serkin in Dallas in the late 60's or early 70's. It was magnificent. His recording is still the one I listen to when I am in dire need of the most one can ask for from music, a piano or humanity.


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