Friday, August 5, 2011

Golden Oldies: Late Beethoven/Late Chopin

Music is my favorite way to communicate, and my favorite thing to communicate about. That's why I've occasionally abandoned politics, religion and the written word on this blog and posted videos of myself playing the piano instead. To me, it's all of a piece with the things I write, and it seems to me that after a month of turmoil, it's more important for us to listen to great music than ever. Hence the present post, on which I am sharing three videos that I've posted on Facebook, two that I've posted here before, and one entirely new one. (I know that should make six, but there's some overlap, because ... oh, never mind.) The links to YouTube are all unlisted, not public, but please feel free to share them with anyone who you think might enjoy them.

I have always been particularly drawn to the late music of great composers. The works written toward the end of a creative person's life often convey particular depth and range of expression, and may serve to sum up that person's life work as well. The classic example is J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue. My love for late works extends to such diverse music as Mozart's The Magic Flute, Haydn's The Creation, Beethoven's last five string quartets, Verdi's Otello, Brahms's intermezzi for piano, Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, and even Schoenberg's Trio for Strings.

The two Beethoven piano sonatas I'm sharing stand on either side of what scholars (like me) recognize as the transition from the middle to the late period of his entire creative output. The sonata in E minor, Op. 90, written around the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, was supposedly described by Beethoven as "a contest between the head and the heart." He surely did not mean anything as simple as that the first movement represents the head and the second movement (there are only two) the heart. The first movement alone has plenty of both.

The second movement, meanwhile, is one of the greatest melodic statements ever produced by a composer who, for whatever reason, is often not considered a great melodist.

I only show my hands here because I was dressed kind of funny when I recorded this over the fourth of July weekend, nearly six months after the first movement. Both are played on my own piano, a 1911 Steinway O with unique rosewood casing which, obviously, is 100 years old this year. I inherited it from my grandmother, who lived in Vermont and claimed that "Rudy Serkin" used to play it. Obviously it's getting increasingly out of tune. Craig Waldrop, where are you?

The sonata in A major, Op. 101, is the first of the "last five," a distinguished group that also includes Opp. 106, 109, 110 and 111. It was written only two years later than Op. 90, though, with no other sonatas intervening. The first movement, which is the only one I have recorded so far, is one of the most movingly intimate pieces ever written. I shared it on Facebook after the Gabrielle Giffords tragedy in the hopes that it would provide solace in a way that words could not.

Chopin's last two nocturnes have nearly always been my favorites (at least after I got over a youthful infatuation with the posthumous one in E minor). In them, the lyrical intimacy of the earlier nocturnes is augmented by a richness of inner counterpoint and a crazy extravagance of ornamentation that is nevertheless absolutely essential. The next two videos were recorded at a formal recital I played last year at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, Texas. The piano is an Estonia that the church purchased back in 2008, after I and several other pianists found that it compared more than favorably with comparably priced Mason and Hamlins. The music is memorized, the piano is in tune, and there is an audience. Please enjoy.

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