Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: Down in the basement with Beethoven


In a state of grace, Claudio Arrau plays the first part of the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The rest of the movement is here.)

by Ken

Last night I related how Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto intruded on my musical consciousness, thanks to the inclusion of the concluding Rondo on RCA's Arthur Rubinstein compilation LP Heart of the Piano Concerto. It was by far my favorite of the six movements from favorite concertos featured. (One of these weeks we'll come back to the six concertos that were included.)

Today it's Beethoven's Fourth Concerto. How it happened that I hadn't been exposed to the Fourth Concerto despite my already-formed attachment to at least the Rondo of the Third Concerto, is a silly story for another time. It had to do with endlessly agonizingly weighing the economics of RCA's Rubinstein-Krips Beethoven concerto cycle on five LPs vs. Epic's Fleisher-Szell and London's Backhaus-Schmidt-Isserstedt ones on four, and American Decca's Kempff-van Kempen one in mono but on only three! I was paralyzed.

In the years of my early teens we made periodic outings to Canarsie to visit my mother's Aunt Mae, my grandmother's baby sister. I spent most of the car ride praying that Aunt Mae had baked a cake. I loved her cakes, even with the caveat that her chocolate icing was bitter as all get-out. (But I ate it!) After cake-eating, though, there wasn't much for a kid to do for the duration of the visit, until I got permission -- let's assume I actually asked permission -- to explore the lifetime's accumulation of treasures that had passed their pull dates and been warehoused in the basement.

The treasure that drew me like a magnet was a small stash of classical 78 albums, which probably hadn't been touched in at least a decade. It was the usual standard stuff you found in such collections, but one album grabbed my attention. I knew the reputation of the great pianist, who had made history in the '30s by recording first all five of Beethoven's piano concertos and then, astonishingly, all 32 piano sonatas. And there among Aunt Mae and Uncle Ben's disused 78s was Schnabel's later American recording of the Fourth Concerto, with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony!

Luckily, there was actually a working record player that played 78s in Aunt Mae and Uncle Ben's basement. And so at some point I brazenly slapped on the first 78 side of the Beethoven concerto and was greeted by this, or at any rate the first four minutes or so of it:

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58:
i. Allegro moderato

Artur Schnabel, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Stock, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded 1942

As you can see and hear, the concerto begins, against all expectation of classical form, with a piano solo. What's more, it isn't so much a melody as a melodic-rhythmic figuration, as if the soloist was sort of noodling at the keyboard to announce, "This is the key of G major, oh yes it is." And then, just as astonishingly, the orchestra slides in (pianissimo, as you can see -- very soft) in what sounds like a wildly remote key. ("Sounds like"? In fact, B major is harmonically pretty darned remote from G major. And darned if the orchestra isn't sounding that same rhythmic-melodic figuration.

Could this really be the "principal theme" of the movement? Not only could it, it is -- and out of this tiny cell of musical material Beethoven generates an entire glorious movement spanning upwards of 20 minutes! It's the orchestra's turn now to noodle with the "theme," in the span of eight bars admits that the pianist had it right after all: The key is G major! And now -- near the end of our page of score, at about the 39-second mark of our performance -- the oboe joins in with the "theme," doubled an octave lower by the first violins, with the rest of the strings going into either melody-doubling or accompanying, and the horns entering gently to provide a discreet harmonic bed. All of this, and we're barely approaching the one-minute mark!

I doubt that I got very far into the piece. After all, we didn't visit Aunt Mae that often, and I would have been leery of damaging the 78s. But that opening is so unexpected, and striking, and dare I say haunting, that I was quite happy to listen to the first side over and over.

Schnabel was known, not so much as a note-perfect technician, but as an interpreter of depth. He could also be, when called upon, a poet. On our page of score, note the direction from the composer at the very start: dolce, sweet. That's a pretty subjective term, especially as applied to a piano solo. Every pianist eventually finds him/herself tested by this little solo, but I've never heard anybody play it quite like Schnabel.

Here's the movement again, played first by Arthur Rubinstein (from the same Beethoven concerto cycle, conducted by Josef Krips, as the Third Concerto recording we sampled last night), and then played and conducted by the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (born 1937), who had by then actually moved into conducting on a nearly full-time basis, though he has still never quite abandoned the piano.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58:
i. Allegro moderato

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Symphony of the Air, Josef Krips, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded December 1956

Cleveland Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano and cond. Decca, recorded April 1987

Because of the gulf between the 78 transfers (by the Seth B. Winner Sound Studios) for Pearl's unfortunately no-longer-available issue of Schnabel's Beethoven Society traversal of the 32 sonatas and other solo piano works and all other LP and CD transfers I've heard, I'm limited to the two (out of five) volumes I have. Here, then, is that oasis of songfulness from the transition from Beethoven's middle to late periods, the little E minor Sonata, Op. 90.

Schnabel is often thought of as a pianist of ideas, an interpreter of depth, and that seems to me very much the case. But he was also, by adoption if not birth, Viennese, and listen to the way he makes the second movement sing.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90:
i. Mit Leghaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (With vivacity, and with feeling and expression throughout)
ii. Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen (Not too quick, and performed very songfully)

Artur Schnabel, piano. Beethoven Society/EMI, recorded Jan. 21 and Feb. 3, 1932

And one tiny final bonus, since it happens to be on the same CD: a trifle that every early student pianist tramps through, the bagatelle known as Für Elise ("For Elise"), with no attempt on Schnabel's part to make it more than the charming little bagatelle it is -- though when it heats up, and later when it intensifies, he briefly brings to it interpretive resources that are beyond the imagination of any student pianist and beyond the reach of most professionals.

BEETHOVEN: Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59 (Für Elise)

Artur Schnabel, piano. Beethoven Society/EMI, recorded Nov. 10, 1938


as noted above, we heard the Rubinstein-Krips recording of the final Rondo of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. We also saw the first half of the movement played by another, though much younger, Polish pianist, Krystian Zimerman (with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic), and we heard the still-younger former child prodigy Evgeny Kissin play the Rondo quite differently. When I got around to popping the audio file in, we also had a "Beethoven bonus" from Rubinstein: his gorgeous recording of the Moonlight Sonata.

In tomorrow's main post, again, we hear the Third and Fourth Concertos complete, from Rubinstein, Schnabel, and teams of all-stars. We'll also zero in on the ugly duckling of the Beethoven piano concerto, the weirdly wonderful Choral Fantasy. We'll hear no fewer than three recordings featuring the same great pianist, to whom we'll be paying tribute of a sort. (Count yourself lucky. I only just discovered that there's a fourth recording available now, but I'm too cheap to pay the general asking price for the label it's on. I'll wait till I can find a copy that better fits a certified cheapskate's budget.)

SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS The current list is here.

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