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Barenboim plays Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in Paris

02.02.2020


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Daniel Barenboim offered a real treat for aficionados of Beethoven especially in the year in which Paris and the world over is celebrating the 250th anniversary of this great composer’s birth.

Twenty-four hours after witnessing the dynamic French-born pianist, François-Frédéric Guy, stunning a full house at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées performing Beethoven’s complete piano concerti with the Orchestre de chambre de Paris, I ventured over to the 2,400 seater Phiharmonie de Paris (which opened in a blaze of glory in 2015) to hear another great master of the keyboard and interpreter of Beethoven, Daniel Barenboim, perform the penultimate recital of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas which he commenced upon last year.

The programme comprised No.15 in D major, Op.28; No.3 in C major, Op.2; No.24 in F sharp minor, Op.78; No.30 in E major, Op.109, whilst in his final recital (Tuesday, 21st) which, unfortunately, I couldn’t make, he played No.9 in E major, Op.14, No.1; No.4 in E flat major, Op.7; No.22 in F major, Op.54; No.32 in F minor, Op.111.

It’s most certainly a noteworthy achievement playing all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas (written between 1795 and 1822) in a single cycle. However, the first person to undertake such a marathon task fell to the Dresden-born conductor and virtuosic pianist, Hans von Bülow. He described them as ‘The New Testament’ of piano literature whilst referring to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier as ‘The Old Testament’.

Daniel Barenboim, however, is no stranger to the Beethoven cycle and, indeed, no stranger to Wagner’s Ring cycle either which he has conducted on numerous occasions, the latest being Guy Cassiers which has just ended its time at the Staatsoper Berlin where Barenboim has been general music director since 1992. However, he has recorded Beethoven’s 32 sonatas for EMI Classics and from a performance point of view has performed it many times in such noted musical capitals of the world as London, Berlin, New York, Prague and Vienna as well as in Buenos Aires where he was born in 1942.

The early sonatas were highly influenced by those of Haydn and Mozart and overall they make up one of the most important collections of works in the history of music. They came to be seen as the first cycle of major piano pieces not only suited for concert-hall performance but also for both private and public performance while forming a bridge between the world of the salon and that of the concert-hall.

After he wrote his first 15 sonatas, Beethoven wrote to his bosom friend, the Czech-born mandolin/violin player, Wenzel Krumpholz, saying: ‘From now on, I’m going to take a new path.’ And Beethoven did just that and, therefore, his sonatas from this period proved totally different from his earlier ones and his experimentation in modifications to the common sonata form of Haydn and Mozart became more daring as did the depth of expression.
Interestingly, most Romantic period sonatas were highly influenced by those of Beethoven whose late sonatas were some of his most difficult pieces and still prove difficult today but in the capable and assured hands of Daniel Barenboim he made short work of them. He’s a master of the keyboard per se.

An innovative and ground-breaking composer in more ways than one, Beethoven discovered a new path to explore in his compositions incorporating, say, fugal techniques while making a radical departure from the conventional sonata form. For example, the Hammerklavier, a work deemed to be Beethoven’s most difficult sonata, was considered unplayable until almost 15 years after its composition when Franz Liszt, a 19th-century pianist of great standing, got to grips with it. And, of course, Daniel Barenboim’s a pianist of great standing today and, from my point of view, he’s also a brilliant conductor, artistic director, mentor, humanist and free-thinker.

Attending a Barenboim recital is a truly special event and coupled with François-Frédéric Guy’s performance - a pianist so different in style and temperament to that of Barenboim - and, indeed, the performance I attended at Norwich’s Assembly House of the Brodsky Quartet playing Beethoven’s 127 quartet - completed in 1825 and the first of the composer’s late quartets - prior to my departure to Paris, it’s been a great start for me apropos the celebrations this year marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. There’s Bonn and Vienna still to come! Cor’ blimey, Mary Poppins!

Opening his recital in style in the spacious and comfortable surroundings of the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of the Philharmonie de Paris, thus greatly adding to the overall pleasure and enjoyment of the evening, Barenboim - smartly attired in a black tailored frock-coat, the choice of dress, too, for François-Frédéric Guy - he delivered a meaningful and delicate account of the Sonata No.15 in D major, Op.28, dedicated to Count Joseph von Sonnenfels and published in 1801. Nicknamed the ‘Pastoral’, it has been widely debated whether it refers to the overall sense of countryside and nature summed up in the piece or to its sense of calm, simplicity and lightness apropos the 6th symphony - the ‘Pastoral’. Who knows!
However, while it’s not as famous as its immediate predecessor (No.14) it is generally admired for its intricate technicality as well as for its beauty and, without doubt, Barenboim’s technical wizardry at the keyboard came to the fore in the final movement in which Beethoven employed various amusing, interesting and adventurous episodes, all with different moods, rhythms and harmonic textures.

Continuing with his recital, Barenboim put in a fine reading of the Sonata No.3 in C major, Op.2, composed in 1795, dedicated to Joseph Haydn. It’s often referred to as Beethoven’s first virtuosic piano sonata and the three Opus 2 sonatas all contain four movements each which seem to imply that Beethoven was aspiring towards composing a symphony. Sitting comfortably alongside the composer’s Grand Sonata in E flat major, Op.7, published a year later, it’s the composer’s second longest piano sonata from his early period.

Receiving a spirited and telling start from Barenboim, the sonata is the weightiest and longest of the three published under Opus 2 thereby presenting a myriad of difficulties for the performer - but not as far as Barenboim is concerned - including difficult trills, awkward hand movements and forearm rotation. The speed of the final movement, though, proved a gripping piece of playing showing Beethoven's virtuosic skills as a composer and Barenboim’s consummate skills as a pianist.

I was quite taken by the short two-movement Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op.78, dating from 1809 and nicknamed ‘à Thérèse’ in honour of Countess Thérèse von Brunswick. According to Carl Czerny, Beethoven singled out this sonata as well as the Appassionata and Hammerklavier as his favourite of the genre. I can see why as it is such a charming piece and offered such a wonderful curtain-raiser to the final work of the evening, the Sonata in E major, No.30, Op.109, composed in 1820 and dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of Beethoven’s long-standing friend, Antonie Brentano, for whom Beethoven had already composed a short Piano Trio in B flat major in 1812.

Musically speaking, the work is characterised by a free and original approach to the traditional sonata form and its focus relies heavily on the third movement which is a set of variations interpreting its theme in a wide variety of individual ways.

The date of the first performance is unknown but the first pianists to undertake bringing Beethoven’s last sonatas, including the O.us 109 - noteworthy for its divergence from the norms of sonata form and for its harmonic and structural innovations - to public attention was Franz Liszt, who regularly included them in his programmes between 1830 and 1840 and, indeed, Hans von Bülow, who even included several of the late sonatas in one evening.

On an historical note, Liszt (covering a total of 3,389 miles) travelled by a coach and four at an average speed of nine miles per hour on his Grand Tour of the British Isles in 1840 visiting 65 towns and cities including that of Norwich where he performed in the elegant Georgian surroundings of the Music Room of the Assembly House, Norwich.

As I was speeding back to London cocooned in First Class comfort on Eurostar, how I wished I was still in the French capital witnessing Barenboim concluding his final recital of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in the comfort of the Philharmonie de Paris. C’est la vie!
Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, Philharmonie de Paris.

Tony Cooper

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