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On preparing a Beethoven marathon Part 9: Julian Jacobson

Two Weeks To Go!

And so the day approaches. Like all big events in life, it seems a long way off in the future and suddenly it’s upon us. Too late to turn back even if I wanted to! And I’m looking forward to my repeat performance in Uruguay six days later on my actual 75th birthday: they’re taking me out for a big celebration afterwards, hope I’m up to it. And then staying on for a few days of pure holiday!

People often ask me how I prepare for the marathon. I certainly never did a complete run: it’s too tiring and one can only really get through it in real time and with a live audience participating in the experience. I reckoned that if I did a run through and it went well it would give me a false sense of security, and if it didn’t go well I would be unduly discouraged! The first time I did it (2003) I did groups of six or eight: now the most I do is three or four consecutive sonatas.

A few months ago I was working up sonatas I hadn’t played for a while, more or less at random. However, as the marathon approaches I find it more useful just to go through the whole cycle in strict order, which has been taking me about a week. Inevitably some need more work than others but absolutely none of them can be taken for granted. I’m basing my text on the new Bärenreiter edition and there are many changes of detail and sometimes even notes since I last did the cycle. I also find many instances where I no longer like how I used to play them: but a changed interpretation needs settling in the hands and the memory, and there’s a limit to how much “new” playing one can absorb when so many pieces are involved. Still, at no point did I wish to simply repeat the performances that I’ve given in the past and on the whole I think I’m managing that, or so it seems to me! Over the last couple of years I’ve performed most of the sonatas in different concerts. A CD should be coming out, just in time: Moonlight, Tempest and Waldstein with a bonus Bagatelle encore.

Certainly one has to look after one’s health and fitness, all the more so in the current situation and, I suppose, with regard to my age though I don’t really feel much older than when I last did it in 2013. I’ve had all my jabs and got Covid out of the way this summer. The number of concerts I’ve cancelled through illness over a long performing life can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand (one of them was through a scorching burn on a finger from an accident while making crème brûlée – for a while it looked as if I might lose the finger). A few hand issues but nothing unmanageable and I try to be very aware of what’s going on. So I feel reasonably confident of not going down with something at the last moment!

As the day approaches there are many other matters to deal with and stop me obsessing too much about the pieces and the playing. Even with excellent admin help from Polyphony Arts and other assistance, I’m having to think about the piano itself (still not quite clear), the live-streaming, last-minute promotion and invitations, what I’ll wear, how I’m arranging my teaching so that my mind is as uncluttered as possible in the last few days, and, finally, preparing to go to Uruguay two days later for my repeat performance on the 18th – can’t leave everything till the day before I fly! But the unassailable grandeur of the sonatas and the thrill, as well as the challenge, of playing every note of them puts all such concerns in their rightful place.

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On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 8: Julian Jacobson

On Beethoven Editions…..

This week’s blog is on the vexed topic of editions, a subject about which people (not least editors themselves) can get very hot under the collar. I am by no means an expert and cheerfully admit that there are some famous editions that I do not possess and haven’t looked at much if at all, including Arrau and Schenker. Still, I do have about twelve editions, some of which have become intimate companions in my Beethoven explorations.

The earliest one I have is not strictly speaking an “edition” at all: Tecla Editions have published reprints of all the first editions. So you get exactly what you would have got as a Beethoven fan in 1800 by walking to the nearest music shop in Vienna and parting with a few Gulden. As well as being beautiful objects in themselves, it’s fun using them to create one’s own Urtext. But there remain many inconsistencies, not only obvious misprints, and of course one needs a modern scholarly edition or two.

The buzzword is Urtext, and no self-respecting student would now play from a non-Urtext edition. The trouble is that Urtext editions are not created equal and at a certain point one needs to examine them with a more critical eye. The standard Urtext edition is Henle, but even here one must distinguish between the old and new Henle. The old one tended to add dynamics, especially sfs, in brackets on analogy with passages elsewhere in the same movement, often wrongly or at least questionably. But it is well laid out and the fingering is logical and systematic – some would say formulaic. The newer Henle has ironed out some of the old excrescences, but the fingering by Murray Perahia, great pianist as he is, is individual to the point of eccentricity.

Barry Cooper’s edition for ABRSM has been much admired and with good reason as he goes exhaustively into the sources and has come up with many new, or restored, readings – not all of which I agree with. The newest Urtext edition is Jonathan Del Mar’s for Bärenreiter: Jonathan already had a fine track record with his editions of the Cello Sonatas and the Symphonies, and it may fairly be said that his edition represents the very most up to date scholarship, further correcting old errors and fine-tuning slurs and dynamics. However it has no fingering apart from Beethoven’s own (which is often remarkably eccentric) : Jonathan claims that fingering is already editing, since it imposes a certain hand position, and hence touch and articulation, on the pianist which we may decide is not what Beethoven would have wanted at all.

Ideally, then, one would use just Bärenreiter and put in one’s own fingering throughout (as Debussy wished the pianist to do for his Etudes). But that’s a tall order for anyone who isn’t a very experienced Beethoven player. So I recommend a combination of the old Henle for clear and logical fingerings and a generally reliable text with the new Bärenreiter for completely up-to-the-minute textual accuracy, with exhaustive (occasionally exhausting) notes on any uncertainties that remain.

But what of the famous old pre-Urtext editions? Are we going to throw out the baby with the bath water just because the old editors, including some of the greatest musicians of their time, were not always scrupulous in showing what was genuine Beethoven and what was their idea of what Beethoven should have written or meant to write? These editions have been unfairly discredited since Urtext editions became widely available, and I propose that the time has come for them to be rehabilitated. Pride of place, and never quite out of fashion, goes to the Artur Schnabel edition, eccentric in its metronome marks and fingerings but inspirational in its analysis and advice on expression. The old ABRSM edition of Tovey and Craxton still has its adherents: for me it’s spoilt by the addition of long slurs to indicate phrasing (rather than legato), many of which seem quite arbitrary. There is an edition by Paul Dukas, of all people, which is worth looking at. The once famous edition of Hans von Bülow is now largely discredited on account of his meddling with the text, but there are such valuable insights to be gained from the commentaries.

Lastly I have been getting huge inspiration and many ideas from the 1918 edition of Alfredo Casella. I’m glad to see that this is now available on IMSLP, and it’s still possible to pick up hard copies if one hunts around. Casella was a scrupulous editor, though he shows his historical period by adding many legato slurs, with an Italian’s instinct for cantabile, and a few extra notes. But there is so much feeling for style and expression in his textual notes and even in some of the “inauthentic” markings and adaptations. After all, a literal performance of even the purest Urtext is a dead performance, if it’s even possible: as soon as one starts to play one is interpreting and in that sense “editing” Beethoven’s text. And Casella’s fingerings are genius, often providing me with solutions that no other edition offers. So for me the ideal formula is three editions: Bärenreiter for complete textual fidelity – even if I disagree with a few details! – the old Henle for its clarity and  logical, usable fingering, and Casella for inspiration, brilliant fingering solutions, extremely helpful pedalling marks, and an indefinable but powerful sense of the greatness and poetry of the music itself.

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On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 7: Julian Jacobson

On Beethovenian Passions…..

Consider the Appassionata, the ‘King Lear’ of piano sonatas. To this day, has anything more uncompromisingly furious, even terrifying, ever been written for the piano, or indeed for anything not on the operatic stage? Still today its violence has the power to shock – in the inexorable second development passage before the coda of the first movement, or in the grotesque, almost brutal coda of the finale, ending in undisguised ruin.

The typical Beethoven minor key work (5th and 9th symphonies, 3rd piano concerto) resolves in a major key ending representing “triumph over adversity” – Beethoven’s public face and message to humanity. In the solo piano works he could afford to show a less optimistic or triumphal face (a side of Beethoven which in any case has not been universally admired). The very first piano sonata ends in the minor, and in a bad temper. The Pathétique and Moonlight Sonatas also end in the minor, with a greater sense of weight if not of tragedy; the Tempest ends in quiet pathos. But the Appassionata ends in obliteration – everyone on stage has surely been murdered!

As usual, the nickname is not Beethoven’s. It did not appear till the late 1830s, and then attached to, of all things, a piano duet arrangement (I’d be fascinated to see this: I can hardly imagine how some of the wild passages that cover the entire keyboard could be arranged for two players without serious risk of physical injury). Czerny reacted indignantly at the new nickname, saying that it did not reflect the sonata’s epic, Greek-tragedy status: he felt the name could better be applied to the E flat Sonata op 7. That sonata in turn acquired the somewhat cheesy German nickname of ‘Die Verliebte’, Beethoven dedicating it to one Countess Babette von Keglevics, a pupil whom he no doubt fancied as only a young Beethoven could. But the name stuck, it’s after all pretty appropriate and no amount of pedantic special pleading is ever going to switch the name “Appassionata” to op 7.

I love the story of Beethoven’s inspiration for the main theme of the finale. Beethoven had gone for a long country walk with Ferdinand Ries, who writes: “He had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes. In answer to my question what it was, he said: ‘a theme for the last movement of the sonata has occurred to me’. When we entered the room he ran to the piano without taking off his hat….he soon forgot all about me. Now he stormed for at least an hour with the finale….Finally he got up, was surprised still to see me and said ‘I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some more work.’ “. (from Thayer’s Life of Beethoven).  I don’t know another story that so powerfully conveys the sense of Beethoven’s genius and what it must have been like to be with him!

Nor was he a venerable old master: a mere 35-year old, an age at which today a composer might just be finding their feet or even still studying. When one considers the following run of opus numbers, all written between 1803 and 1806:

53 Waldstein

54 F major Sonata

55 Eroica

56 Triple Concerto

57 Appassionata

58 4th Piano Concerto

59 Three “Rasumovsky” Quartets

60 4th Symphony

61 Violin Concerto

  • with only the Triple Concerto possibly not showing Beethoven at his absolute greatest, and all the time working on his opera Fidelio – one can (and should!) only marvel at such an unparalleled and sustained run of creative genius.

Between the stormy outer movements (there is no Scherzo – how could there be?), the D flat major  theme with variations presents an ominous calm which, despite its great beauties in the later variations, we can’t quite believe in. There are only three main chords, with a single disquieting dissonant chord at the same point in every variation just in case we’re relaxing too much. Then the final cadence is broken by the mother of all interrupted cadences, a diminished 7th chord requiring nine of the pianist’s ten finger, first pianissimo then immediately fortissimo up an octave, and the finale’s relentless moto perpetuo is unleashed. From then on it’s downhill all the way!

16/10/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 6: Julian Jacobson

Beethoven’s Fantasy-sonatas op 27, including ‘that one’…..

Let’s start off by remembering that Beethoven was a phenomenal improviser at the keyboard, perhaps the greatest ever, or sharing that honour with JS Bach. Contemporaries said that if you hadn’t heard him improvising you had no idea of the full range of his powers. Improvising by its nature indicates a high degree of fantasy, the improviser being deeply attuned to his subconscious creativity, and unobstructed in the channel that leads from that to the fingertips. Also a stranger to self-consciousness once he’s in the flow! (A perfect study for Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.)

So one could probably think of all of Beethoven’s sonatas as “fantasy sonatas”, though in his own mind there was certainly a distinction between the freer and more formal ones. It’s interesting that the sonata two before the op 27s is the almost excessively formal B flat op 22, regarded by Beethoven himself as a benchmark in his handling of symphonic form, whereas the one before, the op 26, is already much “looser”, with its gentle theme-and-variations first movement, its scherzo as 2nd instead of third movement, its famous Funeral March as third, and its short ‘perpetuum mobile’ finale. In fact op 26, 27 and 28 show a general tendency to greater freedom, even informality, before the crisis of 1802 catapulted him into a new toughness and formal rigour.

And so to the op 27s. One of them, of course, is much better known than the other. The first, in E flat, has tended to be underrated though it gets plenty of performances these days. Unlike the “Moonlight”, where there is a normal break before the finale, the E flat sonata is in one unbroken flow, with the end of each movement marked ‘attaca’ (go straight on to the next). The intimate, beautiful first movement starts off with the simplest possible alternation between tonic and dominant before we are startled by an unprepared chord of C major: but Beethoven is preparing us for the explosive Allegro that suddenly breaks the calm, as well as the C minor scherzo and trio (not so-called by Beethoven). Then comes a downward mediant shift to A flat for the short but deeply felt (‘Adagio con espressione’) slow movement, a short improvisatory passage to modulate back to E flat, and the merry (and difficult!) Allegro vivace finale – which makes room for a reminiscence of the slow movement near the end, in case we’ve forgotten that this is a “Fantasy-Sonata”.

Is the opening of no 2, the “Moonlight”, the most famous piece of classical piano music ever written? Instantly recognisable, its opening bars are played by millions in a more or less accurate form. Beethoven in later life was irritated by its popularity (just as Rachmaninov was by the C sharp minor Prelude), saying “surely I have written much better things” and mentioning specifically the F sharp major sonata op 78. But even he must have realised that he had tapped into some deep inner musical truth in the first movement, with its magical, seamless pianissimo flow. The much-maligned Czerny called it “a night scene, where out of the far distance a plaintive ghostly voice sounds”.

Beethoven’s influence on Chopin has been generally overlooked and underrated: but surely there’s, at the very least, a subconscious echo in the Fantasy-Impromptu, in the same key of C sharp minor, with its opening left hand arpeggios on exactly the same notes as Beethoven’s right hand broken chords (repeated in Chopin’s trio section), and the right hand melody opening on the same note, G sharp, as Beethoven’s.

Is it too fanciful to think of the twelve bass G sharp octaves (some of them tied) in bars 28-39 as the strokes of midnight?

The movement subsides and goes straight into the sweet Allegretto minuet with its rustic trio. It’s a tricky movement to play and students often trip up in it, having devoted all their attention to the outer movements! Then comes the ‘Presto agitato’ finale, a whirlwind of unstoppable energy apart from the dramatic pauses at crucial moments. For me hardly any movement conjures up such a picture of the wild young genius, his hair flying all over the place and no doubt with a fair sprinkling of wrong notes! I’m sure we’d forgive him if, with the aid of some magical time machine, we could hear him play it in person.

02/10/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 5: Julian Jacobson

Beethoven’s opus 31: an oddly assorted trio of sonatas

Beethoven’s op 31 is often taken as the start of his “middle period”, the magnificent and sustained series of masterpieces extending to the 8th Symphony and the “Archduke” Trio. Beethoven’s conscious wish, in the wake of the personal crisis eloquently described in the Heiligenstadt Testament, was to begin anew: the music would become much more tightly organised and formally integrated. As composers often are when they’re experimenting with new ideas, he was much occupied with the piano at this time: op 26, 27, 28, 31, 34 and 35 are all for solo piano, the third Piano Concerto is op 37, and op 30 is a trio of violin sonatas with elaborate piano parts. The three sonatas carry, unusually, no dedication – a further indication of Beethoven’s conscious spirit of revolution.

After many years I continue to find the first of the set, the G major, one of the oddest pieces he ever wrote. Long before I learnt it I read in some book that it was the sort of ugly duckling of the sonatas, and performances used to be quite infrequent. The first movement, with its dislocated opening theme and hare-brained scales and arpeggios rushing around all over the place, is perhaps the portrait of a man in the grip of creative ferment and new emotions, not yet able to settle to anything: yet, being Beethoven, it’s also masterly in construction, with not a wasted note. (No one knows what dynamics Beethoven really wanted in the opening, the manuscript being lost and the early editions offering a mass of contradictions: I’ve arrived at my own solution.) The slow movement is odder still, a prolonged parody of an Italian opera aria or duet complete with trills, cadenzas, and passages in thirds and sixths – yet hardly a love duet! The finale is emotionally blank, almost catatonic, as it noodles and ambles on its amiable path till the faster coda indicates a late access of new resolve.

The second of course is the so-called (with only shaky historical or musical justification) Tempest, Beethoven’s only sonata in the very Mozartian key of D minor (though we also have the wonderful slow movement of op 10 no 3). Certainly one of the master sonatas, and of great emotional intensity, it’s famous for the formal innovations of the first movement, going beyond the Pathétique in its alternation of slow and fast passages, and for the ghostly recitative passages, marked by Beethoven to be played with full pedal. (Surely the time has come when there’s no need to question those pedal marks any more?) I read somewhere that Beethoven got so excited when playing the right hand slurred pairs of quavers that he sometimes didn’t sound the second note at all – a sure indication of the direction one needs to go towards! The slow movement, of a broad, austere nobility, is his last fully-fledged independent slow movement in the sonatas till the Hammerklavier. The fascinating perpetuum mobile of the finale is said to have been suggested to Beethoven by the galloping of a horse outside his window, though I suppose that must have happened all the time. It contains, near the end, a horrible “correction” by nearly all editors which I refuse to have anything to do with (an E instead of an F – bar 334, right hand second note).

In stark comparison the third of the set is a pure comedy of manners. It opens with a chord almost unthinkable as an opener in any work before 1800, slyly and without drawing attention to itself. Formally the movement owes a lot to Haydn’s 49th sonata in the same key of E flat,  Beethoven finally showing his debt to his teacher which as a churlish young man he refused to acknowledge (Haydn didn’t enjoy the lessons much either). There is no slow movement: instead a genuinely comic Scherzo, sempre staccato, is also notable for being in duple instead of triple time, a Beethoven innovation repeated in the op 110 sonata and the op 130 string quartet. The third movement is a delicious old fashioned minuet and the finale an unstoppable 6/8 Presto with the sound of horns (giving the sonata the nickname of “Hunt”), surely influenced by the finales of Mozart’s E flat Horn Concertos though replacing their genial buffoonery with a sublime, unstoppable energy.

Do these three sonatas have anything to do with each other? Should one play them as if they’re connected, motivically or affectively, or a logical sequence? In ordinary cycles I never put them together. In the earlier sets of three (op 2, op 10 and the op 12 violin sonatas), the middle sonata is light and witty and the final number is grand and a bit show-offy, at least in op 2 and 12. But in  both op 31 and the op 30 violin sonatas the middle number is the most serious and intense, and the one in a minor key, while the last is a comedy. Beethoven never again wrote a multi-sonata opus, apart from the two op 102 cello sonatas. On the other hand, the final three sonatas, though each has its own opus number (109, 110 and 111), are palpably a trilogy with much thematic cross-reference and an inevitable progression to the final chords of op 111. So with op 31 my solution is to play them as if they have nothing at all in common, each for its unique character.

25/09/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven marathon Part 4: Julian Jacobson

Ah, the redoubtable Hammerklavier. Beethoven’s “ne plus ultra” piano work, unless it be the Diabelli Variations. The piece that was regarded as unplayable, a closed book, until Franz Liszt deciphered it some forty years after it was written. Beethoven himself said, as he sent the manuscript off to his publishers, that he had written something that would keep pianists busy for the next hundred years: but in this he was being too modest – the sonata is proof against ever becoming “easy”, for pianists or indeed listeners.  As I wrote in an earlier post, I could not conceive of mounting a cycle until I had got the piece at least basically under my belt.

And its name? Basically it just means “the keyboard with hammers”, representing Beethoven’s nationalistic wish to get away from the Italian “pianoforte”. Four of the last five sonatas are headed “für das Hammerklavier”, and theoretically any piano sonata ever written could be called the Hammerklavier, given that all pianos have hammers. (Schubert’s little A major sonata as the “Hammerklavier”!!) But there is something absolutely right in ascribing the nickname only to Beethoven’s monumental B flat sonata, and not only because of its opening chords, the pianist hammering away at the keyboard for all s/he’s worth.

The sonata occupied Beethoven throughout 1818, his 48th year, at a time of ill health, ever-increasing deafness and battles with despondency shown particularly in the extraordinary, visionary, desolate 16-minute (at least) slow movement. Its outer movements represent a huge effort of indomitable willpower, while the second movement Scherzo is tense, enigmatic, parodistic and sometimes violent. The finale is the mother and father of all keyboard fugues: in many places it still sounds “modern” over two hundred years after it was written.

The autograph manuscript is lost. Beethoven was clearly writing under intense emotional pressure and the sonata has come down to us with several insoluble textual problems, including the most famous disputed note in musical history: the A?sharp in the lead back to the recapitulation in the first movement (bars 225-6 for the curious). And this the only place in all music where I consciously play a note despite believing it to be wrong: I play A sharp. This note is indicated by the key signature of five sharps (B major, which has been the key of the preceding passage), but it is usually, though not universally, assumed and asserted that Beethoven simply forgot to write the natural signs for the A’s and that they must be A natural, effecting a smooth V-I cadence back to the tonic B flat for the recapitulation.

But nobody can ever be quite certain since there is no primary evidence, several influential editions such as Schnabel’s and Hans von Bülow’s have argued for A sharp, and several major pianists play it. An argument FOR it is that something similar happens the 4th Symphony, moreover in the same key: the music just arrives back on the tonic, without the normal preparatory dominant.

I have read, if not all, a great many of the arguments for A natural and I have come to accept that they are probably right. But A sharp is the genie that has been let out of the bottle: it’s enormously weird and exciting, and just possibly it’s right. And now that it has got into the collective human musical conscious and subconscious mind, A natural can only sound flat, conventional, predictable and disappointing. So I play A sharp: but I bet it’s wrong!

16/09/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 3: Julian Jacobson

Why from memory?

Why oh why, as I sometimes ask myself when a particularly fiddly bit of detail, often in the early sonatas, proves especially recalcitrant. It isn’t even historically justified in music before Liszt, and Beethoven is known to have complained when he heard that a pianist was playing his music from memory, saying that they would never remember all his markings. I grew up at a time when you were expected to play everything, short of Stockhausen, from memory but now even major pianists, and not only older ones, sometimes place the music on the stand.

Despite all this, I never seriously considered using the scores. Even if it risks making it look a bit of a stunt – not that I have anything against stunts! – I feel I need the concentration that memory-playing forces on one in order to build the adrenalin to keep going. Otherwise I suspect it would feel, both to the audience and myself, like a more or less well practised read through, lacking a real sense of occasion.

But why play from memory anyway? Reasons given include greater spontaneity and freedom, even physical freedom since one’s back and neck are not constrained by looking at the score (much higher on a grand piano than an upright). Just look at the freedom of jazz pianists! Then, if we have the courage to remove the desk – as it were, the final safety net – we have the advantage that the piano sounds clearer, warmer and more open, including to the pianist him/herself, which incidentally helps the memory.  And, frankly, one has to spend so much time reading and analysing the detail properly – every time I prepare the cycle anew I’m horrified by the amount of detail I hadn’t noticed before; fixing a fingering so that one gets a tactile, almost choreographic memory as well as the musical one; understanding the structure so you don’t take a wrong turning. Surely it’s worth risking a few hazy moments for all the benefits and the feeling of real performance. Particularly as one can have lapses of concentration and make slips just as easily when reading from the score!

I have in the past made an exception of the Hammerklavier, the sonata which itself is an exception to all the normal rules – using the score either for the whole piece or just for the fugue. Having read that Busoni, no less, always put the score up for the fugue, I feel no compunction in doing do myself! And I might only decide on the day. Apart from that, it will be memory all the way.

Any experienced Beethoven pianist knows that the sonatas don’t make equal demands on the memory. The great middle period masterpieces are so organically constructed that they go in relatively easily: there is, for instance, no extraneous or inessential detail in the Waldstein. Some of the early sonatas contain some ill-assorted, even crude detail e.g. the messy chromatic scale passages in the stormy A minor section of the finale of op 2 no 2, and these can be murder to pin down. Fugues or fugal passages, above all in op 101, 106 and 110, require long and patient living with!

Here is my rough and ready categorisation of the sonatas in ascending order of difficulty just from the memorisation angle:

  1. Easy: op 2 no 1, 49 no 2, 79
  2. Moderately easy: op 10 nos 1 & 2, op 13 Pathétique, op 14 no 1, op 26, op 27 no 2 Moonlight, op 49 no 1
  3. Moderate: op 2 nos 2 & 3, op 7, op 10 no 3, op 14 no 2, op 22, op 27 no 1, op 28 Pastoral, op 31 nos 1, 2 Tempest and 3 Hunt, op 53 Waldstein, op 57 Appassionata, op 81a Les Adieux, op 109
  4. Difficult: op 54, op 90, op 101, op 110, op 111
  5. Excruciating: op 106 Hammerklavier.

11/09/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 2: Julian Jacobson

Is Beethoven my favourite composer, as people tend to assume? The answer is “yes and no and perhaps”. My personal definition of a truly great composer is one who, when you’re listening to one of his (I’m afraid for these purposes and at this point in history and with my limited knowledge of music it has to be “his”) great pieces, you are absolutely certain that he is the greatest composer of all time. For me only five composers fit this definition: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wagner – even if I could not live without Debussy and Ravel. Of these five I’m temperamentally closest to Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. And I have no doubt that the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven constitute one of the greatest bodies of music in history, without having to be reminded of the tired old Hans von Bülow designation of them as the “New Testament” for pianists.

Wagner thought that the three greatest composers were Bach, Beethoven and himself, and although no other composer could get away with such a statement perhaps he was right. At any rate they all convey something deep and essential about the human spirit, and convey it liberally, magnificently and unselfconsciously. Bach is of course an impregnable fortress, probably the greatest composer ever, but perhaps I just need a more powerful “fix” of modern human emotion that I can relate to my own life. Wagner, in Tristan, Meistersinger and the Ring, provides that in spades. But Beethoven, in his fundamental goodness, humility – even naïveté – and compositional mastery and emotional intensity, is after all probably the one I’m closest to. He best embodies his own definition “Art demands of us that we shall not stand still”, which after all is not a bad maxim for life itself.

Sviatoslav Richter, no less, thought that the piano sonatas represented the high point of Beethoven’s oeuvre and who am I to disagree? At any rate I have found the 32 sonatas endlessly challenging and rewarding in equal measure, and ever open to exploration – you never feel you’ve got to the end of them, or, as Schnabel said, the music remains “greater than it can be performed”. Beethoven constantly reinvented himself, so that each sonata and each movement invites an individual response and I feel, not so much like a Beethoven pianist, but 32 Beethoven pianists if not 99 (if I’ve counted correctly) – a different pianist for every movement. Of all great composers he seems most to inhabit every moment of his music with complete absorption and concentration, never repeating himself or resorting to mechanical formulae – to such an extent that when he is momentarily less than completely himself, possibly (for instance) in parts of the B flat Sonata op 22, or the first movement of the little G major Sonata op 49 no 2 which he never intended for publication anyway, we are surprised by the momentary lack of total “Beethovenishness”.

In fact I didn’t in any sense start off as a Beethoven pianist, or with the intention of being one. In the early part of my career I worked mainly as a duo and chamber music pianist, with a great deal of contemporary music in the mix. In the late 1980s, feeling rather unsatisfied with what I was doing, the thought came upon me that what my life really needed was a major solo “classical” project, and why not the Beethoven sonatas? At this point I had only about ten of them in my repertoire – I claim to be the only Beethoven pianist (if I may call myself that) who learnt the “Pathétique” and “Moonlight” Sonatas at the age of 45. The first one I learnt after taking the decision was the E minor op 90, at that point totally unfamiliar to me apart from the opening bars that you see in the index. I also decided that it would be impossible to plan a cycle before I had learnt the Hammerklavier, so I put that into a recital at Dartington and just about survived.

As a busy jobbing pianist it was very difficult progressing quickly enough through the remaining sonatas (as well as revising old ones). The crucial factor that enabled me to finish the project was my appointment in 1992 as Head of Keyboard Studies at the (now “Royal”) Welsh College of Music and Drama as for the first time in my life I had a salary! And so, in the summer vacation of 1994, I resisted all offers and other temptations and basically sat in my studio and learnt the remaining sonatas, attempting to absorb them at the rate of three a week. This was an immensely enriching and fulfilling experience, getting – or so I hoped – deeply into Beethoven’s mind and way of working and hardly being distracted by any other music at all.

My first cycle had been due to happen at the Welsh College in 1995 but it had to be postponed. My friend and colleague John Thwaites came to the rescue and invited me to do the cycle at Christ’s Hospital where he was Head of Piano at the time. The cellist Colin Carr then arranged for me to do the cycle at St John’s College Oxford, and finally I could do it at the Welsh College. These were all in eight concerts, spread over several weeks. And so, by the summer of 1996 I had already given three complete cycles and had paved the way for the idea of doing them all in a single day. After a  cycle at Trinity College (1998) and a “Millennium” cycle in 2000 (in which each programme was augmented by a new commission from composers including Charles Camilleri, Philip Cashian and Keith Tippett)  – I finally felt ready in 2003 to go for the marathon!

04/09/2022

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On preparing for a Beethoven Marathon Part 1: Julian Jacobson

Well, here we go again! Every time I do it – and the last time was in October 2013 – I swear I’ll never do it again (attempt to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas from memory in a single day). But two things happened in the last couple of years: firstly the Beethoven 250th anniversary year, during which I performed a great many of the sonatas, curated an entire cycle for the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe, wrote programme notes on all of them, taught, coached and gave masterclasses on then; and secondly the pandemic which gave us all time to reflect on what we might do when we were able to perform “live” again. And so I found myself inexorably drawn to the idea of having one more bash at it! Actually two, because my friend and colleague Enrique Graf very kindly and perhaps courageously invited me to repeat it at his festival in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. This will be on November 18 2022, my actual 75th birthday.

Having done the marathon in London first in 2003 , then 2013, I initially thought of doing it in 2023, but it seemed too far off and then I hit on the idea of making it a 75th birthday challenge for myself. I somehow doubt if I’ll be doing it again in another ten years’ time, but you never know!

Why should one play all the sonatas in a single sitting anyway? Having previously given seven cycles in the normal way, in seven or eight concerts spread over several weeks, I started wondering if it might be possible and interesting to play them all in a day, and the idea wouldn’t let me go. In the event, many people said how absorbing it was to follow the development of a genius from the early “rough diamonds”, full of character already, to the realised sublimity of op 109, 110 and 111 (I play them in chronological, or opus number, order). Naturally few people remain for all 32, but many hear enough of them to get a full enough picture! And, like the 2013 marathon, this one will also be relayed live online and available for some time after the event.

I’ll be updating this blog regularly from now on, with my ongoing thoughts on preparing the marathon as well as my thinking on specific sonatas and Beethoven interpretation generally!

25/08/2022