Written by Lawrence Schenbeck
When did Beethoven become Beethoven?
That is, when did he decisively put aside student exercises and astonish listeners with something quite different? A lot of us think we know the answer: In 1804, with Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica.” And that’s not wrong. The third symphony, longer, grander, altogether more powerful than any earlier orchestral work, made a splash that still resonates.
But that wasn’t the only moment Beethoven took on a new, more personal identity as a musician. It wasn’t even the only 1804
moment. That same year he wrote two keyboard sonatas, the first of which, Op. 53, is known as the “Waldstein,” dedicated to a longtime friend and patron. And it’s a wild ride:
(Our first-movement clips come from Ronald Brautigam, playing a Paul McNulty fortepiano “after Conrad Graf c.1819.” BIS-SACD-1573, now available in a budget-priced "complete" box.)
Rhythm dominates the first movement. The hushed dynamic of the opening only concentrates its throbbing energy. We feel that energy more intensely because there’s nothing else to feel. No counterpoint, no provocative mix of textures. No theme, really. Just a three-note ascending scale, answered by a much quicker three-note descending scale, immediately capped by an even quicker five-note descending scale. (Which kinda, ya know, combines those two three-note motives?) Lather, rinse, repeat, down a step; push to a quick climax. Begin again. Soon Beethoven brings in a second, contrasting theme area, a move right out of the Official Sonata Rulebook:
This new theme is marked dolce e molto legato and all, but there’s a catch: although the notes are longer, the tempo stays the same. In a good performance, you’ll keep feeling that insistent pulse. Also, this is not a new theme! It’s just the five-note descending scale tricked out in longer note values. That’s typical of #RealBeethoven.
As we know from the “Eroica,” #RealBeethoven grossly expands the development and coda sections of his sonata-form first movements, which also happens in the “Waldstein.” This creates an infinitely more dramatic narrative, full of cliffhangers and wrong turns, letting deceptively simple materials deliver some surprising wallops.
Beethoven originally wrote a different slow movement for the “Waldstein,” but he thought better of that, and separated it out as the Andante favori, WoO 57. Good move: it had more conventional features than the other two “Waldstein” movements, so it didn’t really fit. In its place the composer created a quasi-operatic Introduzione, ruminative and searching:
(That clip is from Paul Lewis, whose Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas, Piano Concertos & Diabelli Variations from Harmonia Mundi is a complete steal. Strongly recommended.)
The rondo finale begins with a welcome sense that calmer seas—C-major seas, taken at moderate speed—lie ahead. But the intervening episodes provide plenty of choppy water. Toward the end Beethoven abandons his careful Allegretto for a dazzling Prestissimo that will knock your socks off, more than justifying this movement’s ten-minute length. Here is the complete sonata, performed by one of my favorite artists in this repertoire, Alfred Brendel. (To skip directly to the rondo, head for 15:10, as indicated in the Comments section. Ignore the links given by the poster; they’re just timings.)
When I was casting around for modern piano works to match up with the “Waldstein,” I quickly discovered just how special Beethoven’s 1804 sonata is. Few 20th- or 21st-century works combine barely suppressed intensity with absolute motivic (melodic) control and outbursts of manic joy. More often, what you get are rhythmically driven sonata finales in which motivic control is “achieved” by simpler means:
(That’s Alexander Melnikov finishing off Prokofiev 7 for Harmonia Mundi; my recommendation of his dazzling set of Prokofiev Sonatas still stands.)
Or you may encounter ostensibly manic movements that want to give the impression of total chaos, but are in fact tightly organized. Here is György Ligeti’s “Désordre”:
(And that’s from Yuja Wang’s phenomenal Berlin Recital, which I’ve probably mentioned here before. It’s an electrifying survey of pianistic riches: Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin in addition to Ligeti.)
For comparisons’ sake I finally settled on selections from El Chan, an album of music created for and/or with Katia and Marielle Labèque, piano-playing sisters who know exactly what they’re up to by now—and they’re having the time of their lives doing it. What you may not know is that for years they’ve been promoting and collaborating with young bands and individual musicians: Katia was formerly married to guitarist John McLaughlin; she’s now involved with composer/singer/guitarist David Chalmin, featured here in a stunning quartet piece, Haven, by composer/guitarist Bryce Dessner, who wrote all the music on El Chan. Have a listen:
(There’s also a live, shorter video, here.) Besides Haven, you’ll hear Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos, with conductor Matthias Pintscher and the Orchestre de Paris, and the title work, an enchanting set of vignettes that speak to the sisters’ continuing fascination with music and image, film, landscape, and folk tradition. They write:
This album is dedicated with love and admiration to Alejandro González Iñárritu and his wife Maria Eladia Hagerman. Nestled in the canyons outside their hometown of San Miguel de Allende, “El Charco del Ingenio” is a pool of water which has been the source of popular legends for many centuries. . . . “El Chan” is its guardian spirit, a mythic being from the underworld who dwells in the mysterious waters and shows its terrible powers to those daring to approach. The pool changes colors throughout the year and is fed by a spring which is one of the last sources of natural water in the area.
Let’s hear some of El Chan. First, “Four Winds”:
“Mountain” rounds off the series:
I thought I hadn’t heard much of Dessner’s music (I do have a promo copy of Sō Percussion’s Dessner disc), but I was wrong. I’ve seen The Revenant, for which Dessner composed music with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. And I’ve probably stumbled upon Dessner in other collaborations, since—besides being one of the leaders of The National—he’s worked with nearly everyone else in the new-music universe. You can read about it here.
So, what’s the biggest reason to link Bryce Dessner’s keyboard music with that of 1804 Beethoven? Simple: he is everywhere, and so is his imagination. What better tribute to Ludwig Van could possibly exist?
Next up: Beethoven Plus One will have another go at music and landscape, featuring a new recording of the “Pastoral” Symphony. Before that, however, we may wander over to LvB’s late piano works. Stay tuned.