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Of The Hand and The Heart

April 23, 2005

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By Renato Rodolfo-Sioson

Although the final trilogy of Beethoven's piano sonatas are common enough in recorded performances — and they do fill a single CD so neatly — their united appearance in the concert hall remains relatively rare. This is in no small part due to the forbiddingly abstruse musical language of Beethoven's final stylistic period which, when combined with the extreme technical and interpretive demands of these sonatas... well, few pianists would wish to tackle a program so potentially unrewarding. And few concertgoers, I suspect, would be clamoring to attend.

All of which is not say that such a program must never be attempted: merely that a certain amount of faith is required from the audience, and a considerable amount of bravado on the part of the pianist. And at nearly 78 years of age, Charles Rosen is still the definition of bravado; his recent lecture-and-recital appearance on Saturday, April 23 at the Florence Gould Theater in the Legion of Honor displayed undimmed all the intellectual daring and technical dash that have highlighted his career as a musicologist-musician.

In fact, the unusual, almost reverential attitude of Rosen's audience probably arose — oddly enough — not so much from his abilities as a pianist but more from the cult of personality surrounding his writings on music. Certainly, numerous copies of The Classical Style (Rosen's most celebrated book) were in evidence throughout the near-capacity audience, and the presence of various editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas (mine included) was conspicuous enough to convince concert management to keep the house lights turned up during Rosen's performance.

Bait and switch

I must, however, voice some disappointment with the pre-concert lecture. Billed as "The Late Beethoven Sonatas, Revealed," the event was opened with Rosen refusing to discuss — "The Late Beethoven Sonatas!" (He caustically dismissed that activity as equivalent to rereading the program notes out loud.) The audience instead was subjected to a largely unfocused 50-minute recapitulation of Beethoven's career in Vienna up to the point when the final three sonatas were composed, although not without several brilliant aperçus relating to the Opp. 101 and 106 piano sonatas that immediately preceded them.

As may be expected, any successes in Rosen's rambling presentation were due to the charismatic force of his inimitable style: his ability to toss off (with such mordant wit) the unforgettable phrase, the arresting image, the stunning insight, the brilliant summation. I was most enchanted by his pronouncement that "the more Beethoven tries to write like Bach, the more he sounds like Chopin." And there's no denying that Rosen's recurring "bombshells" — those breezy little shockers like (and I can only paraphrase) "Mozart was the most ambitious composer, even more than Wagner," or "Mendelssohn, not Mozart, was the greatest musical prodigy ever" — are wildly entertaining, even when he goes on to explicate his apparently untenable assertions.

But what of the concert? Clearly, this is music that Rosen "knows," in the profoundest sense of the word, from a painstaking contemplation on the significance of every nuance and inconsistency in Beethoven's original notation (i.e., in Beethoven's manuscripts and early editions). This means that much of the oddities in Beethoven's detailed notation — the unpredictable slurring, the inconsistent use of staccatos and wedges, and all those abrupt, hiccupy phrase endings — are actually embraced in his interpretations and can project a kind of raw immediacy to Beethoven's otherwise all-too-familiar piano works. This literal approach is particularly useful in the face of accepted traditions, which tend to tone down or even ignore these very inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies.

Revelation in novelty

And this unflinching focus on detail indeed yielded some marvellously fresh readings. Not only did the reappearance of numerous sforzandos, staccatos and contrasted slurrings produce a crisper realization of Beethoven's score — a kind of auditory analogue to the restoration of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel — but Rosen's exacting attention to any verbal instructions also gave a kind of specificity to those particular passages. One good (if minute) example occurred in the Prestissimo second movement of the Sonata in E major (no. 30, op. 109), in which Beethoven marks two four-bar passages "un poco espressivo" followed by an "a tempo" indication. Rather than merely slowing the tempo both times, Rosen instead opted for a sudden rubato: the sudden rhythmic freedom brought forth a moment of surprising expressivity in the movement's otherwise relentless forward surge. A more extended example would be the Leggiermente second variation in third movement of Op. 109, delightfully light and completely dry, and not at all crisply staccato nor lightly pedaled (the more typical approaches).

But my reservations with Rosen's performance go hand in hand with the virtues of his pianistic style. Rosen's playing is like a mountain stream: on the one hand, it has clarity, it is refreshing, it even shows brilliance and sparkle. But it can also be unpleasantly cold, and even uninviting. Must Beethoven be played so completely without emotional warmth? This became painfully obvious during the third movement of the Sonata in A-flat major (no. 31, op. 110), which relies on a stylistic alternation between the emotionality of the operatic aria and the cerebrality of the fugue. Although the aria is marked "adagio ma non troppo" (slowly, but not too much), it appeared that Rosen elevated the admonition over the tempo — and surely no self-respecting singer would have used so dry-eyed a pace, so metronomic a delivery, when given so heart-rending a melody (which, after all, Beethoven marked "Klagender Gesang" or "song of lament"). And I would further argue that the strangely unemotional performance of the Klagender Gesang actually weakened the effect of the ensuing fugue, since the jarring shift from emotion to intellect is no longer present.

This lack of sentiment likewise made for a curiously unbalanced traversal of Beethoven's final Sonata in C minor (no. 32, op. 111). While the first movement — Rosen's best performance of the afternoon — displayed real passion and fire, the meditative, inward-gazing second movement tended to sound flat, and even mechanical. Completely missing was the playful grace of the second variation, the ebullience of the third variation (that's the one that sounds like proto-Scott Joplin), and — saddest of all — the Elysian serenity of the coda. So rarely does music convey such a perfect intimation of the Heavenly. In Rosen's hands, unfortunately, one is left in the upper reaches of Purgatory.

Two bagatelles from Beethoven's Op. 119 appeared as Rosen's well-crafted encores: no. 10, so breathless that it's over in less than 10 seconds, and the lovely no. 11, which makes a virtue of melodic artlessness. They provided a welcome epilogue that assuaged some of the disappointments in the preceding Sonata.

(Renato Rodolfo-Sioson has a Master's degree in musicology from the University of California, Berkeley. He also received the Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music in piano performance while studying in India and occasionally appears as an accompanist and chamber musician throughout the Bay Area.)

©2005 Renato Rodolfo-Sioson, all rights reserved