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Playing Beethoven's piano sonatas changed how I hear them

The NYTimes chief classical critic took on the daunting Opus 110 in college, and now relishes risky recordings.

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Just playing it well isn't enough. You have to take listeners with you to its distant cosmos.

FOR my senior piano recital in college, encouraged by my teacher, I took on an ambitious programme. I opened with an elaborate Haydn sonata and ended by pairing a Chopin nocturne with his teeming Ballade in G minor. I also played the first three of Schoenberg's Five Piano Pieces - intensely complex, atonal works that hooked me.

At the centre of my programme was Beethoven's Sonata No. 31 in A flat (Opus 110), my first attempt at playing one of the composer's visionary late sonatas. I loved Opus 110, which begins with a sublime, rustling first movement and ends with a formidable fugue. The work seemed to me to occupy a wholly other realm: elusive, mystical, beyond style, beyond era. Just playing it well wasn't enough. You had to take listeners with you to its distant cosmos.

Was it rash of me, barely into my 20s, to venture into music considered the province of mature, probing artists? Even Rudolf Serkin, my pianist hero at the time and a magnificent Beethoven player, approached these masterpieces with humility and awe.

Fortunately, my teacher, Donald Currier, a professor at the Yale School of Music, boosted my confidence. Students, he used to say, might as well get started learning these extraordinary works; you'll have the rest of your life to deepen your performances.

The Schoenberg pieces were so hard for me that, by the time I learned them, I had embedded them in my brain. I played them from memory confidently and never dropped a note. But I don't think I ever began Beethoven's fugue without wondering whether I had made it through the contrapuntal thickets.

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But at my recital, I did. Only in the cumbersome middle section of the scherzo-like second movement did I get a little gummed up. Some weeks later, listening with me to a tape recording of the recital a friend had made, my teacher said, "Well, Tony, if you just redid that page in the scherzo, you'd have a fine recording".

Looking back, I can't believe how much I bought into the masterpiece mystique surrounding the Beethoven sonatas.

Today, the word masterpiece itself is problematic. Wasn't the good-humoured Haydn sonata I played a masterpiece? Or Chopin's stormy ballade? (To say nothing of too often overlooked works by composers beyond these white, male totems.) But if "masterpiece" can be meaningless, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, composed between 1795 and 1822, are deservedly touchstones. Hans von Bülow, the first to play all 32 in a series of recitals, likened Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier to the Old Testament and Beethoven's sonatas to the New.

Taking the sonata genre to a new dimension

These works took the sonata genre to a new dimension: multi-movement, episodic and often fitful, yet also ingeniously integrated. The pieces abound in challenges that were unprecedented for their time and remain daunting. So much the better, Beethoven believed. He once told a publisher, "What is difficult is also beautiful and good." He wanted pianists to sweat.

The coronavirus pandemic silenced the burst of many Beethoven performances that had been scheduled this year, the 250th anniversary of his birth. But while live concerts may be few, the sonatas have been well served in the recording studio. Numerous pianists - including Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Maurizio Pollini, Annie Fischer, András Schiff, Richard Goode and, more recently, Paul Lewis - have released distinguished cycles. The best performances bring out not just the structural designs of the sonatas, but also their wildness and fearsome intensity. Whole movements exude wry, sometimes downright silly humour. And yet Beethoven also touches mystical sublimity, as in the final minutes of the last sonata.

In recent years, I've been drawn to performances by younger pianists who cut through the "masterpiece" trappings and dare to make personal statements. The latest is Igor Levit, whose nine-disc survey was released last autumn by Sony Classical. He was only 25 when he recorded the five late sonatas in 2013 for his Sony debut. Over the last few years, he filled in the other 27.

It's an extraordinary achievement. His accounts abound in vitality, clarity and a visceral feeling for drama. In reflective passages, his playing can be raptly restrained and tender, as in the opening movement of Sonata No 28 in A (Opus 101). Below the bittersweet, undulant surface of this music, as Levit reveals, Beethoven compresses an expansive sonata structure into less than 4 and a half minutes.

I'm especially riveted when Levit follows his instincts and takes interpretive risks. In an essay for The Guardian, he wrote of Beethoven as a composer who "lives his freedom and achieves it in ever-new ways".

Bringing the music to acoustical life

But, he concluded: "I never know what 'he' wants and what 'he' means. Still less who 'he' is. At the end of the day, I'm the one who has to bring the music to acoustical life." And he does. His tempos are sometimes very fast, to the consternation of some critics. Yet even when the speed seems breathless, Levit's playing is uncannily clear and alive, with rhythmic bite. So the effect is heady, not heedless, as in the opening movement of Sonata No 4 in E flat, a long early sonata that tends to get overlooked. In Levit's account this movement seems charming, almost Haydn-esque, yet full of heroic swagger and slyness.

If these days I find myself drawn to courageous younger pianists, I will always revere the great elder artists who have played these works with insight and command. Like my beloved Rudolf Serkin.

Serkin, who set the highest standards for himself, said in a 1969 interview that he "never had the courage" to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Then it was announced that, in 1970, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth, Serkin would play all 32 sonatas in a series of programmes at Carnegie Hall. He wound up playing less than half of them in four concerts. I attended all four.

The last took place on Dec 16, Beethoven's birthday. The second half was devoted to the gargantuan, still intimidating Hammerklavier Sonata, which ends with a complex, tangled fugue to end all fugues. This was not a piece Serkin was known for. Currier, my teacher, and I travelled down from Connecticut to hear it.

The performance was majestic and exhilarating. Though I could sense Serkin sweating, as Beethoven would have wanted, he triumphed in the end.

Later that season Serkin came to New Haven to give a recital. I was able to greet him backstage and told him that I had been at Carnegie for his extraordinary Hammerklavier. Looking dead serious, Serkin said, "It took me 50 years". NYTIMES

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