The enlightened listening blog

A week of Peaks; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.

A good week for music last week. It started off with Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in a luminous performance by the Houston Bach Society under the baton of Albert LeDoux. In such an ideal location (Christ The King Lutheran Church, with its perfect acoustics), the experience was an aesthetic pleasure on top of the spiritually uplifting one which came from the music.

There was always a sense of forward motion, something which has become a signature characteristic of the modern “authentic” Baroque performance style, but the tempi were never rushed, which can be a danger in this style. To take just two examples, the last chorus and the beautiful aria “Erbarme dich” were both taken faster than I have ever heard them, but they both worked perfectly. In both cases the underlying triple time meter was especially apparent, giving the music a refreshing lilting quality which was like a tranquil breeze wafting through the gloom of the text – providing an underlying balm of forgiveness. In the case of the aria I was struck by the lightness of tread in this music, the exquisitely delicate contapuntal lines weaving around the central solo violin melody, and the pulsing beat of the repeated notes in the bass; I was reminded of an episode in my undergraduate years when a fellow-student had, in a quiz, wrongly guessed the opening instrumental measures of this aria to be a Schubert quartet. At the time I found this tremendously risible and preposterous and gulled him about it for years. Last Sunday I quite independantly started thinking how much it reminded me of Schubert! There was a lovely intimacy in these textures which had never been so apparent to me before.

At the tail end of last week, Houston Grand Opera’s witty production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, (or more precisely Wedding of Figaro) provided the tonic I needed after a high intensity week. A different kind of experience from the Bach, of course, and equally uplifting. The text of the Bach is not per se uplifting, but his setting makes it so; likewise, entertaining as the story of Figaro is, the amount of tenderness that Mozart’s music exudes goes way beyond what the words offer. The Countess’ final words to her husband, after he has been caught redhanded misbehaving in the garden, are “I am kinder than you, so I forgive you”, and yet these few measures of music ennoble her into one of the great spirits of the operatic repertoire; infinitely patient and loving. Mozart’s powers of transformation of his material from the silly, commonplace, or even ridiculous, to the sublime, are what makes us keep coming back to his operas.

Meanwhile, during the week, I was tasked to record Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, complete with a spoken illustrated talk, with only a few days to have it all ready for the printer. Nothing like a deadline to get the creative juices working, as someone once said. The Diabellis are considered the highest peak in Beethoven’s piano works. In terms of its length and its variety, as well as its accessibility, it probably does knock the “Hammerklavier” Sonata off top spot, though such value judgements are usually arbitrary. I am performing the work on May 1st in Houston as part of my miniseries “Twin Peaks”, comprising Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Beethoven Diabellis.

I feel especially at home in this music, and it is a joy to rummage so freely in the encyclopaedia of Beethoven’s late style. One of the experiences any performing artist has in returning to a work after years of hiatus, is finding new things in the piece, and having new interpretive insights. I remember when I first performed the work as a graduate student, I listened to a number of recordings, was generally impressed, but influenced especially by the Rudolph Serkin recording. This struck me as just right, just how I wanted to do it. And so I more or less emulated what he did, because I knew it worked for him. It worked for me too, but I always had the feeling that the interpretation was not really my own.

Revisiting the piece, I tried to listen to some recordings (no doubt I made infelicitous choices), and could not stay with them for more than a few minutes each! I already knew there was nothing I wanted to learn from performances which seemed to me either far too timid (or perhaps reverential), or far too self-referential, in which every detail is highlighted or squeezed dry of every mililiter of its expressive value, as if this is the way to get listeners to really notice. I realised to my great satisfaction that I knew exactly how I wanted the piece to go, and I didn’t need to listen to anyone else for ideas anymore; I don’t want to hear the Serkin again; then was then, now is now. Sounds conceited I know, but it is an essential stage a performer must reach before reaching a state of real confidence in a particular piece. I have felt this way about Schubert for many years – I am so easily exasperated by what I hear as a complete “missing of the point” in performances of others, that I tend to avoid them, (with some notable exceptions). No doubt this is because Schubert’s is such a deeply personal style, that any lover/performer of Schubert will want to claim him to some extent as his/her own territory. I certainly feel this, as was delighted to find similar sentiments expressed by Leon Fleisher in his recently published memoir, and whose recording of Schubert’s last sonata I am looking forward to hearing, and trust that I will enjoy.

I mentioned Mozart’s habit of turning everything including the ridiculous into the sublime. This is what Beethoven does in the last of his Diabelli Variations. The “ridiculous” waltz (though I actually believe that it is not only an effective waltz but one cunningly devised to attract Beethoven’s attention) is turned into a sublime minuet in the style of late Mozart, with a coda in the style of Beethoven’s sublime sonata op.111. Beethoven’s initial dismissal of the waltz as a “cobbler’s patch” upon which he was not inclined to waste any of his time, was forgotten. He pays full homage to it here, even to its harmonic progression and sizable chunks of its melody. And of course he is at the same time displaying his alchemical powers to turn anything into gold.

Posted in General posts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

One Response to A week of Peaks; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.

  1. Julio Joseph Crews says:

    Very exquisite and self -revelatory blog, you have a most gifted musical intelligence…..

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