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In a recent column in The New Yorker magazine, music critic Alex Ross recalled entering a concert hall as a young man and seeing the word "Beethoven" chiseled (in caps) across the length of the proscenium arch.
Ross was crestfallen. As an insecure, aspiring composer at the time, he felt the letters might as well have spelled "why bother?"
But, as Ross asks later, when did Beethoven become BEETHOVEN?
We all have our favorite starting gates. For pianist Jonathan Biss, it is the Opus 7 piano sonata. For others, maybe it's the middle quartets or the Pathétique sonata. Whatever the case, by the time we get to the last sonatas – Ops. 109, 110, and 111 – we are way beyond capital letters spanning a stage. We have, in the minds and hearts of more than a few, reached the heavens.
Consider some of the musings left by Beethoven scholars over the years regarding the Final Three. "One of the most joyous conclusions in all music," regarding Op. 110, wrote one. "The distillation of a lifetime's experience in music," opined another. Op. 111 has been honored as "a visionary aura that had never been known in music before," and "a continuous striving to the heights, like a silver thread, woven between earth and heaven."
Well! What performer could possibly find intimidation in the challenge of bringing those celestial qualities to a recital hall?
Emphatically not Paul Lewis, who performed the final sonatas in a program for Duke Performances in Baldwin Auditorium. Of all the words one could explore to portray his performances, and they are many, the one that shadows all others is "fearless."
It is a quality shared by the performances of the same works a few years ago at Duke by pianist Till Fellner. In Fellner's case, though, the primary impressions were of elegance and sensitivity. Lewis possesses those qualities as well, but the boldness of his overall conception of the music formed the core of the listener's experience.
Lewis' Op. 109 began briskly, perhaps a shade more briskly than was comfortable for this listener, and Beethoven's instructions of piano (softly) and pianissimo (very softly) got only about halfway there. Otherwise the dynamic contours were spot on; and throughout the night, those looking for missed or smudged notes came away profoundly disappointed.
The following scherzo was the brief romp Beethoven intended it to be. In fact, both the first two movements come and go quickly. It's as if the composer couldn't wait to get us to the soul of the sonata, which is the gorgeous aria and variations that compose the final movement. (In all three of the last sonatas the center of gravity is found in the final movement, in contrast to the composer's early work, in which the first movement reigns.)
It was in this movement that Lewis threw open the doors to passion as well as tenderness, treating the opening aria with touching grace, allowing the 4th variation to engulf listeners in its unforgettable caress, and unleashing torrents of sound in the climactic 6th variation.
Op. 110 provides all the material needed to explain what is meant by "late Beethoven." As is the case with the two sonatas on either side of 110, the musical structures have an improvisational feel, and moments of transcendence and intimacy abound. Unexpected shifts in tonality and tempo can occur within a single measure. These striking effects shocked some in the composer's day, but today seem right as rain.
Details about the performance will be spared; let it be enough to say that this listener has difficulty imagining a finer, more knowing expression of the piece. The work concludes with one of the greatest fugues ever written, and Lewis "got" that the entire piece is really about arriving at those last few measures that give way to the final, triumphant cascade of arpeggios.
For the most committed late-Beethovenians, a performance of Op. 111 is somewhat akin to the taking of a sacrament.
It is not a "grand" sonata, like a few of those in Beethoven's middle maturity, and it has only two movements.
But what movements! Their contrasting moods have been described in psychological terms as defiance/acceptance or resistance/resignation. However they strike you, it is almost impossible not to feel that the first, turbulent movement somehow reflects the pain inflicted by the composer's persistent and progressing deafness, and that the final movement speaks to the peace he found in his resolve to devote his life to his art, fully and completely.
Though the sometimes frightening first movement has moments of exquisite calm and reassurance, Lewis' intent was to make sure we never forgot the anger and torment at its core. One of the most memorable moments of the night, though, was the tender way in which he brought the movement to its peaceful conclusion.
He proceeded without pause to the concluding Arietta movement. It is a set of variations, and like the variations in Op. 109, they give voice to emotions so profound, intimate and sublime that one can only marvel at how Beethoven was able to express them, musically or otherwise. Here Lewis became Beethoven's archangel, performing the first variations with extraordinary sensitivity and leaving no dynamic detail unexplored. When Beethoven poured on the good cheer, in page upon page of dotted rhythm, the pianist responded with a vigor that was truly infectious.
Midpoint in the piece a profound change occurs. Musical clouds seem to form; the aural sky darkens. Chords rumble in the bass. But then the mood just as quickly seems to dissipate and hope appears in the form of high repeated figures in the treble and trills that go on for multiple measures.
This is what so many critics describe as Beethoven's musical depiction of the final passing from mortal life to the beyond. Decades ago Edward Sackville-West described the ending of Op. 111 as "depositing us gently on the edge of eternity."
Whatever one makes of these extra-musical observations, one thing remains clear: Lewis' interpretation was very nearly perfect. The death-defying trills that bring us to that eternal portal were executed seamlessly and with uncanny control. It was a performance of remarkable confidence and commitment.
Nearly perfect? Well, Beethoven wrote some of the most beautiful music the world would ever know, but he was no sentimentalist. He concludes the piece in a lovely succession of C major chords, but the final one – the one that our hearts beg could resound into infinity – he gives only an eighth-note value! Lewis held it for a full whole note value – no big sin of course, but I have to think Beethoven knew what he was doing.
The audience hardly seemed to mind. The pianist was rewarded with a spontaneous cheering, whistling, standing ovation. No doubt the bravos were as much for Beethoven himself as for his champion.
A final personal point. As I made my way up to the balcony with notebook and score tucked under my arm, a man approached with something in his hand and asked, "Should we compare editions?" Mine, Urtext; his, Schnabel.
"What a perfect way to start Easter/Passover weekend," he said, "with the last three Beethoven sonatas."
A religious experience? Yeah, pretty much.