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What is that mission? Quite simply to restore the festive in the term festival and to make audiences feel that they need not fear the great music of the past. Even better – given that performers engage audience members and talk about the pieces being played – it is to let listeners know, if they didn't already, that geniuses like Beethoven and Bach were subject to the same concerns about health, money, life, and death that we are.
The final concert in this year's series took place at Hopper Piano Company and featured a speaker as well as a pianist. Introducing the music from a historical, psychological, and biographical perspective was pianist, lecturer, author, and broadcaster David Dubal.
Dubal taught at both the Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music and has hosted programs on WQXR radio, perhaps the premiere classical radio station in the US. The guest pianist was Michael Bulychev-Okser, a Russian-trained artist and well-traveled soloist.
The program was titled "Beethoven, and Why the Piano Matters." As for Beethoven, listeners were treated to three sonatas from different stages of the composer's development. The familiar Pathétique, Op. 13, came first; followed by the hideously misnamed (more on that later) Moonlight, Op. 27, No. 2; and concluding with the Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101.
Dubal spoke first; using only a few notes and quoting from one of his books, he gave a rambling, disjointed, but ultimately informative talk about the importance to Beethoven of Haydn and the wondrous ways in which Haydn's greatest gift, the sonata allegro form, was adopted, perfected, and exploded by his pupil, Beethoven. He also properly reported that nothing in music history up to that time could have prepared listeners for the famously explosive, mournful introduction to the first movement of Op. 13.
Bulychev-Okser's performance of the Pathétique was confident and robust in the outer movements and appropriately tender and nuanced in the unforgettable slow middle movement.
In his remarks before the Moonlight, Dubal reminded his listeners that the composer's use of a slow movement to begin a three-movement sonata was again totally new.
Why the objection to the nickname Moonlight? Well, far from being a tableau of nocturnal serenity (think Debussy's "Clair de lune"), the opening movement is a slowly unfolding nightmare, full of mystery and dread.
Bulychev-Okser clearly understood the challenge before him, and in a loving performance demonstrated how great beauty can be wrought from sorrow. He underscored the playful qualities of the minuet and trio that compose the second movement; and to the furious cascades of broken chords that characterize the finale, he brought passion and virtuosity with no sacrifice of accuracy.
Dubal's truest and most telling comments came as he introduced Op. 101. Of the last five piano sonatas, he said that while in earlier years Beethoven sought to "take fate by the throat," in his final creative period "he goes inside." Those familiar with "late Beethoven" know that those three words refer to the composer's desire to bring new intimacy, spirituality, and introspection to music, which is why the late works are so often described as "transcendent."
Op. 101 is indeed a wonder, opening as it does with a movement, pastoral in nature, that hardly finds a persuasive tonal center until the end. The second movement is a boisterous march, so emphatic and sure of itself that it almost says to the listener, "OK, don't worry about that earlier stuff." And if there lingers any doubt that we have crossed the portal to late Beethoven, it disappears with the slow third movement and the fugal finale that concludes the work. Playfulness abounds in that wonderful fugue, and Bulychev-Okser's warm embrace of it made for a memorable conclusion.
A small point: Nowhere in the course of the evening was there any discussion of "why the piano matters." I may be going out on limb here, but I'd wager that readers of this journal have a pretty good idea.