Celebrating Beethoven’s Birthday by Not Playing Beethoven

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Celebrating Beethoven’s Birthday by Not Playing Beethoven

Post by lennygoran » Thu May 21, 2020 8:21 am

Celebrating Beethoven’s Birthday by Not Playing Beethoven

By David Allen

May 20, 2020

The pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has already recorded Beethoven’s sonatas, with striking elegance and poise. His survey of the composer’s concertos with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra will come out in September.

But might it be possible to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year without playing Beethoven?

In a recording to be released by Chandos on June 5, Mr. Bavouzet, 57, instead plays sonatas by Muzio Clementi, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Jan Ladislav Dussek and Joseph Wölfl. These composers were not just Beethoven’s contemporaries, but also knew him personally, competed with him for attention and even published his music.

Don’t be ashamed if you haven’t heard of all of them: They have been in Beethoven’s shadow ever since.

Speaking from his home in Normandy, France, Mr. Bavouzet said that there was value in rediscovering this music — for its own worth, and for what it can teach us about Beethoven. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
ImageBeethoven seems to have plagiarized Jan Ladislav Dussek, above, for the slow movement of his First Piano Concerto.
Beethoven seems to have plagiarized Jan Ladislav Dussek, above, for the slow movement of his First Piano Concerto.Credit...Print Collector/Getty Images

Why should we listen to this music, which some would call insignificant?

I make the analogy with mountains. A Himalaya is not a Himalaya because it’s alone, coming out of the desert. There are thousands of other mountains around it, creating this whole. But we forget all the other mountains; we don’t hear them.

This star system has a perverse aspect to it. I don’t want to make the other composers sound weak in comparison to Beethoven, but I don’t want to make them sound greater. Greater, weaker: These are very simple concepts, and they change over time.

The lesser-known composers have very strong ideas, sometimes more beautiful than others — but, true enough, they sometimes had difficulty putting them all together. Clementi is very Classical and is very strong. Dussek has more problems. Hummel sometimes is too long. Frankly, I have nothing to say against the Wölfl; it’s a pure gem.

How did you come across these pieces?

The Dussek and the Clementi have been in my repertoire for a good 25 years or so. I was especially interested in this Clementi sonata, the A major, and the big G minor, which starts almost like a Beethoven Fifth Symphony in slow motion. I was playing Beethoven’s Opus 101 when I discovered the A major Clementi, and I was amazed at the similarities: the canons, especially in the middle of Beethoven’s second movement and the finale. And they’re in the same key.

The Dussek was a very strange discovery. It was part of the same program 25 years ago, and I totally fell in love with the music. You hear Schumann in the second movement; some passages make you really think of Chopin; there are some arpeggios that make you think of Liszt; if you play very carefully and slowly, you will hear Wagner; and, as a cherry on the cake, you can even find Michel Legrand.

The two others are the great suggestion of the musicologist Marc Vignal. I was digging into small pieces by Czerny, Cramer, Moscheles, Tomasek, Vorisek and many others, but the CD was unbalanced between the two big sonatas and all these little pieces. He found the Hummel and the Wölfl. When I was learning the Hummel sonata, playing it slowly, I said, I know this music, where is it coming from? Of course, it’s Beethoven’s Opus 110. If it’s played fast, you don’t recognize it. It’s exactly the same texture, the same harmonic progression, but Opus 110 is much later.

Clementi published Beethoven’s works; Hummel knew Beethoven well enough to visit him on his deathbed; and Beethoven seems to have plagiarized Dussek for the slow movement of his First Piano Concerto. Why resurrect Wölfl?

I had to ask Marc Vignal three times to repeat the name of Wölfl. Clementi, Hummel, Dussek are names, somehow, we know of; they are not played much, but you know of them. Wölfl totally disappeared. I didn’t read all his pieces, and the little I read was maybe not so superior, but this sonata is absolutely a gem. The charm, the beauty — the slow movement could be written by a 9-year-old Chopin, but the first movement is Mozart at his best.

In 1799, Wölfl and Beethoven competed in a duel of improvisation. Wölfl was probably a more formal composer, so when they had their duel, many people preferred Wölfl, because the way he was going from one idea to another was easier to follow. He didn’t come out of this duel as a complete idiot. That’s something we forget. It’s too easy for us to say that the people who liked Wölfl were stupid, that they didn’t recognize the genius of Beethoven. What I want to demonstrate is the opposite, that other composers than Beethoven had very good reason to be famous.

On the recording you even include a track explicitly illustrating how Beethoven shared a style with his fellow composers.

In the beginning of the 19th century in Vienna, the common language was there. Very specific chromatic scales, in unison or with both hands, were the tool to depict drama or the peak of intensity.

There is this famous rhythm that you find almost everywhere: You find it Haydn, you find it a thousand times in Mozart, you find it in Wölfl, you find it in Ferdinando Paer. Funnily enough, I don’t know any Beethoven pieces using that rhythm.

Has this project, as well as your ongoing survey of the Haydn sonatas, changed how you understand Beethoven?

Definitely my work on the Haydn sonatas. I was recording Haydn and Beethoven in parallel. Working on Haydn helped me tremendously to refine the early Beethoven period. The middle period, that went OK. But when I was recording Volume 3, the last 10 sonatas of Beethoven, I had to stop playing Haydn, because working on small phrases was really not helping me to deal with the extended phrases in Beethoven’s late period, leading to Romanticism.

I don’t think there is any composer, at least to me, that asks the performer to be such a virtuoso, such an architect, and such a poet. You really need to have the three at the highest level, to play Beethoven well. Chopin, you need to be a virtuoso, and you need to be a poet, but you don’t need to be an architect. These three qualities are so changeable in your personal life, as you grow. I don’t think there is any composer where your view of the piece can change so much over time.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/arts ... ouzet.html

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