“You will make a big noise in the world.”
Any classical pianist worth their weight in coattails understands that the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven come with an unspoken flexibility. Each recording differs from the last. A specific performer’s rendition of the work will vary from night to night. The opening movements to the “Moonlight” and “Appasionata” sonatas were likely designed to encourage the use of rubato; you don’t need to move far between renditions to notice this. For example, all through high school, I listened to only one recording of the “Pathetique” sonata, as it was all I had. It wasn’t until my second year of college when I met someone else who had another recording of the same sonata. He put the disc in and gave me some headphones. About 20 seconds after he pushed play, I was ready to climb the walls. Given what I was accustomed to, this was like getting stuck behind an elderly motorist on the highway with no room to pass. It was…just…so…slow. I could take no more. I probably went back to my room and listened to the musical equivalent of passing a car that was going 20 mph under the speed limit.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that this was the beauty in Beethoven. Part of functioning as a bridge between the classical and romantic worlds meant a simultaneous act of matching the old masters at their own game while investing a certain amount of trust in the performer. Beethoven had a well documented affinity for improvisation. Once he got over his initial embarrassment of a skill that was considered gauche, he was encouraged to embellish variations on themes into full-blown compositions themselves. Musical historians believed this is how he impressed Mozart. (The legend goes that Mozart was so bored by child prodigies that learned to master his works note-for-note that he almost didn’t give Beethoven a passing glance. This changed when young Beethoven proceeded to improvise on a theme. Mozart told him “You will make a big noise in the world.”) When it came to private lessons, Beethoven was tolerant of technical mistakes. He told his students that a wrong note now and then was okay, but that a lifeless interpretation of a great work was unacceptable.
It turns out that the interpretive license applied to Beethoven’s work stretches further than I thought. The box set Beethoven: The Sonata Legacy finds pianist Rudolf Buchbinder recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas…for the second time. Buchbinder will turn 66 later this year, and he certainly has a lot to show for it beyond just recording. In addition to mastering all of these works, Rudolf Buchbinder has collected a lot of sheet music over the years, and when it comes to Beethoven’s piano work, the differences from edition to edition can be flabbergasting. Alongside what appear to be incorrect notes, various editors have inserted a number interpretive flairs. And since we know that there are few things more subjective than art, Buchbinder found himself looking at many conundrums. His fallback every time was the editions printed by Franz Liszt. Liszt loved Beethoven so much that he couldn’t bear to gussy up the manuscripts with any suggestions, not even the fingerings.
But even with a head full of this stuff at his disposable, Buchbinder put himself in the moment for these sessions. “Great music always demands spontaneity from its interpreters—it is scarcely conceivable that a piece like the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata or the ‘Hammerklavier’ would sound exactly the same in two different performances. This is by no means at odds with the quest for perfection, a search that must underpin every artistic endeavour,” he asserts in Beethoven: The Sonata Legacy‘s liner notes. And as mentioned earlier, this is perfection very much in the spirit of Beethoven. Buchbinder does not splice cuts together or go back to correct bum notes. He defends this decision in the same essay: “The small mistakes that inevitably occur during a live concert are a price I am happy to pay. I am leaving them in the recording, just as I am not disturbed by the few coughs and the slight rustling noises that can be heard in the concert hall during the performance.”
“Haven’t you grown tired of Beethoven?”
A friend of mine used to work in a music store. One day, some uninformed guy walked in asking for a CD that had all of Beethoven’s symphonies on it. And though the layperson understands that this is not physically possible, I’ll still need to quantify this box to people who are only casually acquainted with Beethoven. Thirty-two sonatas are stretched over nine CDs, with 102 tracks clocking in at a little over ten hours. That’s quite a bit of music, even if it had recorded it only once by one performer. Between his two box sets of the same material and the countless concerts featuring these works, you would be forgiven for thinking that Rudolf Buchbinder may be approaching the bottom of the barrel when it comes to keeping Beethoven fresh.
That’s precisely what was on Friedrich Gulda’s mind when he coincidentally met Rudolf Buchbinder at a Four Seasons hotel in Munich. In an essay following Buchbinder’s, author Joachim Kaiser tells the story of Gulda’s burning question for Buchbinder after learning that he was off to give his umpteenth performance of a Beethoven cycle: “Haven’t you grown tired of Beethoven?” Buchbinder answered optimistically, saying that the Beethoven sonatas revealed new attributes to him all the time. Let’s ponder this for a minute; we all love to defend our favorite music/book/film by saying that we discover new things within them time after time. These are works we encounter on our downtime. When appreciating art is a hobby of yours, it is associated with escapism. As amateur musicians, painters or writers, we can afford to not let these beloved treasures seep into our worrisome, professional lives. The moment they do, they threaten to become less fun. And when they are tainted like this, we are reluctant to turn to them as a form of escapism in the future.
Now consider Rudolf Buchbinder. He has been studying the piano for more than 50 years. He snagged an award from a Van Cliburn competition when LBJ was in the oval office. Classical music has been his life longer than most of our readers have been alive. If Beethoven had the ability to spoil the life and career of a concert pianist, it would happened a long time ago. But can you take Rudolf Buchbinder’s word for it? I will argue that you can, because the guy is going on 66 now. He’s been all around the world and has no more reasons to exaggerate his love for Beethoven or the need to defend this music.
And he’s not alone. Franz Liszt, Glenn Gould, Alfred Brendel, Alfred Brendel, and HJ Lim are just a few names in a long list of people who have let their professional careers become swallowed up by Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano works. There is something about this that borders on crazy. Many long-dead composers have left behind an impressive number of piano sonatas that have more than stood the test of time. Bach wrote a ton of them, Haydn taught the art to Mozart, and so on down the line. But what is it about Beethoven’s sonatas that fuels our need to rerecord them year after year and hear them played again and again? It could be that we are still in search of that definitive Beethoven interpretation, that one that can put a stop to all the others.
“I should play with ‘greater freedom’”.
So on the quest goes. The stupefying amount of differing editions of Beethoven’s manuscripts guarantees that we will probably never reach the end of that road. But just as Franz Liszt proved to be an important touchstone for Buchbinder to the older manuscripts of the sonatas, Rudolf Buchbinder will prove to be a great asset to us in the future. As with many of life’s acquired skills, just apply the bike-riding analogy; sure you’re shaky at the start. But once you get the hang of it, it’s second nature. We all admire young lions and prodigies in music, but it’s time to admit to ourselves that the experience of a veteran runs deeper. I’m not just talking about the odometer; I speak of the ability to lose one’s self in a performance and glide.
“It is no accident that Joachim Kaiser told me many years ago that I should play with ‘greater freedom’”, Rudolf Buchbinder admits in his liner notes. Kaiser saw potential inside of Buchbinder’s playing—all it needed was a little bit of strategic unshackling. This kind of freedom can only be obtained through confidence. And when we are discussing a command of confidence over a Beethoven piano sonata, it goes beyond thinking “I won’t mess up”. It’s a deep understanding that comes from years of loving, questioning, and reconciling with the inconsistencies of the material. It’s a willingness to follow Beethoven’s emotion trajectory, from his proud, derivative beginnings to his paranoid and heartbroken melodies that firmly pointed to the next musical era. It’s a long way from the first sonata in F minor to “Hammerklavier”. To take a shortcut around these woods is fiscally responsible but not recommended. The hubcap of a Cadillac cannot behold all of the automobile’s class. If you are on a budget, I’m sad to report that Beethoven: The Sonata Legacy is superb. Even my least favorite sonata, “No. 2 in A major” (written as a corny piece of homage to Haydn) has me reevaluating my own tastes. And so the cycle goes, refreshing itself for the next audience.