ENDNOTES, January 2020

An oversized bust of Beethoven on the rear of the former piano shop and warehouse

Endnotes, January 2020

In this edition; Biss plays Beethoven and the BBC Philharmonic performs British tone poems, reviewed by Stuart Millson

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. Already, orchestras and ensembles across the world are planning commemorations – and here at home, BBC Radio 3 is devoting dozens of hours of broadcasting time to Germany’s great composer. How fitting, therefore, that we begin 2020 with an appreciation of a recently-issued CD, on the Orchid Classics label, of Beethoven piano sonatas, performed by the world-renowned soloist, teacher and academic, Jonathan Biss. Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, Biss plays three sonatas: No. 7 in D major, Op. 10; No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31; and Beethoven’s last foray into this particular genre, the Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 – dating from 1822.

With so many interpreters of the highest calibre scaling the heights of the Beethoven sonata repertoire (Barenboim, Brendel, Bavouzet et al) it is perhaps hard to make a case for yet another cycle. Yet somehow, Jonathan Biss brings a liquid, lyrical, lightness to the concert platform – especially in the truly delightful scherzo and menuetto movements of Sonata No. 18. The menuetto (with the additional markings, moderato e grazioso) typifies Beethoven’s ability to combine the pathos of a gentle little monologue, with a seriousness and nobility – ensuring that his music always rises above simple, pleasing emotion or tone-painting for the sake of effect. The opening movement of the sonata, too – an allegro – surprises the listener for its un-allegro-like feel. This movement’s animation comes in the form, not of a rush (as in the last part of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata, for example – Beethoven’s most famous solo piano work) but as lightly-flowing as a bubbling brook – the sort of happy, “awakening”, country spirit which infuses the Sixth Symphony, the infinitely cool and beautiful ‘Pastoral’.

The more portentous Beethoven – the sort of music which fits the stormy image of the composer, as encountered in his portraits or accounts of his manner and ways – occurs in the 32nd piano sonata, or at least in the opening of this work. The second movement – Arietta: Adagio molto semplice and cantabile – is the “tormented genius” at his most sublime – at least, to begin with, as a moment of unexpected jauntiness is to come. As Jonathan Biss writes, in the fascinating CD booklet notes:

“Op. 111 is the end – the end of Beethoven’s journey with the piano sonata, his last word on the genre he upended and in which he was most prolific – and therefore – one of the strangest and most remarkable things about it is its inability to end. Its theme has an open-ended, inconclusive quality, which always makes the next variation, and the next, and the next – each more restless than the one before – seem inevitable.”

Next, from Chandos Records and the BBC Philharmonic comes a second volume of British tone-poems, conducted by Rumon Gamba – one of the growing number of contemporary conductors not afraid to explore the back paths and marginalia of our native musical tradition. Opening their full-bodied recording of no fewer than eight tone-poems is the breezy April-England, by John Foulds – a 1920s and ‘30s composer who was very much an experimentalist; eventually migrating to India in search of a musical synthesis of East and West. Here, though, his feet are firmly planted on home soil, as spring breezes and dances ripple through eight gloriously-woven minutes of dazzling orchestral colour. In this work, it is as if Frank Bridge has met Percy Grainger: Bridge’s meditative, yet climactic Enter Spring colliding with Shepherd’s Hey or Mock Morris.

However, the work which stands out for this reviewer is Kinder Scout – ‘a sketch for orchestra’ by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973); a seven-minute glimpse of the Peak District landscape – rocky ridges and a sense of distance – the orchestra conjuring long views, with an almost disturbing sense of dark clouds moving across the remote region. Hadley does for the North Country what Vaughan Williams achieved for East Anglia in his Norfolk Rhapsodies, although with Hadley, folk idioms are never used. Instead, the work could be described as a miniature, an impression – but one that suddenly fans out into a much more considerable work.

The album features other “lost” but nonetheless fascinating figures from English music: the Mancunian Eric Fogg (1903-39) – his composition, Merok, of 1929, describing the Norwegian fjords; and Dorothy Howell’s Lamia, written in 1918 and championed by Sir Henry Wood as one of the most promising new British composers of his time. One could not wish for a better recording of the English romantic repertoire, with playing of outstanding quality from one of Britain’s great, innovative broadcasting orchestras.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review.

CD details: Beethoven, Piano Sonatas Nos. 7, 18 and 32. Orchid Classics, 100109
British tone poems, BBC Philharmonic conducted by Rumon Gamba, Chandos, 10981

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