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Monday, March 23, 2015

Beethoven’s Starry Sky

Beethoven was impressed enough by Immanuel Kant’s tombstone epigraph – “There are two things which raise man above himself and lead to eternal, ever-increasing admiration: the moral law within me, and the starry sky above me” – to copy it into his own notebooks. And to portray, in his late-in-life works, a vision of the celestial as a response to mundane strivings.

Paul Lewis | Photo by Jack Liebeck
No longer in thrall to a heroic ideal that drove his earlier works, desperate for money, a shambling, ill-dressed figure who was taken for a bum when he strayed from the street, Beethoven answered a publisher’s request for piano sonatas with what would be his final three works in that form, producing a triptych transcended anything that had come before, from his own or anyone else’s pen, sonatas so seemingly abstruse that it took decades for them to win unreserved acceptance.

Paul Lewis played all three in a recital at Schenectady’s Union College on Sunday, March 22. He spoke no words, played no encore, and only reluctantly took an intermission. He relied on the music itself – and the cumulative effect of these pieces – to lead a journey from the very earthly (one of the movements quotes a German folksong that chants, “I’m a slob and so are you”) to a magical realm of multiple trills and twelve-tone leanings, as if Beethoven were trying to leave behind all conventional notions of music.

Beethoven was significantly aware of the great works of his predecessors, and, during his final compositional period, he sought the rich-textured simplicity of Bach’s choral works in forms influenced by Mozart, taking them well beyond those models as he narrowed his musical material at times to a simple interval.

Beethoven changed the weight of his pieces, making the final movement the high point of each (the Ninth Symphony is a large-scale example), and he explored the concept of variations with greater depth than ever before. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are seen as a model for the final movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109, the first of the recital’s three works.

Pianist Glenn Gould, a Goldbergs champion, eventually revisited the piece with a fresh approach to tempo relationships, finding a continuity from section to section. Beethoven clearly was on a similar path with many of the transitions in this sonata, and one of Lewis’s interpretive strengths is his realization of that continuity. The transition in Sonata No. 32's opening Maestoso to the main Allegro is an easy example, but even when there’s no apparent relationship, Lewis chose tempos that at all times made sense enough to seem inevitable, which is needed for the magic of Sonata 30's conclusion to work. It’s nothing more than a Goldbergs-like restatement of the theme on which the last-movement variations are based, but it’s a restatement whose slight changes became profoundly moving. And we’re introduced to a concept of the trill – the rapid alternation between two adjacent notes – that

The Sonata No. 31 seems to be most accessible of the three, perhaps due to the several changes of mood that keep refreshing the ear. But those changes are in the service of Beethoven’s keen sense of development, and Lewis is an intelligent performer who understands the structure and uses it as a painter would use pigmented gesso, informing all the colors of the work. The first movement is laced with seeming fragments, sometimes singing a single-voiced melody atop an operatic accompaniment, sometimes lacing the tune through clusters of sixteenth notes, sometimes showering arpeggios. Not only did it all make more sense than I realized before, but also the sudden burst into the bumptious, folk song-laced scherzo was all the funnier because Lewis didn’t overplay it.

What follows is an odd journey through sickness to health, mirroring Beethoven’s own problems, with fugal passages as the curative, dragging the invalid into a burst of sunshine at the end.

Which is a good place from which to start the trip through Sonata 32. Here a lifetime is packed into two movements, the first with an ominous main theme that eventually leaps to the farthest reaches of the keyboard. It’s a purging, a preparation for the Arietta and variations that have the otherworldly quality Beethoven would further explore in his last few string quartets.

The variations grow faster, more syncopated, and then burst into the stars, welcomed by trills. The sound is unearthly, an affront to the ears, but we’re taken beyond the point where an affront makes any sense. And then ... quiet. If only the audience had been respectful enough to observe the silence Lewis tried to encourage.

It would be easier to describe what Lewis did in terms of what he did wrong, but his playing was technically faultless and interpretively profound. We face our mortality when confronted with these works, and we’re invited to transcend the merely earthly. Music doesn’t get much more powerful.

Beethoven: Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109,
Sonata No. 31 in Ab major, Op. 110,
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111.
Paul Lewis, pianist; Union College Memorial Chapel, March 22

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