Peabody pianists play in marathon session of Beethoven sonatas

December 12, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Complete cycles are the current rage.

Witness the public appetite for such theatrical spectacles as "Angels in America" and "The Kentucky Cycle," or for such musical extravaganzas as string quartets playing the six Bartok Quartets in a single evening.

Now for the the ultimate in completeness: Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas in less than 14 hours. Twelve pianists will perform this feat Saturday in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory, starting at 10 a.m. and finishing at close to midnight.

The free concert is particularly tantalizing because the pianists -- several of whom already have won important international competitions -- are students of Leon Fleisher, perhaps the greatest pianist produced in the United States and almost certainly its greatest Beethoven interpreter. Because an injury to his right hand derailed his two-handed performing career in 1965, when Fleisher was 37, these performances by pianists who have studied the sonatas with him may be the closest we will come to a Beethoven cycle from the master.

Thirteen hours of music for one instrument by one composer might cloy some ears -- but if the composer is Beethoven and the instrument is the piano, Fleisher says, that's not likely to happen.

"You look at these 32 sonatas -- and there isn't one that resembles another in either structure or mood," Fleisher says. "They are a chronicle of the interior life of one of the greatest human beings to walk the earth. They are the equivalent of Michelangelo -- or what you will -- in sound."

The piano was Beethoven's means of personal expression his entire life. By 1800, the year of the First Symphony and the first string quartets, he had already written 11 piano sonatas, a wealth of chamber music with piano and the first two piano concertos. But in their variety, humanity and sheer intellectual power, his greatest legacy to the pianist is the sonatas: the biggest body of superb work ever written by a single composer for a single instrument.

Their variety from beginning to end is enormous. The voyage starts with the three opus 2 sonatas in 1796, works that resemble those of Haydn, and it ends in 1822 with the trilogy of opus 109, opus 110 and opus 111 -- three pieces that in their gnomic concision, warmth of heart, intimacy of expression and visionary intensity approach something like biblical prophecy.

But Beethoven's variety is not merely a matter of chronology. Within the three sonatas of opus 31, for example, there is a bewildering number of moods. In its gentle melodiousness, the first sonata is prophetic of Schubert; the third sonata in E-flat has a Mendelssohnian lightness and brilliance; only the second sonata in D Minor (the famous "Tempest") conforms to the popular heroic image of Beethoven -- a tragic masterpiece with a dramatic first movement in which the music's anguished declamations should sound, in the composer's words, "like a voice from a tomb-vault."

In light of the sonatas' current popularity, it's hard to believe that only one of them -- opus 90 in E Minor -- may have received public performance in Beethoven's lifetime. But by the end of the 19th century, many of them -- particularly the ones with nicknames -- were part of almost every pianist's repertory: the "Pathetique," the "Moonlight," the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata." But many of the sonatas languished in obscurity until the great Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) began giving complete cycles in the 1920s and '30s -- first in Berlin and then in London and New York. Schnabel, the principal teacher of Fleisher as well as several other great pianists, was known as "the man who invented Beethoven," and his pioneering performances and recordings made the composer's sonatas part of the repertory.

Complete cycles are scarcely everyday events, but several of today's prominent pianists -- including Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and Richard Goode -- occasionally imitate Schnabel's achievement over the length of an entire season. One pianist, the Hungarian Balint Vazsonyi, even performed all 32 in a single day -- something never done before or since (and that may have been an act of self-immolation because the pianist does not seem to have been heard from since).

"It came as sort of a lightning flash," Fleisher says of the idea of having his students perform the sonatas in a single day. JTC "Everyone I'm teaching this year is awfully good, and I have someone who's playing the opus 106, which is the the key to the whole scheme."

The opus 106 is the notorious "Hammerklavier" -- notorious for its length (at 55 minutes, it's longer than any of the composer's symphonies with the exception of the Ninth), its technical difficulties (it's rivaled, Fleisher says, only by the 24 etudes of Chopin) and its intellectual rigor, which includes a quality of abstraction that not only intimidates pianists but can also put an audience to sleep.

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