Beethoven Festival: Jeffrey
Concerts conversing with one another
January 10, 2012
With all nine symphonies,
all 32 piano sonatas, all five cello sonatas, all 10 violin
sonatas and more, more, more sprawling across 34 concerts,
the Beethoven festival initiated by the San Antonio Symphony
may threaten overkill. But it affords opportunities to
deepen as well as broaden our appreciation of that
indispensable composer, at once fully titan and fully human.
The first weekend, Jan. 6-8, fortuitously placed the pianist
Jeffrey Swann, playing three solo sonatas in Ruth Taylor
Recital Hall, between two Camerata San Antonio concerts
which together traversed the sonatas and variations for
cello and piano, in Christ Episcopal Church. Mr. Swann's
recital opened a series of the complete piano sonatas,
divided among seven pianists, sponsored by the San Antonio
International Piano Competition. The excellent Camerata
players were the cellist Kenneth Freudigman and the pianist
Mr. Swann preceded each of the sonatas (No. 1 in F Minor,
No. 13 in E-flat and No. 29 “Hammerklavier” in B-flat) with
extensive remarks about its structure and historical
context. He proved a splendid teacher -- intelligent,
insightful and clear, but not in the least condescending.
Speaking of the
“Hammerklavier,” as audacious and unwieldy a piano work as
has ever been composed, Mr. Swann noted the intense personal
anguish that Beethoven poured into the vast adagio, and then
he observed that the composer did not follow the slow
movement with a triumphal finale, as custom dictated, but
rather with an enormous, utterly crazy fugue -- a form that
might be said to sublimate emotion into intellect, or the
personal into the universal. (Mr. Swann did not put it quite
that way, but I think I’m fairly representing the sense of
The Camerata concert the following afternoon closed with the
Cello Sonata No. 5 in D, composed a few years before the
“Hammerklavier” at the dawn of Beethoven’s late period. Aha!
Here, too, Beethoven followed a disconsolate slow movement
with a fugal finale nearly as nutty as the finale of the
“Hammerklavier.” And the San Antonio Symphony audience will
hear that pattern again this coming weekend when music
director Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the orchestra in
the “Eroica” Symphony, whose second movement begins with a
funeral march and concludes with a fugue, but one that is
far more conservative than the ones that close the
much-later chamber works. Together, these three works coming
in the space of a single week amplify and complement each
other, and deepen our understanding of one aspect of
Mr. Swann shares with some of the most revered pianist of
the past (Cortot, Schnabel) a certain want of technical
reliability. Although the train never quite jumped the
tracks in the absurdly difficult first movement of the
“Hammerklavier,” the boxcars did get rather badly banged up
along the way. But Mr. Swann’s account of the slow movement
was absolutely riveting, the chordings ideally balanced, the
pace superbly controlled, the halting rhythms the very soul
of pain -- as affecting as any performance I’ve heard. He
mined the extremes of the treacherous finale.
The whole program revealed some interesting idiosyncrasies
in Mr. Swann’s playing. He applied considerable tempo
rubato, and he tended to speed up in decorative flourishes.
In the F Minor sonata, passages that came nearest the
classical style of Mozart and Haydn were played with
classical clarity and sense of line, but he let the more
Beethovenian excursions express their rough-and-tumble,
unkempt weirdness. Other pianists have brought greater
refinement and analysis to Beethoven’s sonatas, but Mr.
Swann conveyed a visceral, risky, on-the-edge quality that
is essential to this music.
Mr. Swann is scheduled to return on Feb. 18 to close the
series with the three Opus 10 sonatas and Beethoven's
valedictory to the form, the Opus. 111.
The two Camerata concerts
were especially notable for the inclusion of three sets of
variations, an underexposed genre in Beethoven’s output.
Variation was central to his approach to thematic
development. His many sets of variations, especially those
for solo piano, were in part a laboratory for long-form
works, but some also stand among his best music.
The Camerata concerts interspersed the five cello-and-piano
sonatas with the 12 Variations on Handel’s “Judas
Maccabeus,” the 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen
oder Weibchen” and the Seven Variations on Mozart’s “Bei
Männern, welche Liebe fühlen.” All were
exceptionally well played, stylish and poised.
Mr. Freudigman’s rich, luminous tone, singing line and
pointed rhythms were consistently pleasurable throughout
both concerts. Ms. Roach didn’t solve all the technical
problems in the first allegro of the C Major sonata, Op.
102, No. 1, but elsewhere she played with clarity and
attention to both the classical and anticlassical sides of
Beethoven. The two partners differed somewhat in
disposition -- Mr. Freudigman manifesting greater freedom
and intensity, Ms. Roach taking a more direct approach to