On the Seventh Concert

December 11, 2013

The Beethoven Complete Sonatas Concerts have finally reached their climax! This time, I will perform the extremely technically challenging Hammerklavier.

It has been a while since I heard a string quartet concert, but I attended one recently. I was very impressed by the fact that sounds made by four people can be so well balanced and interact so naturally – sometimes in harmony, other times as independent voices.

The piano, meanwhile, requires you to have this interaction by yourself, and since you are alone, exerting control should be easy; this in fact is quite difficult to achieve, not to mention the effort of having to separate individual voices. Particularly when playing a fugue, one has to control everything about the theme – being sung like a choir, overlapping and colliding. But I fell in love with the piano as a child precisely because all these elements could be expressed in so many ways, all at once.

Bach had a huge influence on composers of later generations, and examining the fugues these composers wrote is enjoyable. Contrapuntal motifs often appear in Beethoven’s works, and within his sonatas, there is a fugue in the finale of the Opus 101 which I performed at the second concert. This unfaltering movement, sounding as though the goal has finally been reached, suddenly incorporates a fugue in a minor key. The fugue is complex and displays conflict, as though reflecting back on the struggle to reach this point.

The next time Beethoven uses a fugue is in the final movement of the work I am performing today – the Hammerklavier, Opus 106 (which follows Opus 101). The entire movement is in fact a developing, expansive fugue. The preceding third movement is extremely sorrowful. Following the introduction of the fourth movement, the fugue starts out simply as though searching for something, with gradual variations in which themes interconnect, communicate and develop, but then rapidly become lost in a maze, reaching a dead end with a dominant D-minor chord. There is then a bar of silence, before a gentle chorale begins as though an angel of redemption has appeared.

The feeling one gets from the fugue at the end of this composition, as though representing ‘redemption’, can also be felt in the fugue in Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor No. 1 (written following the illness and death of a friend) or of Franck’s Prélude, Choral et Fugue. Is this indescribable moment of salvation the moment of peace that one feels following death? I never cease to be amazed by the power of music to stir the soul.

I hope you enjoy listening to Beethoven’s late period masterpiece that pushes the piano to its limits alongside the Opus 10-1 sonata, which I haven’t played since I was a teen, as well as the vigorous Opus 22 sonata, which is in the same B-flat major key as the Opus 106.