EPTA - Spring 2009 - Written by Malcolm Troup
A Promethean journey to the authentic heart of Beethoven.
Beethoven was a composer born on the cusp of change: ancien regime into revolution; classicicism into Romanticism: fortepiano into pianoforte; salon into concert hall. As a result, the interpretation of his music cannot help but be influenced by which side of the Great Divide we take our stand while the difference between classical/Romantic boils down to articulation versus seamless flow. That the latter still finds favour in our ears testifies to how recently its monopoly has been abrogated — mainly through the cult of authenticity's rediscovery of articulation — but both approaches have arguments intheir favour and both have produced outstanding exponents. One such is the DVD before us today. Over the last few years, Jerome Rose has produced a stream of superlative recordings of Chopin, Liszt and Brahms worthy to stand both as a Summa of the 20th/21st centuries' understanding of these composers and as the personal monument of a great pianist eager to leave his mark on his age if only as grooves in a diskette. Only now he has penetrated to the inner core of the pianist's gospel - the so-called New Testament of Beethoven's 32 Sonatas -to voice his valediction through the sounds of Beethoven's own prolonged farewell to the piano. Now his playing has become polished like granite, with a smooth surface gainsaying the toughness beneath. This is vintage Beethoven which has been kept bottled up and aged for a lifetime as if to be drunk deep for one last time.
Unlike its next in line Opus 106, which waged war against the puny limits of the Stein piano, Opus 101 is comfortable within its notation (except for its curious crescendo on a chord) and its modest demands on the instrument - that is, until the split-second dotted rhythm of the march summons Rose's fingers to the parade-ground. But on the way thence each phrase is lovingly rounded, unhurried like the exhalation of a lingeringly long breath which makes us unheedful of the odd fermata. How confident is the spirit of this music with each upbeat or phrase-shape inflected upwards until the movement itself disappears skywards to land on its first perfect cadence. But when it does come, Rose in a master-stroke and by musical means alone makes us realize that the whole movement is but a perfect cadence - dominant to tonic! No need to read Schenker when Rose is in command - all these niceties of construction are painlessly revealed to us in his actual playing. Textures are made to order for Rose's artistry at making each note sing its own song in this gloriously homophonic tapestry of lines into chords! Sometimes, thanks to the counterpoint of the DVD cameras, we have the added thrill of following the uncanny independence of Rose's fingers from three different angles at once. The same upward-striving tendency is evident in the second and third movements as well but for the wonderful Db major section of the march which seems to anticipate late Beethoven in wishing to strip music down to pure vibration.
The genius of Jerome Rose lies in putting into execution what Bettina von Arnim was reported to have told Goethe: that Beethoven truly believed that music mediates between the spiritual and the sensuous, as in the first movement of Op.101, where its outpouring of pure melody on the dominant makes us forget all else. For all that the slow movement could be interpreted as a lead-in (albeit with built-in flashback) to the onslaught of the fugue, Rose prefers to let time stand still as he lovingly traces its Baroque arabesques before turning his unfaltering fingers loose on the wide leaps and rhythmic volatility of the Finale. Rose is never to be deterred in his search for the Idea behind the passing show, whether in terms of ethos, structure, Ursatz or other unifying principle of construction to which, as Busoni said in his Essence of Music "the virtuosity of the true Beethoven player must remain subservient".
It was Beethoven who introduced the principle that every work had to be a new creation - a principle still honoured by Boulez today. Nowhere is this more true than in the monumental distinctiveness of the last three sonatas and Rose finds with uncanny certitude within himself the irreplaceable key to each. His insouciant ripple of alternating pairs of semiquavers at the outset of Op. 109 seems to have been set in motion even before they reach our ears, until of a sudden they collide with the Adagio interjection which Rose treats like the grand improvisation it so patently is - until the two polarities find a kind of grudging interlock toward the end. The Prestissimo — a paean to contrary motion - then breaks in as peremptorily as did the March in Op. 101 only to be exorcised by the sort of hymnlike tune which Haydn brought back with him from Protestant England and which Beethoven intones with diatonic piety. From the return of the theme in Variation Six, we have the sort of long-term build-up of which Rose is an acknowledged pastmaster : first the trill heralded by crotchets on B, then in quavers until a trill proper begins in semiquavers leading into demisemiquavers before it dives to a low bass trill on the dominant while the semiquavers turn into broken chordal figuration in the treble with the trill travelling hither and yon until the second part of the tune is pinpointed in syncopation against it in the treble as it descends over two octaves to permit the movement to finish as it began.
However songful Opus 110 appears to be at first hearing, its building blocks are of the simplest - conjunct-motion ascending and descending scales - to bind together the entire work. And again, as in Op.101, a fugue is used to restore objectivity after the emotional outpouring of the Adagio which in Rose's hands becomes a deeply moving experience. After his spine-chilling descent into the underworld in crushing G major chords we ascend with him to the cool line-drawing of the now inverted fugue. Out of a blanket of augmentation and diminution, the fugal theme bursts forth triumphantly exchanging polyphony for homophony as if to remind us, over an Alberti-style bass, how its melodic profile has dominated so much of the previous action of the Sonata before Rose's virtuoso keyboard-wide volley of arpeggios sends it packing. Unlike so many Beethoven interpretations where, as Barfield puts it: "performances often fail because the mind of the pianist is in opposition to his technique", Jerome Rose never takes the easy option nor allows his fingers to slip into traditional ruts without re-examining everything. Listening to Rose is like confirming in music what science has already taught us about the area of the brain set aside for the fine control of the hand because all roads, of which each of Rose's fingers counts as one, lead irrevocably to a brain which, having been steeped in Beethoven for a lifetime, is now "more Beethoven than Beethoven's".
Trills are late Beethoven's great new time-binding discovery which do for single notes on the piano what the violas and French horns did for the prolongation of the classical orchestral sound, overcoming the decay-rate of single notes to quicken them into a metaphor for lingering string or vocal sound. In the Arietta of Op.111, the faultless coordination of a Jerome Rose is essential to keep this imaginary soundscape ringing in our ears until it finishes as a veritable triple prayer-wheel of trills. Sometimes one feels Beethoven to be playing mind-games with his interpreters and listeners as to which of them can suspend self-consciousness and self-doubt the longest over such rarefied reaches while, on the other hand, glorying in the sheer unchained physicality of the first movement. Throughout it all Rose remains a brooding imperturbable presence while his fingers dart off to every nook and cranny of the keyboard to search out whatever treasure Beethoven may have hidden there. That is why Arrau always used to insist on retaining the original lay-out of the hands on the staves, if not of Beethoven's fingering itself, in recognition that the sheer strain of reaching the passage in question (what Stockhausen used to call action-time) is as much a part of the intended effect as any mere expression marks. After such trills, both Opp.109 and 111 unwind in the same way with the same kind of melody-sparklers piercing the closing sound-curtain of our consciousness.
The fact that the supreme climax in both these sonatas comes in the form of variations - seeking identity under a multiplicity of disguises — is but another clue to Beethoven's inveterate quest for unity, as argued so overwhelmingly by Rose, whether in monothematicism and cyclic forms in Op. 110 or in his recourse to fugue in Opp.101, 109 (variations), 110 (last movement) and Op.111 (development). In Lafontaine's fable, Beethoven has turned from being the hare condemned to know many things cursorily to the hedgehog who knows one thing through and through - as Rose makes clear to us in the course of this Promethean journey to the authentic heart of Beethoven.