Beethoven (1)

Musical enthusiasms can change over the years. Beethoven has always been at the centre of my appreciation of classical music; his personal story of struggle and victory over temperamental angst and deafness, all part of the impression his music makes on me. But as I have got older, whilst still appreciating his genius, I now find an aggression implicit in his work that makes it difficult for me to warm to the music. There is an in-the -face remorseless, humourless attack in some of his music; so much so for me that I feel I need to steel myself against it rather than to surrender to it . His brilliance is not in doubt (if it was, who am I to question it anyway!). But if music ‘speaks’ to one, here is an insistent voice that I now find less overwhelming than I once did.

However I have been re-playing my CD’s of Beethoven’s thirty two piano sonatas in the recordings by Paul Lewis on the Harmonia Mundi label, and perhaps need to revise my opinion and withdraw my confession.

I am amazed at the sheer inventiveness of the composer. Before the onset of his deafness and his abandonment from the concert platform, he was renowned in his own day as a brilliant improviser and virtuoso pianist and the proof of that is in the music. One has the feeling of an exciting journey in which he communicates with himself and with the listener.

There is this constant sense of dialogue, the keyboard straining to become what can only perfectly be experienced in an orchestral score. To the untrained ear such as mine, the unexpected keeps on happening – ‘where is he going next?’ one asks and invariably it’s not where you might expect. Despite my reservations above, Beethoven ‘talks’ to you in his sonatas, demands close attention, but leaves you refreshed and wanting more. (There’s plenty more – I am only at No. 8!). Its very busy music and I enjoy the adagios and menuettos that balance the vigorous allegros which are so characteristic of the more restless movements.

Something again to do with my age perhaps – I like quiet music more than I once did! I will write on this again when I have come to the end of this particular pilgrimage.

Meanwhile I have the advantage of listening to a master pianist for whom fidelity to the score matters more than personal display. I wrote about hearing Paul Lewis perform in April of 2008.