Sala Cecília Meireles, Rio de Janeiro April 16-26, 2015 Beethoven – The 32 Piano Sonatas François-Frédéric Guy, piano Philharmonie de Paris May 18-24, 2015 Schubert Sonatas Daniel Barenboim, piano
I was really lucky to be in Rio and in Paris at the right moment, but not lucky enough to be able to hear all of these recitals. I missed a few of Guy’s in Rio, and only heard one of Barenboim’s in Paris, so this is more of a commentary than a proper review – if any of my scribblings can be considered proper reviews.
Why is a cycle so thrilling? In my opinion, it is one of the most fulfilling exercises in music listening. Composers rarely intended to write the “complete cycle” in the first place. But, in what might be taken as a Sartrian concept , they come into existence after the fact. And they form a phenomenal portrait of the composer as we follow the act of creation throughout his or her life, and as we are able to compare works for similar instruments written by the composer as a young man or woman, and then written after years of experience, reflection and suffering. The time span differs immensely, of course, according to the composer’s longevity. So “years” can mean very few, as in Mozart’s or Schubert’s case, or a little more, as in Beethoven’s or Brahms’s, or even more as with Haydn. In the classical and romantic eras, nevertheless, longevity was not the rule. “Papa” Haydn, after all, only lived to be 77, not that much by today’s standards.
For a cellist, the first cycle that comes to mind is that of the Bach Suites, which are thought to have been written in Cöthen from 1717 to 1723 – probably an actual cycle, intended as such by Bach, as were the Violin Partitas and Sonatas and the 24 Préludes and Fugues. All these compositions, as well as the Art of the Fugue, are didactic, albeit gloriously so. Their teachings do not limit themselves to musical theory and technique, but attain the summit of aesthetic perfection.
Song cycles, such as Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, were also composed as such, putting great poetry to music.
But here I am, after saying that the “cycles” were mostly really not meant as such, only giving examples of “intentional” cycles. So now we should turn to those which were written throughout a composer’s lifetime and which we now listen to as we look at a painter’s retrospective. Such are Haydn’s and Mozart’s and Beethoven’s and Schubert’s and Brahms’s symphonies, concertos, quartets and sonatas, to name only a few, maybe the greatest. And again I stress how fascinating it is to listen to these works in categories, revelatory of the composers’ life history.
All this to say how exciting it was to learn that François-Frédéric Guy would be playing Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in 9 recitals, in Rio de Janeiro’s newly refurbished (and quite beautifully so) Sala Cecilia Meireles, an intimate hall perfectly adapted to chamber music. I knew that I would unfortunately not be able to attend all the recitals, as I was scheduled to leave on a trip before the end, but I am truly grateful to have been able to hear about half.
Guy’s total immersion into the sonatas is very impressive. Not because, as I hated to read in some reviews, it is a musical “marathon”. I loathe the expression and the comparison. As obviously physical and muscular playing an instrument is, it has nothing to do with athletics. I passionately believe that the physical aspect of playing an instrument, and thus the technique, is merely a means to an end, i.e., the unfathomable manner in which music mobilizes our thoughts and emotions. And this is what François-Frédéric Guy’s playing does. Over and above the formidable task of memorizing and playing the 32 sonatas in one long, necessarily interrupted but actually continuous sitting, is the far more complex and subtle one of rendering each sonata within its context, guiding the listener through the evolving meanders of the composer’s mind. In Beethoven’s case, the sonatas were composed from 1795 to 1822. From the age of 25 to that of 57. From the strength and eagerness of youth to the torments of age and deafness. And that is what we hear in Guy’s interpretations. Although I missed the late sonatas, I do have the recording – not a perfect substitute for the adrenaline of live music, but another way of enjoying a performer’s work – with the added pleasure of repetition and scrutiny. Merci, François-Frédéric Guy, for this magnificent achievement.
Barenboim’s Schubert cycle was not a complete one. He chose to play 11 of the 21 sonatas in four recitals. They were played in chronological order within each recital, but not throughout the four concerts. And I could only hear the first of these, which left me wishing I could postpone my flight home. The persona of Barenboim the great conductor and humanist tends to overshadow the earlier one of Barenboim the pianist. How wonderful to be reminded in such an incisive manner of his marvelous instrumental talent. But that is probably a silly thing to say – a great musician is a great musician whatever the vehicle he chooses. Nevertheless, the years of leading some of the greatest orchestras in the world and of being a militant for world peace and understanding could have blunted the edge of his playing. Not so, he is still the sensitive, intelligent, fiery and technically accomplished pianist he was in his youth.
Before I wrap up, a word about the Philharmonie de Paris. Not one of Nouvel’s best accomplishments, to say the least. The location is about the worst they could choose. The building is ugly and looks prematurely aged, as the choice of colors, in many (not quite 50) shades of gray, makes the façade look as if it is discolored by the elements. Inside, the lobby and corridors are ice-cold, but I was told that they are not totally done yet. Still, there is no way they can remedy the hideous metal ceiling arrangement , tons of rusty looking squares hanging over one’s head. The hall itself is also in rather poor taste, with little multicolored wooden squares glued on the walls and boomerang shaped sculptures on the ceiling, and alternating black and off-white velvet seats, a bit too obviously reminiscent of piano keys. But then, the acoustics are glorious, so what is there to complain about?! Just that on a cold and rainy day, only Schubert and Barenboim could make the trip worthwhile. I can’t help wondering what was wrong with the beautiful Salle Pleyel – I guess the Faubourg St. Honoré is too elitist for France’s socialist governement.