In the 2019-2020 season, Symphony Center Presents is marking Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday with, among things, performances of all 32 of that composer’s piano sonatas. That cycle continued on Wednesday night with celebrated Beethoven interpreter and Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder playing the first of two concerts. It started with three earlier works but ended with a titan from the middle period, a sonata that ranks among Beethoven’s greatest creations. This performance was enjoyable, but there were problems toward the end.
Along with symphonies and string quartets, Beethoven wrote piano sonatas during all three phases of his composing career. They document the progression of his music, starting with the classical forms he inherited from Haydn and Mozart. By the middle period, early experiments had morphed into expanded sonata forms and broader musical dimensions that allowed previously unheard levels of feeling and emotion. In the late period his music went even further into uncharted territory. By that time, the old classical forms had become practically unrecognizable, and he had revived several archaic forms and traditions.
Buchbinder opened with the first piano sonata Beethoven published, Sonata no. 1 in f-minor, Op. 2 no. 1. Beethoven dedicated the three Op. 2 sonatas, all four-movement works, to his erstwhile teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn. Although this one adheres closely to the classical style Beethoven inherited, the opening movement and finale point to the direction Beethoven’s music would be taking in mood, passion, and techniques, such as using octave tremolos and rapid in-fills in the left hand accompaniment. The finale also experiments with a hybrid between a sonata form and a more traditional rondo.
The performance was overall charming. Buchbinder gave the opening Allegro a playful touch, softening the feel of this minor key movement—at least at first. He quickly worked up the appropriate intensity as the movement wore on. His approach to the finale was similarly tactful in his renditions of the opening chords, where Beethoven switched back and forth between soft and loud. The phrasing of the secondary theme formed by descending octaves was especially nice.
Beethoven’s Sonata no 3 in C-major, Op. 2 no. 3 is the most ambitious of Beethoven’s first three sonatas in terms of breadth, vision, and harmonics. It is a vibrant, action-filled work and goes into unusual key structures, such as the distant E-major in the dreamy slow movement. The opening Allegro con brio is an early example of his composing technique of patching together snippets of musical episodes to form longer movements that move beyond the traditional two-themed approach. Buchbinder provided the energy and drive, starting with a fluttering set of thirds and applying the appropriately varying touch to unexpected building blocks that followed.
Buchbinder showed great contrast in the slow Adagio second movement, when the dreamy opening is abruptly interrupted by loud octaves in the left hand. The third movement is a fun-filled Scherzo that bears little resemblance to the minuets of Haydn and Mozart quickly became Beethoven’s hallmark, and finale continues the drive. By the end of the performance, Buchbinder’s variety in touch and careful attention to phrasing had brought out everything Beethoven was seeking. Occasional missed notes in the Scherzo and finale? No problem.
After intermission, Buchbinder took up one of the easier works Beethoven wrote, Sonata no. 20 in G-major, Op. 49 no.2 It is always interesting to hear a master tackle a less challenging work, and Buchbinder gave this two-movement work a nice, careful performance. His slower, restrained and measured approach to the Tempo di menuetto finale was particularly noteworthy.
The final work on the program is one of a handful of works that herald Beethoven’s middle period and represent a complete break from the classical past of Haydn and Mozart. Sonata no. 23 in f-minor, Op. 57, has gone down in history as Appassionata, a name it rightly deserves because it plumbs previously unheard of depths of feeling and emotion. Until he composed the Hammerklavier sonata 15 years later, Beethoven himself considered this three-movement sonata to be his best. It easily fits on the list of his greatest of all compositions.
Excellent performances result in an aural canvas of mind numbing intensity. Unfortunately, this was not an excellent performance. Buchbinder takes a faster approach to the opening Allegro assai, which can work with clean and precise phrasing, but that was not always present Wednesday night. It seemed very rushed, and, unlike earlier in the evening, missed notes were blatant and more frequent. Nor did he allow feelings to sink in with subtle tempo variations that one often hears in middle Beethoven. That said, there were several excellent moments, such as the perfectly delivered run from the top of the keyboard to the bottom that preceded a rolling passage in the recap.
The middle movement Andante con moto—is a lovely set of variations that serves to lessen the tension. Buchbinder handled it very nicely, especially the end: a partly arpeggiated chord that leads to several, repeated chords in a dotted rhythm that ominously toll the finale. This Allegro ma non troppo is centered on a dark, flowing melody formed by rapidly running notes overlaid with other melodies.
Suspense is heightened by another Beethoven innovation. Prior to his Moonlight sonata, the first part of a sonata movement is always repeated. Sometimes the second half is too, even though modern performances often skip the second half repeat, as Buchbinder did earlier in the evening in the finale of Op. 1 no. 1. In the Appassionata finale, Beethoven shuns the repeat of the first part, but calls for the repeat second, which creates a whole new vibe. Any performance must honor this repeat, and Buchbinder’s did. He was generally better here than in the first movement, but a lack of precision and iffy dynamics occasionally marred things.
After a rousing ovation, Buchbinder offered a nice rendition of the finale of another of Beethoven’s more popular sonatas: Pathetique sonata in c-minor, Op. 13.
Rudolf Buchbinder continues the Symphony Center Presents’ celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday this Sunday in a program of earlier works. As this reviewer has noted previously, some of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas can be rather mundane, but mixed in are rarely performed gems that are worthy of much greater attention. Sunday’s concert features two of these: Sonata no 5 in c-minor, op. 10 no. 1, and Sonata no 6 in F-major, op. 10 no. 2. The other works are also interesting, Sonata no. 7 in D-major, Op. 10 no. 3 and Sonata no. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31 no. 3. Sunday, November 10, Symphony Center, 3:00 pm. For ticket information, click here.