A Beethoven Enigma: Performance Practice and the Piano Sonata, Opus 111

A Beethoven Enigma: Performance Practice and the Piano Sonata, Opus 111

A Beethoven Enigma: Performance Practice and the Piano Sonata, Opus 111

A Beethoven Enigma: Performance Practice and the Piano Sonata, Opus 111

Synopsis

Music is an immediate and transient art which relies upon performance for its transformation from notational symbols into the sonatas we hear. However, because music notation is an inexact language, performers' interpretations of the musical score present a variety of expressive meanings in a work which can illuminate different melodic, harmonic, and formal relationships.A Beethoven Enigma explores the process of performance analysis which reveals a work in its ever-changing form, and discusses three recorded performances of one of the more enigmatic works of the piano repertoire, Beethoven's Sonata in C minor, Opus 111. The contrasting interpretative insights of Brendel, Michelangeli, and Ashkenazy clarify many formal ambiguities, offer solutions to pianistic difficulties, and illustrate how this method for critical listening may serve as a model for the study of other works as they reveal themselves in performance.

Excerpt

It is quite obvious, even to the most casual of listeners, that a work may sound very different depending upon the artist who is performing it. Differences from one performer to the next may be subtle or substantial, and while some interpretations may be similar in some way, each performance is actually a unique phenomenon. We may say, therefore, that a musical composition is not a static creation but one that has as many different realities as there are performances of the work. In fact, the flexibility of the musical art lies essentially in its quality of allowing for several ways to understand the structure of great musical works. Since an artist's performance or interpretation of a work reflects his understanding or "analysis" of the composer's score, listening critically to the performance itself may clarify some of the composition's structural ambiguities and inspire the listener or student to perceive its many interpretive possibilities. This is particularly true of the more enigmatic compositions of the repertoire such as Beethoven's last five piano sonatas, where phrase relationships and harmonic progressions are often ambiguous if we look at the notation alone.

In listening critically to the variety of performances which exists of any work, it is essential to discern what differentiates the interpretations by examining the elements of performance which the re-creative artist has in his control to alter our experience of a musical composition. In music, the composer's notation does provide combinations of pitch, rhythm, texture, and basic form which remain largely unchanged from one performance to the next. Yet, much in the score is only suggestive, permitting some subtle, alternative choices in its realization; notated symbols provide only the outline of what is expected and are inadequate for the more specific demands of expression.

While some performers, no doubt, manipulate the musical material instinctually (or think they do), some of the greatest teachers and performers believe that there are rules of interpretation. Casals thought that there were certain fundamental principles (he called "laws of music") which were elements essential in developing a meaningful in-

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