By Dana Wen
Some consider Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas for piano to be the “New Testament” of piano literature. (The “Old Testament” is the forty-eight Preludes & Fugues of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). When viewed as a whole, the sonatas serve as a microcosm of Beethoven’s life, containing some of his finest musical ideas and enabling us to trace his development as a composer. These pieces play a role of biblical proportions in the world of piano repertoire and serve as one of the cornerstones of Western classical music. It’s no wonder these works have been so widely studied and discussed. Recently, the lecture-recital has become a popular method for pianists to share their ideas about the Beethoven piano sonatas. In the past few years, several notable and high-profile pianists have presented lecture-recitals on these works. In 2006, Andras Schiff gave an outstanding series of lectures on the entire cycle of Beethoven sonatas. Although the great Alfred Brendel retired from concert performance in 2008, he toured the United States last year to present his lecture-recital on musical character in the Beethoven sonatas.
While studying at the University of Washington, local pianist Dainius Vaicekonis made his own contribution to the world of Beethoven scholarship with his 2004 dissertation, “Forest for the Trees”: Beethoven Piano Sonatas as Integrated Cycles. This work has recently been re-published as a monograph. On Sunday afternoon, Vaicekonis returned to his alma mater to present a lecture-recital on the relationships between the sonatas, the focus of his dissertation. The first half of his presentation consisted of an hour-long lecture, while the second half was devoted to a back-to-back performance of the three Op. 31 sonatas. The UW School of Music’s Brechemin Auditorium was surprisingly full for this afternoon performance, especially given the pleasant weather and profusion of cherry blossoms in the UW quad outside.
Many lecture-recitals on the Beethoven sonatas tend to focus on meaning of each piece as an individual, discrete entity. In contrast, Vaicekonis’ lecture discussed the connections between the sonatas, especially those cataloged under a single opus number. Beethoven’s Op. 31 is an example of three sonatas that share an opus number. These three works are referred to as Op. 31 #1, #2, and #3. Vaicekonis explained that Beethoven exercised great care in cataloging his compositions. By grouping the three sonatas of Op. 31 in a single opus number, Beethoven intended them to be “related like siblings”. There are three such “trilogy sets” among Beethoven’s thirty-two sonatas: Op. 2, Op. 10, and Op. 31. Vaicekonis spoke at great length about the relationships between “sibling sonatas” and presented many examples of similarities and connections between sonatas of a single set. Many performers will play one or two sonatas from a set during a recital, but rarely is an entire trilogy set performed as an entity. Vaicekonis’ research may change that.
Although Vaicekonis’ ideas were fascinating, his lecture was definitely geared towards musicians and scholars who are familiar with Beethoven’s life and works. Despite many illuminating points about the composer and his music, I found the lecture a bit dry. Vaicekonis read verbatim from his notes for the majority of the talk, rarely looking up to engage the audience. The most compelling moments of the lecture occurred when Vaicekonis stepped away from the lectern to illustrate points on the piano. My favorite example was his explanation of motivic similarities between the openings of the three Op. 31 sonatas. As he played the opening of Op. 31 #1, I found myself skeptical, wondering how he was going to relate the other two sonatas to this very distinct opening tune. But sure enough, Vaicekonis pointed out a similar pattern of downward melodic motion in the opening phrases of Op. 31 #2 and #3. This simple musical example made the ideas of the lecture come alive. I wish Vaicekonis had included more such examples in his presentation.
Brechemin Auditorium seats an audience of two hundred, but at times the hall can feel intimate and cozy. Over the course of the lecture, the room became increasingly warm and stuffy, and the audience became more and more restless. The arrival of numerous latecomers, coupled with a large amount of rustling and whispering, made it hard to hear Vaicekonis, who spoke without the aid of a microphone. After the short intermission that followed the lecture, the audience seemed ready to get down to business and hear some Beethoven. As if by magic, the restlessness that plagued the auditorium disappeared completely during Vaicekonis’ performance.
Controlling sound in Brechemin can be tricky for performers, especially pianists. The shallow depth and fan-shaped layout of the hall suggests that the space was designed primarily for lectures instead of performances. The small stage is dominated by an enormous Steinway concert grand that is often overpowering and difficult to control in the relatively tiny room. A sensitive performer, Vaicekonis seemed to struggle to adjust to the constraints of the instrument and auditorium during the first sonata, Op. 31 #1. At times, especially in the first movement, I thought his touch was far too light and uniform for the dramatic changes of volume and tone that pervade Beethoven’s writing.
However, this issue gradually disappeared as the concert went on. As Vaicekonis became more comfortable with the piano and the space, his touch and tone quality improved. The stormy first movement of Op. 31 #2 lends itself well to the sonata’s nickname, “Tempest”. (However, the source of this nickname is attributed to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest). By this point, Vaicekonis had adjusted to the Brechemin Steinway and was able to bring out the contrast between the powerful tones of the raging storm and the uncertain calm during periods of lull. The incessant repeated arpeggios that dominate third movement of the “Tempest” sonata suggest a feeling of desperate yearning. Although I would have preferred more unrestrained emotion during this part of the piece, Vaicekonis’ more understated interpretation was still intense and convincing.
After a short bow and step offstage, Vaicekonis returned for the third sonata of the set, Op. 31 #3, nicknamed “The Hunt”. This performance was my favorite of the three. Here, Vaicekonis’ playing seemed to become freer and more outwardly expressive. A sense of playfulness pervaded the performance, from charm of the first movement to the rollicking fourth movement. The jovial nature of the third movement, with its quirky hopping chords, was a particular favorite of mine.
From the start of the concert, Vaicekonis revealed himself to be a both a playful and thoughtful performer, keenly aware of Beethoven’s dry sense of wit and humor. Many pianists fall into the trap of playing Beethoven too seriously, especially when performing the composer’s earlier works. It must be remembered that Beethoven studied with Haydn, one of the masters of musical humor. During his lecture, Vaicekonis pointed out that Beethoven did not intend the sonatas of Op. 31 to be epic, “revolutionary” works. Although the “Tempest” sonata is chock-full of drama and intense emotion, all three sonatas in the set contain light-hearted moments of genuine comedy. Vaicekonis’ comedic timing and interpretation of Beethoven’s humor were impeccable. Sudden mood changes were perfectly executed, adding a subtle element of surprise to the performance. Short phrases separated by rests were punctuated by very slight comedic pauses, eliciting grins and soft chuckles from the audience.
The experience of hearing the three Op. 31 sonatas performed without breaks was illuminating. True to Vaicekonis’ words, the pieces flowed together as a single “meta-work”, enabling the listener to pick up on the many similarities between the three sonatas. Though performing all three sonatas in a Beethoven trilogy will probably not become a commonplace practice for piano recitals, Vaicekonis’ lecture and performance made a compelling argument for programming these trilogies more often.