Ready or not, here comes Beethoven!
How do pianists know when they're ready to tackle the big ones, Beethoven's 32 Sonatas? The same could be asked about string quartets, for whom Beethoven's works in that medium are equivalently important. I've asked this question of a few pianists and quartets, and though their answers have not been identical, there is a consensus. You know when you're ready, they've basically told me, when you've lived enough, played enough, and experienced enough love, loss, joy and sorrow to begin to understand what these works are about. And if any music qualifies for lifelong learning, it's Beethoven's Sonatas and Quartets.
OK, that's all very philosophical. But what does readiness for Beethoven sound like? To me, it sounds like readiness for any other composer, only more so. I hear it on both the micro and the macro level. On the micro, every note has been thought about. Every phrase has been shaped. Every decision about dynamics (loud or soft), tone color, balance, etc., has been nailed down, not left to chance. Then, all of these micro elements need to cohere into a unified concept — the macro. The performance is not just a string of notes and phrases; it has a viewpoint. It says something new about the piece and about the performer. Finally, going beyond micro and macro, the music sweeps you up in its elusive, indefinable magic, as if not notes, not phrases, but Beethoven himself was speaking to you directly. And there, at least for me, is where the performances succeeds or fails. Either the music "speaks Beethoven," or it sounds like musicians trying to read a soliloquy in a language they don't speak.
It so happens that two very talented young-ish pianists have decided recently that they were ready to explore Beethoven, both having begun recordings of the complete 32 Sonatas. Of the two, Jonathan Biss strikes me as the more ready. The 31-year old American has just released the first CD in his planned nine-year (!) Beethoven cycle (read more in his recent Slate article), and it's a winner. Neither dull nor eccentric, Biss steers a confident middle course through the four sonatas on the CD, calling ten times more attention to the music than to his own presence. But he's there, all right, with a deep, glowing tone and a masterful, subtle way of guiding the music along. This is mature music-making.
Then there's the young (not sure how young) Korean pianist HJ Lim, who has not just started a new Beethoven Sonata cycle — she's done all 32. For her first release. And made it to the top of the Billboard charts (which takes surprisingly few units sold, but still, not bad for a first-timer). Let's leave aside the breathless encomia on her website ("redefines both the musical and physical boundaries of modern pianism") , as well as the novelty value of this splashy, iTunes-only debut. Good for her! Come to think of it, and unless I'm forgetting someone, Lim may be only the second female pianist (after the late Annie Fischer) to record the complete Beethoven Sonatas.
But in the performances we've broadcast (sorry, I haven't made it through all 32 yet), I'm not sure that I'm hearing a pianist ready for prime-time Beethoven. Oh, she can play the music all right. And she has ideas about how the music should go, at least on a phrase-by-phrase level. There's lots of fiddling around with sudden shifts of tempo and dynamics, quirky phrasings and odd accents, not that those are always bad things. But on the macro level, her concepts don't cohere into overall viewpoints, at least for me. And rather than illuminating Beethoven, they call attention to the pianist. Again, new ideas about old music can be a very good thing, if the ideas flow from the music rather than being imposed upon it ; see my recent thoughts about SImone Dinnerstein, another pianist with lots of ideas. For at least one set of ears, HJ LIm doesn't speak fluent Beethoven, at least not yet (and no, this has nothing to do with her Asian origin). But your ears may disagree, which is why we're playing Lim's performance of Beethoven's 18th Sonata this morning, and others in the days to come on WFCR. Let me know what you hear.