Distinguished Artists’ Beethoven

By Roger Emanuels

DISTINGUISHED ARTISTS concluded their four-concert Beethoven sonata celebration with two fine concerts on December 8 and 9. Presenting online concerts is the current “normal” for performing artists, and this project has excelled at creating quality presentations of some of the great pianists of our time.

Based in Philadelphia and performing from a small studio, Jonathan Biss offered sonatas Nos 8 “Pathetique”, 27 and 32, works that span much of Beethoven’s compositional life. Pianists love the challenge of performing all 32 sonatas by the composer who steered the musical world toward the flowering of the romantic movement. Biss has recorded the complete set and has performed on numerous all-Beethoven recitals, and he had embarked on an ambitious 50-concert tour of the world, cut short by the pandemic. Speaking comfortably before each piece, he was convincing in his passion for the treasures to be mined in the 32 sonatas.

Jonathan Biss infused the C minor “Pathetique” sonata with Beethoven’s youthful propulsive energy. He achieved a balance of voices in the expressive slow movement, always directing the listener to the tune. In Sonata No 27 in E minor he played with clarity in the first movement and emphasized jazzy elements in the concluding second movement. As in many of Beethoven’s late works, the final sonata of the thirty-two, in C minor, Op 111, shows the composer’s desire to expand the formal structure beyond the classic forms. Biss easily guided the listener through the kaleidoscope of musical ideas.

The performances on YouTube had excellent sound and video quality. The only limitation is at the receiving end, since they arrive in the listener’s living room via computer. Zoom is used only for the discussions before and after the performances. After some initial confusion for this listener, the switch back and forth was not a problem. A single, stationary camera was focused on the pianist and the instrument. Every viewer/listener has a front row seat with a view of the keyboard, a coveted seat in concert venues.

The final concert in the series brought San Francisco pianist Garrick Ohlsson for the Sonatas Nos 24 “à Thérèse” and 29 “Hammerklavier.” The first represents the shortest in length of all the sonatas. The “Hammerklavier” is the longest, taking about fifty minutes to perform. The final movement is a twelve-minute fugue. (The first documented performance was given by Franz Liszt in 1836, nine years after Beethoven’s death.) Ohlsson’s performance was recorded in a small concert hall with excellent acoustics. The video cycled through a variety of camera angles, a much different visual experience than the stationary camera.

Ohlsson won a Grammy in 2007 for his recording of Beethoven Sonatas, and is the winner of several prestigious piano competitions. He has vast experience with both classical and modern composers. His powerful playing comes from an intense focus on the music, along with restrained physical movement. Watching him play is a lesson in the ergonomics of piano playing. He directs his physical strength quietly into the keyboard with remarkable results. As he showed in an all-Brahms concert here two years ago, his focus is on the clarity of the music, easily leading the listener through the complex musical structures.

Thanks to Distinguished Artists for assembling this mini festival celebrating Beethoven’s birthday with remarkable artists.