A number of pianists have responded to the national lockdowns of 2020-21 by producing recordings from their homes. I decided to use the opportunity to do the same, and in doing so to choose music that particularly reflected my response to these events.
This has been the first time in living memory, if not for many centuries, that it has actually been illegal to give or attend a concert in England. As a former council member of the Libertarian Alliance until its dissolution in 2017, I spent a lot of time arguing for the preservation and indeed the extension of our civil liberties, and against governments that – on whatever pretext – would curtail them. The present events have served to emphasise the necessity of that work. I will leave a detailed discussion of lockdowns and their purported effectiveness for another occasion, but will mention that I am one of over 750,000 concerned citizens who are signatories to the Great Barrington Declaration. I also agree with many of the interventions made by Lord Sumption, who has said,
“I feel sad that we have the kind of laws which public-spirited people may need to break. I have always taken a line on this, which is probably different from that of most of my former colleagues. I do not believe that there is a moral obligation to obey the law… You have to have a high degree of respect, both for the object that the law is trying to achieve, and for the way that it’s been achieved. Some laws invite breach. I think this is one of them.”
Wherever one may stand on all this, there is without question a general sense of uncertainty, of transition, of alienation and of loss of control. These are all themes explored in the late sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, which are written with an unparalleled awareness of human mortality and which reach forward into the world beyond our own. I decided that central to this series of recordings would be the last three sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, together with other key late works of Beethoven.
In many ways, these works are the ultimate challenge for the pianist. They are, in Schnabel’s phrase, “better than they can be played”. No matter how well one may play them, they will always be bigger than any interpreter, and like Shakespeare, their emotional and humane range is of the widest imaginable. This compels at once a degree of humility on the part of the pianist and also a profound emotional and intellectual identification between interpreter and work as the full gamut of expressive effect is called upon.
Why should the spirits of Beethoven and Schubert still speak to us today? In some respects, they are different sides of the same coin. Schubert is sometimes held up as primarily lyrical and introspective in contrast to Beethoven’s heroic and indomitable style. But as his last piano works clearly show, Schubert also looks into the abyss and responds with optimism and the triumph of the human spirit. His last three sonatas all at various points confront nightmarish visions, with the first movement of the last sonata (D.960) perhaps providing us with the most compelling portrait of human isolation and tragedy. But there is no sense in which the music succumbs to despair. The ending of the last sonata is exuberant, even joyous. It breaks bonds and transcends limitations. It looks grim authority in the face and laughs at it.
Beethoven, too, is concerned with the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts, and the triptych of his last sonatas presents us with music that is concerned above all with transcendence. This is music that can at times return startlingly to convention, but at the same time remains unsettled and questing in spirit. Thomas Mann (borrowing from Adorno) discusses the sonata in chapter 8 of his novel Doctor Faustus, and speaking of the Arietta second movement of the last sonata (op. 111) says,
But what now becomes of this gentle statement, this pensively tranquil figure, in terms of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, what blessings its master bestows upon it, what curses he heaps upon it, into what darknesses and superilluminations, where cold and heat, serenity and ecstasy are one and the same, he hurls and elevates it one may well call it elaborate, miraculous, strange, and excessively grand without thereby giving it a name, because in actuality it is nameless…
It is possible to read an overly religious subtext into Beethoven’s last sonatas, as did Wilfrid Mellers in suggesting that the last movement of the penultimate sonata (op. 110) is a wordless Passion (with its thematic links to the Bach St John Passion). There is surely something of Calvary in it; of suffering and deliverance. There is a sense of suppression in the quiet, slow passages (Arioso dolente), with their evocation of the human voice, that suggest both the impact of pain and the struggle of impaired communication. The sonata bears the date of Christmas Day, 1821.
By the time we reach the final sonata we have moved into more elemental territory. As the variations of the last movement reach an unprecedented level of rhythmic complexity, some hear a prototype of jazz in Beethoven’s anxious exuberance. In fact, this variation is more like a development of the baroque gigue and any resemblance to African-American music of a century later is purely coincidental.
Particularly in Schubert, I feel that this music benefits from a broad conception. In recent decades, pianism has been dominated by what might be referred to as a “modernist school” of interpretation, characterized by fast tempi, clear (and often dry) textures and a degree of emotional detachment. I do not find this approach appealing and my preference is for an altogether more Romantic and subjective aesthetic in which emotional response is the key objective. I do not always aim for an “orchestral” piano sonority, but I do often think in terms of different instrumental and vocal colours and textures.
In particular, the finale of Schubert’s C minor sonata (D.958) tends to be played not at its marked Allegro but more like Prestissimo. This excessive speed robs the movement of its anxious, at times hesitant, character, and the slightly surreal effect of its abrupt contrasts and episodes in distant keys. Another decision that short-circuits Schubert’s intentions is the omission of the exposition repeat in the B flat major sonata, D.960. Many fine pianists do this and it makes no sense to me whatsoever, given not only that Schubert provides a unique transition to the repeat and that this transition contains material of vital importance to the movement, indeed that appears nowhere else.
In the first movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, there is a more immediate controversy in that Beethoven’s metronome marking imposes a breakneck tempo on the music that seems to me – even in the finest “fast” performances – to rob the music of its majesty, its contrasts and its symphonic character. There is certainly a need to give the music a powerful sense of forward momentum in its more dynamic moments, but in a convincing interpretation, Beethoven is not always pushing forward in a relentless manner. There is room to breathe, and indeed much music here that is ruminative and that benefits from a considered rather than hectic treatment.
A personal note is in order with respect to Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata (op. 31 no. 2). This is the work that inspired me to become a pianist. I first heard it on BBC Radio 3, and thanks to BBC’s Genome project, I can now identify that the date of the broadcast was 10 May 1982, and the pianist Pascal Rogé. I was nine years old. I was transfixed by the work and became, frankly, obsessed by it. In those days, my local public library had a large collection of music scores available to borrow. I duly took out the second volume of Augener’s complete edition of the Beethoven sonatas, and prevailed on our neighbour (who owned a piano) to allow me to try it out. At that point, my musical education consisted of singing in the school choir and playing the recorder indifferently. I could read the treble clef, and through a combination of luck and judgement managed to pick out the first few bars of Beethoven on the piano, and then improvise a little on the main ideas of the movement, to the astonishment of my neighbour. This was where it all began for me. Within weeks, my parents had bought me a piano and provided me with lessons; four years later I had won a Junior Exhibition Award to the Royal College of Music.
I did not play this, or anything else by Beethoven, in public until I was in my forties. I could play, after a fashion, all of the sonatas by my late teens and was thoroughly au fait with their structure and musical features. I also studied a lot of Beethoven during my time at the Royal College of Music; probably more than any other composer, and with a professor who was notably expert in Beethoven interpretation. Unfortunately, my awareness of the sheer magnitude of the music and of the shortcomings of my youthful approach to it had a deeply inhibiting effect. It was not until many years later that I had sufficient faith in the validity of my interpretation of Beethoven that I could put it before the public without feeling that I had let the composer down. Other pianists have spoken of similar experiences. Beethoven, perhaps more than any other composer, pushes the interpreter to go beyond their limits, in what I see as an essentially creative agon between performer and work. The Beethoven that we play now will not be the same as that which we play in five or ten years’ time. It is changing with us, constantly growing and developing, and is not just part of Beethoven’s creative universe but an organic part of ourselves.
These works carry with them not only their significance as music but also an immense cultural legacy. This is music which generations have held to represent the apex of Western civilization. If we are, as I believe, in a time when that civilization is under grave threat both internally and externally, then one of the most potent responses is for us to re-engage with the richness of this legacy and re-assert its greatness. At the time that I am writing this, it has been reported that some at the University of Oxford consider musical notation “colonialist” and want to “focus less on White European culture”. I have been actively opposed to the delegitimization of Western art music for many years, and find that the arguments and Cultural Marxist academic atmosphere that are encountered now have changed little from those which I first opposed at Cambridge twenty years ago. In such a situation, to play the music of the Austro-German Classical and Romantic schools might be held to constitute an openly reactionary act and stands as an eloquent response to its opponents. We might indeed venture the opinion that here is White European culture at its best.
Of course there are disadvantages in recording performances in such conditions as we face at the moment. Perhaps the most obvious is that it has been impossible to have pianos tuned during lockdown. Equally, audiences of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s time were probably far more used to compensating for this deficiency than we have become today. My lockdown recordings were made at home, in my music room. The basis for each recording was a live performance immediately followed by a patching session, edited with basic audio editing software. The result is unashamedly a personal view of the works concerned, and moreover a view that is influenced by the present time and circumstances.
I have paired each piece of music with my choice of artwork, concentrating on personal favourites and those images that are most vividly reflective of the sense of colour and atmosphere that I feel is associated with the music. The predominance of Scandinavian artists, not all of whom are well-known, is entirely deliberate.
I hope that you will find the results interesting and enjoyable. All the recordings will be posted individually here and are also indexed below.
Update June 2021: The majority of the recordings are now posted at my YouTube channel and are embedded in the links below.
Beethoven: Piano sonata in C minor, op. 111
Beethoven: Piano sonata in A flat major, op. 110
Beethoven: Piano sonata in E major, op. 109
Beethoven: Piano sonata in B flat major, op. 106 “Hammerklavier”
Beethoven: Piano sonata in E minor, op. 90
Beethoven: Piano sonata in C major, op. 53 “Waldstein” (original version)
Beethoven: Piano sonata in D minor, op. 31 no 2 “Tempest”