Wednesday 10 January 2024

It's not British, but...Ludwig Van Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas

The Late Sonatas of Beethoven are usually classified as the final five examples of this genre as listed above. This includes the massive "Hammerklavier” which imposes massive intellectual and technical requirements on the pianist. It is regarded by many as the greatest of all piano sonatas.

This recording needs to be set in the context of its genesis. Emil Gryesten explains that during the Covid pandemic in 2020, most of his concert and recital bookings were cancelled. He used this “opportunity” to create an “artistic research project” at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. The subject was Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. The methodology of this study involved the application of the Schenker musical analysis system. This complex process that involves musical theory and philosophical and psychological speculation. Simplified, it is based on the principal that all tonal music is reducible to three levels: 1) a background - basic harmonic progressions underlying the piece or movement, 2) a middle ground - the elaboration of the first level which begins to give the work its identity, and finally, 3). the foreground - the detail presented to the listener. (with a little assistance from Paul Griffiths, Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Music, 1992). The work under study is often reduced to its lowest common denominator and presented in diagrammatic form.

Gryesten explains that the aim of the project “was to approach the scores with fresh ears, mind and spirit, allowing the chosen analysis method to function as the main interpretative lens, leaving behind the patinated baggage of tradition.” From these studies, it is hoped to build revitalised and relevant new performances.

With the help of his colleague Thomas Solak, Gryesten applied this methodology to Beethoven’s late sonatas. The entire undertaking lasted for two years and resulted in a “deep exploration of the scores and analytical graphs, consuming powerful doses of esoteric French philosophy…”

Other outcomes of this project included “workshops for students, an international seminar on Schenker, some articles, a series of lecture recitals, and this recording.”

To be sure, Gryesten does give certain clues as to what the putative listener may expect: an “eclectic style” exhibiting “stylistic characteristics which could be heard as belonging to quite diverse epochs and styles.”  He admits that there are “elements inspired by historical practice and a close reading of Beethoven’s scores.” The overall impact reveals a “romantic sentiment,” imbued with “occasional jazzy or modernistic details.”

Finally, Gryesten refers his readers to an article which provides “a thorough explanation of the profound ways, in which a Schenkerian approach has shaped these interpretations." A link or a reference would have been helpful…

The booklet, as noted above, is largely concerned with the rationale of the Schenkerian analysis and subsequent reinterpretation of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. Gryesten has chosen not to provide an “extensive commentary” on each sonata, but to give only some “observations” on each one. He recommends the study of texts by Charles Rosen, Donald Tovey, Edwin Fischer and András Schiff for further analysis and technical scrutiny.

Emil Gryesten was born in Aarhus in 1985. He studied at the Jutland Academy of Music and later at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and finally, the International Piano Academy, Lake Como. His notable teachers included Niklas Sivelöv, Erik T. Tawaststjerna and Fou Ts’ong. Over the years he has received numerous rewards including the First Prize at the Hamburg Steinway Competition. Gryesten has given recitals and concert performances in Scandinavia, Europe, and the United States. He is the pianist in the Danish Trio Vivo. Recent recordings include CDs of Liszt’s Piano Sonata and the Grieg Violin Sonatas with Benedikte Damgaard. Currently, he is assistant Professor of Piano and Chamber Music at the Royal Danish Academy.

Now where does all this leave the listener? Does this “fresh approach” nullify the important recordings of these late sonatas made by such virtuosos as Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, or Vladimir Ashkenazy? I am not a Beethoven enthusiast or cognoscenti, although I enjoy, and hopefully appreciate much of his work. When I wish to hear any one of the late sonatas, I turn to Alfred Brendel’s 1975 recording. This has always been sufficient for me.

So, for the “average” Beethoven listener, will they notice the difference between this new recording by Emil Gryesten and their usual fare? I am not convinced they will. I certainly did not, short of comparing many versions, which I have neither the resources nor the inclination to do. Unless time is to be devoted to a close reading of these sonatas with the scores and technical analysis, I guess that listeners will just have to thoroughly enjoy them.

The bottom line is: did these performances move me; did they inspire me? The answer is a big Yes! This is a splendid recital with wonderful playing: I will leave the theoretical underpinnings to the experts and the pedants.

Track Listing;
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 28 in A Major, op. 101 (1816)
Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat Major, op. 106 "Hammerklavier” (1817-18)
Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109 (1820)
Sonata No. 31 in A-Flat Major, op. 110 (1821)
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op.111 (1821-22)
Emil Gryesten (piano)
rec. 3-5 April and 24-26 July 2023, Main Concert Hall, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
Danacord DACOCD 973 [2CDs 122]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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