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THE POWER OF BEETHOVEN
By Tim Smith

Even longtime classical music lovers may not be able to recall instantly how many piano sonatas Mozart wrote. Or Haydn. Or Schubert. But an awareness of Beethoven's 32 works in this form is almost as common as the knowledge that he wrote nine symphonies. And, like those symphonies, the piano sonatas enjoy iconic status as fundamental contributions to the development of Western music. It is impossible to imagine the piano repertoire without these 32 entries.

No wonder that keyboard artists never tire of exploring them, looking for new insights into Beethoven's thought process, new ways of approaching not just the big picture of each score, but even a single note, a single chord, a single dynamic marking. You can get a fascinating idea of this interpretive process during BARENBOIM ON BEETHOVEN as Daniel Barenboim, one of the most interesting and rewarding musicians of our time, works with younger pianists on some of those minute issues.

And, of course, you can savor Barenboim's mature thoughts about five of the sonatas, heard in complete performance. This judicious sampling offers a compelling illustration of Beethoven's breadth of ideas, command of form, and brilliant exploitation of the expressive range of the piano.

Although Beethoven's earliest works naturally reveal the influence of Mozart and Haydn, you can almost always find something that gives away his individuality, something that hints at the bold, daring, downright revolutionary composer he would soon become. This is true of "Symphony No. 1," for example, with its harmonically unsettled, hey-look-at-me opening chord progression. Likewise, "Sonata No. 1" delivers its own surprises in the rhythmic punch of its first measures; Beethoven lets you know right away that this is not just another elegant exercise in classicism. And so it goes, sonata after sonata, as Beethoven continually experiments with stretching the boundaries of conventional structure, not to mention conventional expectations.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon puts it, the first batch of the composer's piano sonatas, the 20 written between the 1790s and 1802, "run the full gamut of Sturm und Drang [storm and stress] sentiment -- passion, reverie, exuberance, heroism, solemnity, nobility and dramatic pathos -- but they are also full of abrupt harmonic and dynamic effects, piquant episodes, unusual rhythms, syncopations, and brief departures for distant keys, all of which signify that this young composer was not content merely to remain a dutiful exponent of a great tradition." Beethoven could never be confined by anyone's ideas of what was appropriate, sensible, or normal.

The first piece in the telecast, "Sonata No. 5 in C minor," demonstrates Solomon's points perfectly. The work bears Beethoven's unmistakable handprint: the first movement opens with the audacious upward thrust of a theme that is as much about rhythm and dynamics as it about anything melodic. Throughout this movement and again in the finale, the composer is forever playing with our ears, leading us in one direction, only to surprise us with a new turn. The slow movement lets us know that the composer can also be as tuneful and elegant as anyone else of his day, but the overriding impulses in the sonata are propulsion, energy, tension -- characteristics that would eventually unleash such ear-grabbers as his Fifth and Seventh symphonies. The total package has a terrific freshness, something that can really be said, to one degree or another, about all 32 sonatas.




Top banner photos: Daniel Barenboim in performance at the Berlin Staatsoper.

The maestro instructs Lang Lang during the master class.

The maestro instructs Lang Lang during the master class.

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

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The DVD is available.


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