Beethoven in E flat,
with JULIAN JACOBSON and friends
Two fine and not over-familiar Beethoven works presented themselves to me as a stimulating programme to open the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe's 2009 Festival at Regent Hall, London, on 24 July -- not least because of the availability of musicians I wanted to play with. Both works happened to be in E flat, something one is normally supposed to avoid; but the two pieces, separated in Beethoven's output by twelve years and for completely different forces, are so contrasted that their shared tonality seemed to be rather an additional point of interest.
The use of the piano in combination with the other instruments is completely different too (as were the actual instruments Beethoven wrote for, the piano having moved on enormously in the intervening period, including gaining an additional seven notes in the treble). In the 1796 Quintet with oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, Beethoven the young virtuoso writes a brilliant, soloistic piano part for himself, complete with opportunities (which he certainly took) for improvisations and cadenzas, and which largely makes sense on its own. Each of the three movements begins with a fully rounded-off piano solo of eight or sixteen bars -- a real 'tune' -- after which the winds enter with a repeat of the same melody before the music embarks on new and more closely argued material. The contribution of the winds is equal but somehow separate, and it does make for a leisurely, amiable concertante style rather than a true chamber music style. In comparison, Mozart's great masterpiece in the same key for the same forces, on which Beethoven's Quintet is clearly modelled, also opens with solo piano in each movement, but the solos are incomplete and much shorter, and Mozart quickly moves on to a more contrapuntal texture in which no instrument takes the lead for more than a few bars.
In our rehearsal (there was only one!) we therefore encouraged each other to play soloistically in the solos and 'orchestrally' in the bits where everybody plays together -- and then simply to have a good time in this most genial and relaxed of all Beethoven's works. I was fortunate indeed in having a great team of true professionals who all knew the piece backwards, so that playing it felt much like having a relaxed and mainly humorous (apart from the lovely slow movement) conversation between five good friends.
This is what chamber music is supposed to be about, but it's actually a rather bad description of the more intense chamber music style of the E flat Trio Op 70 No 2, which was the other piece in the programme. In a proper conversation, I suppose, people take it in turns to talk while the others listen. True chamber music style, represented above all by the great string quartet literature, is more of a mosaic in which no line stands out more than momentarily but every note contributes to the overall harmonic/polyphonic texture. So, in the E flat Trio, very little of the piano part makes sense on its own -- at least till the more concertante finale -- and one is constantly trying to understand and clarify the whole texture from one's partially-sighted vantage point. Indeed, in the concert I felt momentarily disorientated by the change of role and, as it were, the loss of independence after the Quintet. I had the difficult job of mixing constantly with the very different tone colour of the strings -- it's not insignificant, I think, that after the great masterpiece by Ravel (and its dutiful pendant by the aging Fauré), composers largely ignored the medium, finding it fundamentally unsatisfactory: there is no piano trio, at least for the normal combination, by any major twentieth century composer, with the single exception of Shostakovich (and an eccentric essay by Charles Ives). The classical trio had its origins in the trio sonata and it always was a slightly unsatisfactory hybrid, which is not to devalue the wonderful repertoire of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms. (Haydn's Trios contain some of his greatest keyboard writing but they are simply maddening as trios, as the cello does almost nothing but double the pianist's left hand.)
More perhaps than in any other trio, Beethoven finds the perfect solution to the problem of combining strings and piano in the E flat Trio. Not a note is superfluous and each instrument is constantly contributing to the unfolding of Beethoven's noble musical discourse. Our job, then, was to try to understand the musical argument by a mixture of harmonic, thematic and structural analysis, and to find the 'sonorous character' at each moment. And again it was wonderful to have two colleagues who were entirely dedicated to exploring the interpretative possibilities in the most creative way.
Not one of the four movements goes at an obvious tempo and we spent much time searching for tempi that would convey the real character of the music as we understood it. The very opening is marked, inscrutably, Poco sostenuto, leading to an Allegro ma non troppo (in the always awkward time signature of 6/8) which may or may not refer back to the Poco sostenuto. The middle two movements are both marked Allegretto, the second of these qualified by ma non troppo (meaning what?), and we wanted to find two very different responses to the same moderate marking: how much easier, in the 'Ghost' Trio (the E flat Trio's companion piece), to characterise the enormously slower middle movement! In the concluding Allegro, I decided (and met with only minimal resistance) to go for a really fast tempo, reckoning that the audience could do with a bit of speed after three very reflective, moderate-tempo movements. Chamber musicians are perhaps overly afraid of a touch of showmanship and adrenalin, and we decided to make this movement the equivalent of the always exciting, even breathtaking finale of the Seventh Symphony. The fact that the skies clouded over and we had to play on in increasing darkness (until rescued by the Beethoven Society's resourceful new Secretary Emma Peaurt, who left the hall and switched on the stage lights) only gave the performance more sense of living dangerously. Which is surely the only way to live in playing Beethoven: as the great Artur Schnabel admonished, 'Safety last!'
Copyright © 15 August 2009 Julian Jacobson,
Julian Jacobson played Beethoven's Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat Op 16 with Chris O'Neal, oboe, Tony Lamb, clarinet, Philip Gibbon, bassoon and Katie Pryce, horn. The Piano Trio in E flat Op 70 No 2 was played by Lana Trotovsek, violin, Pál Banda, cello and Julian Jacobson, piano.