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Beethoven's Carefully Choreographed Violence

Portrait of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven by German painter Joseph Karl Stieler, circa 1820.
Kean Collection
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Portrait of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven by German painter Joseph Karl Stieler, circa 1820.

Nowhere are Beethoven's gifts as a composer more evident than in his sonatas for the piano. They contain what was, from the start, his most personal musical expression. The piano was his instrument, and he was constantly pushing its capacities — particularly its range and dynamic gradations — as far as they would go.

Emil Gilels' recordings of three great Beethoven sonatas from 1972 to '74 are solid, dry and tightly focused. There's a percussive hardness to his tone that is fitting in Beethoven, but also a softness that is amazing — qualities few other pianists have cultivated so skillfully. As for technique, his rhythm is deadly accurate, his scales evenly weighted. But what is truly extraordinary is the lively, leonine quality of the playing.

Three Sensational Sonatas

The Waldstein sonata comes as close to formal perfection and total mastery of materials as any in Beethoven's canon. Its harmonic daring and sheer energy make it a shining example of his middle-period style, as outstanding in its fashion as the first Razumovsky Quartet and the Eroica Symphony. Gilels plays the music with a carefully choreographed violence, always with the feeling of power in reserve.

The Les Adieux ("Farewell") sonata, completed in 1810, refers to the forced parting of Beethoven from his patron the Archduke Rudolph when the latter fled Vienna during Napoleon's siege. Grounded in Beethoven's noble and heroic key of E flat major, what follows is music of extraordinary power and imagination, dealing with the emotions of separation and, ultimately, reunion — music meant to be heard with the eyes and heart as well as the ears. Gilels' rendition of Les Adieux is among the most imaginative ever captured.

The Appassionata is played with a real sense of strength and anger, which goes to the core of what Beethoven was trying to convey in the music. The notes all sound clean, but at the same time, there is a sense of force, thrust and violence. This is what I always find remarkable about Gilels' playing.

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Ted Libbey