Performance Sunday, May 5, 2013 | 3 PM

Maurizio Pollini

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Hailed as “the Italian arch-aristocrat of the piano” by The Independent (London), Maurizio Pollini is one of those rare artists whose stature compels you to see him in performance. His craft is “so accomplished, it thrills on its own terms” (The Boston Globe); to witness the “steely brilliance” that is “virtually infallible” (The New York Times), you must hear him play—especially in a venue as special as Carnegie Hall.

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The Program


About the Composer

Beethoven's early achievements found him extending the Viennese Classical tradition inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As the German composer's style grew more and more personal, his work grew increasingly profound; he composed many of his masterworks at the end of his life. Beethoven's combination of exploration and personal expression led to his stature as the dominant composer of the 19th century.

The Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas

Beethoven's towering symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets can each be viewed as masterwork cycles of artistic development. Coined by pianist Hans von Bülow as "The New Testament" of music (with Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier serving as "The Old Testament"), Beethoven's sonatas were penned between 1793 and 1822. While an evolution can be traced through the sonatas from earthly moxie to despondent darkness and ephemeral transcendence—and though Beethoven's sonatas ultimately increase in complexity and brilliance as the cycle deepens—there are no journeyman sonatas to be found. Within the 32, 13 are three-part sonatas, 12 piano sonatas have four parts, and seven are bipartite. For Beethoven, the sonata form was a malleable one that offered opportunity for limitless invention.

Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, "Pathétique"

About the Work

The popular "Pathétique" Sonata from Beethoven's early period may have earned its descriptor from the sonata's publisher, who was moved by the work's tragic passion. The "Pathétique" was published in 1799 in Vienna, where Beethoven was residing under the support of many patrons, including the work's dedicatee, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. Beethoven's early sonatas pushed the dynamic and sonic range of the pianoforte, an instrument that had been in popular use for more than half a century, but differs greatly from today's modern piano.

A Closer Listen

The instrument's dynamic extremes are immediately evident from the juxtaposition of fortissimo and pianissimo in the Grave opening of the sonata. The theme returns in the sonata-form Allegro section that follows, resurfacing yet again at the close of the movement.

The warmth of the sonata's major-key Adagio cantabile is achieved through inventive and expansive accompaniments to the melody in each of its recurrences; the theme prevails out of each minor-key section to reclaim tranquility.

The final Rondo returns to C minor, this time with a lighter feel. Beethoven eschews the heavy chords of the opening movement in favor of running lines that are diverted by other major-key themes until the music darkens for a strong coda. But even as we race to a C-minor conclusion, Beethoven pauses for a distraction in the major mode, recalling the Adagio.

—Ben Finane

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53, "Waldstein"

About the Work

Sixty percent of all Victorian period dramas that open with an eloquently bustling food-preparation scene in a grand kitchen are underscored by the opening of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata. That's because this glorious gem of Beethoven's middle period, so tautly constructed, hearkens back to a more Classical temperament. Op. 53's aesthetic is fitting, as it was Count Waldstein himself, the work's dedicatee, who urged Beethoven in a letter to "labor assiduously, and receive Mozart's spirit from the hands of Haydn."

A Closer Listen

The repeated notes in the celebrated opening Allegro of the "Waldstein," by way of recurrence, become a theme. A chorale provides respite but ultimately no relief from the excitement that returns—along with the original theme—and speeds us through the development, recapitulation, and conclusion of the movement.

Bridging the outer movements (it contains themes from both) while also presaging the Rondo, the foreboding and beautiful Adagio leads directly into the final movement without pause. The Rondo opens with a serene theme that recalls the chorale of the Allegro. As the theme is elaborated, the build that accompanies it—replete with trills and counterpoint—grows more animated and ornamented, along with deceptive breaks, until a Prestissimo conclusion makes a final, heavenly run for the stratosphere.

—Ben Finane

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, Op. 78

About the Work

Beethoven's Op. 78 Sonata was dedicated to his pupil Countess Therese Brunswick. (He also taught her sister Josephine, with whom he would later become infatuated.) With that, some note that the choice of F-sharp major (heavy on the black keys) may have been selected with a pedagogical aim in mind.

A Closer Listen

A brief, lyrical, playful sonata in two movements, Op. 78 begins with a four-measure gesture that is then unfolded in sonata-allegro form through the rest of the movement. The lively second movement, a rondo, delights in conversationally riffing in a question-and-answer format on the contrasting opening theme.

—Ben Finane

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, "Appassionata"

About the Work

"I could listen to it every day," Vladimir Lenin declared in reference to the "Appassionata," his favorite piece. "I always think, with perhaps a naïve, childish pride, how can man create such wonders?"

Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries observed the wondrous creation firsthand during a countryside walk with the composer outside of Vienna in the summer of 1804. Ries wrote that Beethoven "had been all the time humming and sometimes howling ... without singing any definite notes." When the student asked what he was thinking of, Beethoven answered that it was the last movement to his sonata. Upon returning home, Beethoven pounded away at the "Appassionata" finale at the pianoforte for an hour without even removing his hat, forgetting all about Ries and eventually postponing his student's lesson.

A Closer Listen

In comparison to the "Pathétique," the "Appassionata" seems to be a magnification of the tragic nature of the former. This is certainly apparent in the opening tempestuous Allegro assai, where a quiet theme is overtaken by the swirling chaos of another. Intertwined, the music searches for glimpses of relief in the major sonorities, but inevitably returns to a definitive minor mode with an extended coda. Beethoven makes use of the full range of the pianoforte down to its lowest note (which is, not coincidental with the sonata's key, an F).

The dreamlike hymn of the Andante con moto makes for a quiet interlude between the energetic outer movements. It begins simply, gains ornamentation, and then returns to its original state, lingering on some diminished-seventh chords before the shocking arrival of the final Allegro.

The Allegro ma non troppo marks the dark return to reality, recalling the mood of the opening movement. Here, the downward fall of the music seems all the more inevitable, as demonstrated in the coda: Hope of escape is repeatedly and definitively stamped out before the sonata comes to a frenzied end.

—Ben Finane 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Great Artists II.

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