Pierre Boulez Saal
Piano Sonata no.7 in D major, op.10 no.3Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, op.13, ‘Pathétique’
Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, op.49 no.1
Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, op.49 no.2
Piano Sonata no.26 in E-flat major, op.81a, ‘Les Adieux’
Saleem Ashkar (piano)
Saleem Ashkar has, over the course of the 2016-17 concert season, been performing all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, each concert at a different venue in Berlin. This, the seventh in the series, took place in the new Pierre Boulez Saal. Ashkar has, according to the programme, been attempting to connect ‘Beethoven’s music, through film clips and conversations, with some of the issues that still concern our global society: the relationship of art, freedom, and power; the meaning of religion; nationality and identity.’ This concert was to be followed by a panel discussion, for which I was unable to stay.
It was preceded by a short film – five minutes or so – concerning the activities of the Berlin-based Al-Farabi Musikakademie, a programme of the Deutsche Kinder- und Jugendstiftung (German Children and Youth Federation), on which Ashkar, seen in the film, puts his time and fingers where his mouth is. Children from twelve years old to twenty, some of them refugees, some not, make music on all manner of instruments: the Western tradition at the heart of their activities, which are yet equally receptive to what they might bring to the organisation too. One nineteen-year-old Pakistani boy spoke, in far more fluent German than I should muster, about how he would have had no such opportunity in Pakistan. There could be little doubt from what we saw and heard that the composer who presented his Missa solemnis, ‘Von Herzen – Möge es wieder – Zu Herzen gehen!’ would have lent his support, as has Daniel Barenboim as patron.
Ashkar was here as pianist, though. If I had a few reservations, nothing too great, they concerned the first of the sonatas he played, op.10 no.3 in D major. It is a difficult work to bring off – for the listener as well as the player, so it may have been my fault. I was struck, in any case, by the bright sound of Ashkar’s Bechstein in this splendid acoustic. It may have been equally tempered, but there remained a sense of open strings. Ashkar certainly too the first movement as marked too: Presto, not merely Allegro. The different ‘character’ of the second group was pronounced too, whilst still arising from what had gone before. That and the new lease of life lent by the development – crossing of hands was felt musically as well as seen – testified to a properly dynamic conception of sonata form, likewise the recapitulation as second development. Perhaps the ending felt a little perfunctory, but I do not wish to exaggerate. A flowing account of the slow movement enabled Ashkar to project the longer line. Its almost Boulezian melodic proliferation as the music progressed had one feel that this was definitely piano music, and not only music that happened to be written for the piano. Sadness marked the close, reminding one that the movement as a whole is marked Largo e mesto. The minuet returned to the good nature of the first movement, sounding ‘earlier’ than its predecessor. Its trio proved winningly tiggerish. It was the finale I found more difficult to get along with; it seemed a bit unsmiling and I struggled sometimes to grasp the thread. As I said, though, perhaps that was my fault; in any case, Beethovenian disjunctures will always have something to tell us.
The Pathétique Sonata came next. Its first movement Introduction was weighty without being laden down with applied ‘emotion’. Crucially, the exposition proper shot forth like a rocket: not merely fast (although I think it probably was faster than I have often heard, or indeed played!) but dynamic. Whilst there had been much to admire in the performance of op.10 no.2, this immediately sounded to my ears more ‘finished’ as an interpretation. And so it continued, absorbingly. Again, I wondered whether the close to the movement were a little abrupt, whether a little more rhetoric might have been in order, but better that than self-regarding ‘drama’. The other two movements were similar, on their own terms, of course, the slow movement songful, as if in a single breath (easier said than done!), the finale, quite rightly, sounding with more than a hint of post-Mozartian spirit too.
The two little op.49 sonatas followed the interval. The first movement of the G minor Sonata offered a disarming noble, Mozartian simplicity, thereby bringing into relief those turns that could only have been imagined by Beethoven. I loved the intensification in the recapitulation: not exaggerated, speaking ‘for itself’. The second movement brought delightful release, with hints of echt-Beethovenian brusqueness. In the first movement of the G major Sonata, the spirit of Mozart was again strong, although again not to the exclusion, perhaps especially during the development, of other tendencies. The second movement was decidedly post-Mozartian: looking back to a world that might be close and yet which had gone forever. Ashkar’s tempo ensured that: slower than if it had been Mozart himself, just as Beethoven feels the need to advise, ‘Tempo di Menuetto’. The owl of Minerva, one felt, had already spread its wings.
Les Adieux proved properly generative, the contrasts and even discontinuities of the first movement part and parcel of a complexity that yet permitted of a certain degree of overcoming (Aufhebung, if we are to stick with Hegel), of integration. The performance drew us in to listen, to experience the work, great clarity a definite assistance here, as elsewhere. Dynamism here has to be created before one’s ears – and it was. The rareness of the air in the second movement was immediately felt – not through false piety but (seemingly) simply by breathing it. At times, the music looked forward towards Schumann, without reaching him – for how could it? The obstinacy, though, was Beethoven’s own, as was the pathos. The finale then burst forth out of necessity. Joy could perhaps not be quite so unconfined as in early Beethoven, nor so unmediated. For whether we like it or no, Beethoven’s later music, like our fractured modernity more generally, is and becomes ever more complicated. To endure that modernity, we need his music all the more, as the children of the Al-Farabi Musikakademie will surely soon inform us.