2020 did not bring the 250th birthday celebration most Beethoven lovers expected. This was especially noticeable in the loss of many plans to perform the composer’s iconic 32 piano sonatas, but a streamed Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) performance from Jonathan Biss helped make up for it.
I know of at least a dozen pianists whose ambitious plans to play “The 32” in concert fell through thanks to the irrepressible coronavirus. Among them is Biss, the Curtis Institute’s Neubauer Family Chair in Piano Studies, whose scheduled appearance at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center morphed into a virtual concert streamed from the American Philosophical Society. In the classical community, live—and not-so-live—streaming has saved the day and enabled artists to continue to perform and audiences to listen and even grow in numbers.
Here in the city, PCMS has embraced streaming as classical performance venue. As someone who doesn’t like to go out in the dark, and is always cold, I can’t say enough good things about the chance to order a takeout concert. It brings the highest quality musical performances to music lovers who otherwise feel they are under house arrest.
If you haven’t taken advantage of this option, please check it out. Even before stay-at-home orders, PCMS was showcasing phenomenal artists in top form at reasonable cost. Now, we get the same artists and performances, don’t have to leave the couch, and if you really can’t afford to pay, it’s OK (but donations are eagerly accepted and necessary for PCMS’s post-COVID survival).
When I learned that Biss would perform three Beethoven sonatas on November 24 via a PCMS livestream, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. I grabbed my notebook and pen, put on my bunny slippers, and wrapped myself in a faux fur blanket. It was time to go to work.
Biss is uniquely suited to interpret Beethoven. Among his many achievements in writing and teaching, he developed and taught a series of Coursera courses on the Beethoven sonatas. For the last six years, Coursera courses have offered expert teachers, respected university resources, and challenging curricula. And the courses are free. Because of my nearly lifelong obsession with Beethoven (i.e., certified Beethoven know-it-all), I signed up for two courses on “The 32,” and it proved to be one of the best educational experiences of my life.
The program for this concert included works from Beethoven’s early, middle, and late periods, opening with the Grand Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7, composed in late 1796. This was followed by the Sonata No. 24 in F# major, Op. 78, dating from 1809, the year after he composed the fifth and sixth symphonies. Each of these sonatas was dedicated to one of Beethoven’s female students: the Op. 7 to Countess Babette von Keglevics, and the Op. 78 (known as the "à Thérèse") to Thérèse von Brunsvik.
The final remedy
Biss performed these perfunctorily. He was clearly not up to his usual high standards, and let’s face it, who among us is, after nine months in a world where a simple visit to a friend’s house could lead to illness or death? But just as Beethoven’s triumph over adversity (like ill health and loss of hearing) can be profoundly experienced in his later works, so Biss’s performance of the last selection on the program seemed to be the remedy he needed to open up to the composer’s healing vision, something he understands at a deep level and has written about with knowledge and conviction.
The triumphant conclusion to this concert—without a traditional audience, without applause—was the Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110, completed on Christmas Day 1821. This is the centerpiece of the final trilogy of piano sonatas Beethoven composed, a trilogy which has the status of a Trinity among lovers of Beethoven’s work. There is no dedicatee, and seriously, who could be worthy of such an honor?
It unfolds in three extraordinary movements ending with two fugues and an arioso lament. Just minutes before the conclusion, ten naked chords, with a slight bite of discord around the edges, resonate a message of hope. I could almost see the life force flooding back into the pianist during this last movement. Robin Wallace, in his book Hearing Beethoven, argues that these chords show us how the deaf composer pounded on his Broadwood keyboard to squeeze out the last possible drops of sound. But there is much more.
Explore the keys
Even if you don’t play the piano, give it a try. Look up the sonata on YouTube and listen to measures 131 through 135 of the last movement (they come about three minutes before the very end). Notice how they grow in volume and how there’s a little discord attached to each, pleasantly annoying. Then find a piano and pound some notes out to achieve a similar effect. Explore the keys and add a small abrasive discord, like the irritant that enables an oyster to create a pearl. Play them over and over, louder and louder, with a tiny puff of silence in between.
Your fingers will ache, your neighbors will scream, and you’ll know for certain that music is everything we need.
Image description: A photo of Jonathan Biss, a 40-year-old white man with short hair, a short beard, and glasses. He stands with his hands in his pockets against a gray background with three yellow lightbulbs overhead. He wears a black jacket and fringed gray scarf.
What, When, Where
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presents pianist Jonathan Biss. Beethoven; Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7; Sonata No. 24 in F# major, Op. 78, and Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110. Livestreamed November 24, 2020 from the American Philosophical Society and available for 72 hours thereafter. www.pcmsconcerts.org or (215) 569-8080.