Dear La Folia 2.

Russell Lichter

[April 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:4.]

Dear La Folia,

I apologize for not writing sooner but I have been so busy meditating on suffering, old age and death, trying to fathom the meaning of my unlikely existence in a universe that is even more unlikely (and increasingly appears to be composed not of quarks or strings, but of imagination), that I’ve had precious little time for the really important things, like whether SACD will become the de facto new standard, or whether the Spectron Digital One amplifier is truly digital in nature. I did find time to install a new gadget on my Rega tonearm. Designed by Sal Calaio of Express Machining, this eccentric counterweight does wonderful things for vinyl reproduction. And I even found time to buy some new CDs, including another version of the late Beethoven piano sonatas.

I reread J.W.N. Sullivan’s book, Beethoven, His Spiritual Development, some time ago, curious if it would supply the sort of inspired understanding it did in the extremity of my youth. It did not, though clearly Sullivan was struggling to come to verbal grips with music which elicits adjectives like “humane,” “spiritual” and “transcendent” as no other music has done. One could readily entertain wildly divergent opinions about the last four piano sonatas, one contradicting the other, with equanimity, poise and humor. The historical Buddha, I have it on high authority, was fond of puns, and wasn’t above the occasional practical joke. Imagine you are in a foreign city, you ask the concierge for the name of the best restaurant in town, you sit down at a window table, the waiter comes over and asks you in broken English what you would like. You tell him to choose the very best the chef has to offer, you don’t care about what the ingredients are, how it’s cooked, or what it costs. Later, contemplating life’s rich panoply over a cup of superlative espresso, with no idea what you’ve just eaten, you realize once again that the palate is another portal to delight and wisdom.

The version of the sonatas I know well are those on the Naxos label, played by Jenö Jändö. Take the Hammerklavier: there has been so much written about it, pianists have struggled with it so, it is difficult to play, difficult to understand, it can even be difficult to listen to. All those bloody trills! What does Jändö do? He does what only great musicians only sometimes manage to do, he makes it effortless, lucid, easy to understand. I’ve been spending a great deal of time with this performance, and even more with the three Beethoven sonatas which followed it. Every so often I’d pull out Glenn Gould’s recording of the Hammerklavier. As you will recall, I am a great fan: when Gould speaks, Lichter listens. There is almost always something to be learned from Mr Gould. But, after numerous auditions, his Hammerklavier remained dutiful and uninspiring. Then one evening it suddenly made sense, Gould was on to something and Lichter was listening. In a flush of excitement I ordered his Volume II Beethoven sonatas on the Sony label, which includes the last three as well as several earlier ones, notably the Appassionata. It wasn’t that something was lacking in Jändö’s playing, it was a passion to hear this music in many ways. (I own multiple versions of the Goldbergs and Pictures at an Exhibition for this reason.)

One of us, I or Glenn Gould, is severely mistaken about this music. For a guy like Gould an ego is a sort of plaything, and he was quite brilliant enough to be good at the game. To speak irreverently of the revered, to be flip in the face of the monumental is one thing, but to perform music that way is something else. There was reportedly some consternation at Columbia when this brilliant Canadian kid was asked what he wanted to record after his debut Goldberg Variations album and he said the final Beethoven sonatas, normally the province of pianists well aged and matured, like a fine cheese. It is not that the performances are without interest, it is merely that to my ear, Gould hasn’t a bloody clue what Beethoven is all about. I hate to say such a thing about a musician I admire perhaps more than any other, but something distinctly untoward is going on. In fact, it is well nigh impossible to imagine Gould was so wide of the mark except deliberately so. Let us say, then, that pianist and composer are incompatible.

But wait, as the ad men say, there’s more. There’s Gould’s version of the Appassionata sonata. Beethoven marked the first movement Allegro assai and Gould, taking license he was to exercise again when recording the Mozart sonatas, plays it Adagio. One wag of a critic (cricket, Gulley Jimson calls them) called it “deliberate sabotage.” Me, I love Gould’s version of Mozart, which the purer of heart regard as some kind of unspeakable sacrilege, and I have a compelling reason: most versions bore me, Gould’s playing excites me. This is not true of his Appassionata. The painfully slow performance explicates the structure of the music at the price of everything else. What Gould’s Mozart and Appassionata performances have in common are, indifference to the composers’ metric intention, and a stated dislike for the music. The Mozart works. The Beethoven does not.

I’ve ordered versions of the last four sonatas played by Richter. Report to follow.