Argerich for Beethoven

It’s Beethoven’s birthday, so I thought I should listen a bit to the maestro. Ludwig van is great on his own terms and also as a sensational “gateway composer” for those new to the mysteries of European classical music.

Beethoven was prolific. There are 32 piano sonatas, all in the active repertoire, and all unique.

Haydn and Mozart also wrote dozens of sonatas, but there can be something a shade interchangeable in lesser efforts of those two masters. Even his slighter sonatas, Beethoven stamps each movement with a ruthless individuality. As part of his forthright “I am Beethoven!” style, he can turn corners caustically in a manner that perhaps recalls Thelonious Monk.

Several of the best Beethoven piano sonatas have evocative names: Pathétique, Moonlight, Appassionata, Tempest, Les Adieux. I hadn’t heard the Waldstein in a while, so I looked for a video. To my shock, I found an (audio only) bootleg of Martha Argerich playing the Waldstein in 1970.

In the 1990’s, when I immersed myself in European piano repertoire and performance, I collected the complete Argerich on CD — which wasn’t hard, for almost all of it was on DG and there just weren’t so many issues. However, in the age of plenty, now there are all sorts of previously unobtainable goodies on YouTube. As far as I know, Argerich has never recorded a Beethoven piano sonata for studio release, but there are at least two sonatas from live recitals online, the Waldstein and lo-fi video of Op. 10 no. 3 in D Major in 1977.

Argerich is universally considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time. It is not just her unbelievable technique, but her gutsy and heartfelt way with a narrative. The performances never sound steely, fussy, or precious. She just goes.


Op. 10 no. 3

Presto. This is “late early” Ludwig van (he was 28), where many of the figurations are not far from a basic Cramer etude. The opening motto is almost foolish, and the fast passages are interrupted by hollow questions. I played this is a kid, and later on I looked for a really satisfactory recording. Of course, everyone I listened to was at least very good, but many seemed a bit too serious. Argerich’s fast tempo and nonchalant attitude is perfect. I actually burst into tears watching this first movement. (True story.)

Largo e mesto. A dark song, with florid passages that prefigure Chopin. Some pianists drag this one out, looking for more and more profundity, but Argerich simply follows the thread. While classical pianists are often praised for having a “delicate touch,” in reality long slow passages of soft sound require a lot of strength.

Menuetto: Allegro. Can you imagine when the only time you heard music was when you heard it performed in person? The smaller dance movements in major sonatas (from before the era of pre-recorded sound) were a way to keep the party going before closing time. Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti wrote their fast melodies for keyboard instruments with one dynamic and one articulation: “on” or “off.” Mozart and Haydn’s early pianos had more range. We don’t really know what Beethoven’s instrument was like, but it certainly didn’t sound like a modern Steinway. I’m sure the composer would be astounded and delighted by the range of color (meaning articulation, dynamics, and pedaling) unselfconsciously lavished this little dance tune (and trio section of forthright arpeggios) by Argerich.

Rondo: Allegro. A question — even a joke question — followed by an Italianate answer, before scurrying hither and thither. I suppose some “experts” might chastise Argerich for playing this “too fast,” but I love it. There’s no way to make this Rondo serious music, so why not delight in pure speed and precise articulation?


Waldstein

Allegro con brio. We are now in the thick of middle Beethoven, maybe my personal favorite era of the composer, where he expanded the language of Western music from top to bottom. The famous opening of the Waldstein may not seem like a big deal to 2022 ears, but at the time it was impossible. (Beethoven was 34.) The alternating of tonic major and tonic minor was also unconventional and — oh yes — the second theme of the C major sonata is in far-flung E major. Let’s go! Argerich is simply burning, of course, the aggressive left hand chords on A major have McCoy Tyner level of intensity. In the development section the sequences of arpeggios lash like a whip.

Introduzione: Adagio molto. In an era when there was no recorded sound, humans of all description tried to play their home piano. There was little hope an amateur practitioner would make it through the outer movements of the Waldstein, but the slow movement, a chromatically rich interlude, could be sight-read by just about anybody — at least until the transition, with all those 32nd notes… (I believe that Beethoven was the first composer to write so many 32nd notes.)

Rondo. Allegretto moderato — Prestissimo. At the time the finale would have been one of the hardest, flashiest piano pieces yet written. There is some debate about the octave glissandos late in the piece. Certainly Beethoven’s instrument had a lighter touch and therefore so they would have been a bit more playable. I saw Peter Serkin execute them perfectly after licking his thumbs first. In the comments on the YouTube, there is discussion about what Argerich does (and in the parallel place in the first Beethoven concerto). Then, there is the pedaling: the composer writes the rondo theme with the tonic and dominant under one pedal. Did he really mean this? How did it sound on Beethoven’s piano? (A related question exists with the famous Moonlight sonata.) Argerich, rarely shy with the pedal to begin with, keeps her foot down more than most. It’s gorgeous. In the interludes between rondo theme statements she absolutely rages and the coda — with its chain of impossible trills — is a burst of fearless sorcery.