Beethoven - Face to Face

Interview – 1998 Beethoven - Face to Face

You are currently performing the complete sonatas for piano and violin by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) around the world with Lambert Orkis. And you are also recording these sonatas live. What are the reasons for this?

ASM: The concerto repertoire available to violinists is limited. Although compositions for the violin are hard to find among Beethoven’s works, he is still one of the greatest composers for the violin. His limited knowledge of the instrument, which is to be viewed as more positive than problematic, spurred him on to boundless inspiration. In the Violin Concerto Beethoven offers more than virtuosic ornamental elements; he has created here an entirely new language for the violin. In doing so Beethoven composed the greatest Violin Concerto in history. I have often performed it. However, it is only in his chamber music that Beethoven’s violin writing reaches its full expression. Playing all of his sonatas means having a desire to follow his internal development. He was the first composer to give the violin an equal voice. Beethoven continued the process of partnership between two instruments which Mozart began to introduce in his last sonatas.

After such a long period of concentrating on contemporary music, how do you explain your return to classical repertoires?

ASM: I am an astronaut who has returned from the moon. Thanks to Paul Sacher, I have discovered a new dimension in contemporary music, a universe of colors; no one had ever demanded before that I transform such colors into music. It led me to learn new languages. My sojourns with Lutoslawski, Moret, Rhim and Penderecki have made me a more complete musician. The Beethoven Concerto, which I first took up at the age of fourteen and recorded with Karajan, is today like an old photograph.

No female interpreter before you has ever undertaken such a recording project. Is this only a coincidence?

ASM: In the entire history of recorded music and female instrumentalists, only my generation has achieved equality for women – and that only in recent years. There has been no lack of wonderful female instrumentalists throughout the history of music, but they are certainly lacking in the history of recorded music. Erica Morini is one of the great, Ida Haendel never recorded Beethoven's sonatas, and Ginette Neveu died before she could carry out a similar project. My first recollections of these sonatas are connected with one performer. Before she decided to cut her artistic career short and devote her life to teaching, my mentor Aida Stucki performed the complete cycle of Beethoven's sonatas for piano.

Did Aida Stucki play the sonatas in chronological order?

ASM: No, which is unfortunate from a musical point of view. Every sonata contains a story, and they are all interconnected. These connections, which embody Beethoven's stylistic development, are endangered by the concert pauses between the sonatas and the spiritual digressions that result.

Which logic does the chronological order follow and in which order have you selected to play the sonatas?

ASM: It is a colossal undertaking that reflects fifteen years of Beethoven's life. Lambert Orkis and I have defended both the advantages and the unpleasantness presented by the length of the first program and the brevity of the third program. The first five sonatas are performed during the first evening. Sonatas no. 1, 2 and 3 are inseparable. They show the influence of Haydn and Mozart. These are the attempt by Beethoven to bring the violin into the dialog. The voice of this instrument dominates the second movements, but the first three sonatas are not violinistic overall and are thus a greater technical challenge for the pianist. The reciprocity between the instruments is noticeable beginning with the Fourth Sonata, and one cannot separate it from the Fifth. Both exhibit the same characteristics that are typical for the composer, who liked to juxtapose two worlds during this phase of his life. The Fourth is gloomy and churning, the Fifth is fresh and romantic. But can one make "Spring" come alive when one has not experienced the darkness of a German November – a darkness that is concealed in the Fourth Sonata in a minor?

Are the sonatas in their essence closer to the female spirit?

ASM: Male or female, Beethoven’s sonatas unite both worlds. The Fifth Sonata for piano and violin, "Spring", is the most feminine. It is the first one that I ever performed, the most accessible. Its spiritual openness is magnificent. The Tenth is the triumph of sensibility that one generally does not equate with the typically male character. In my opinion one should not approach the sonatas through the Tenth, which was composed at the same time as the Eighth Symphony. Beethoven was for once not fighting with reality here. The magnificent spirit of this sonata in G Major, a discourse about the magnitude of existence, conjures up attempts to find a higher life ideal. Beethoven repeatedly appealed to humanity. Fidelio, Missa Solemnis and his Ninth Symphony show this very clearly. Beethoven’s last sonata demands a large degree of maturity from the performer. This is my favorite one.

Following in the wake of the marathon first evening featuring the first five sonatas, what logic do the second and third evenings follow?

ASM: The second program logically contains the three sonatas of op. 30. The Sixth Sonata plays the key role in the process which ranges from the Piano Sonata with violin accompaniment to the Sonata for two equal instruments. Beethoven replaced the last movement of this sonata with a variation movement and used it later for the Kreutzer Sonata finished in 1803. The Seventh, because of its four movements, has the greatest breadth within the op. 30. The third movement of the Seventh Sonata is a sarcastic scherzo which is typical of Beethovens artistry. Many music critics lie in wait here for performers. I remember what one critic cried out during the concert with Aida Stucki: "My God, they cant even play together." It is true that with the scherzi of Beethoven sonatas the pianist and the violinist chase each other in syncopation. Then comes the Eighth Sonata in G Major, which is unbelievably warmhearted and parlando. Beethoven again composed three very strongly contrasting works over a period of two to three years. Perfect dialogs between piano and violin characterize the Ninth (Kreutzer) and the Tenth Sonatas, which make up the third program. The Kreutzer Sonata is like a concerto for piano and violin. The concept of a virtuoso duo underlies this sonata. The negative reception that this sonata received in 1805 is typical of the way musical tastes lag behind. It was said that Beethoven was inclined to an aesthetic or artistic terrorism. In the Tenth Sonata the bitterness had disappeared; this is where we hear the humanist speaking. Beethoven is offering his hand. This is why were are giving so many benefit concerts during the year dedicated to his sonatas. Is not Beethoven the composer that best speaks that language of the heart? We are therefore beginning our tour with a benefit concert for children afflicted with cystic fibrosis in Munichs Prinzregenten-Theater. Immediately thereafter we are performing a benefit concert in Frankfurt with the proceeds going for the reconstruction of an orphanage in Victoria, Rumania. In U.S., we will appear in Philadelphia to benefit the essential training of Future professionals at Temple University's renowned Esther Boyer College of Music.

You have already played some of the sonatas in your concerts. Was it your intention from the beginning to complete the cycle?

ASM: This project represents the culmination of a full decade of working together. Lambert Orkis and I will celebrate the tenth anniversary of our artistic collaboration in 1998, and we thought we could risk taking a full year of our lives to dedicate ourselves to Beethoven’s sonatas. A tour of this nature represents a tremendous physical challenge. But the mental challenge will be perhaps even greater. You cannot simply play the first three sonatas in the same manner as the mature Tenth. We will be dealing constantly with Beethoven’s three creative periods through the entire year of 1998.

Your choice of Lambert Orkis was a surprise at the time. Why did you choose him?

ASM: There are many reasons. Musical collaboration is something that has to grow. It needs time to become deeper; its development requires many concerts with as many different repertoires as possible.

Is an internationally acclaimed soloist automatically a great chamber musician? I think not. I need a pianist with broad stylistic ability and a great intuitional grasp. And finally, I need someone who expresses his own opinion. Lambert is all of this. But he is not a soloist that has to be in the foreground. Since we began performing together in 1988, Lambert and I have spent on a regular basis many weeks during the summer working on new recital programs. But we worked on Beethoven’s sonatas then, also. Lambert and I are different in many ways. And it is precisely our differing perceptions, our different cultural heritage rooted in two continents - his in the USA, mine in Europe - that nourishes our collaborative efforts. His repertoire has long been oriented toward contemporary music, while I was raised in the classic Vienna tradition. In recent years, Lambert Orkis has worked intensively with period keyboard instruments. As a result he has acquired stylistic understanding, sensitivity, and a mastery of diverse keyboard instruments. He is able to achieve a broad spectrum of musical hues on a concert grand piano. In addition, he plays with the harmonic understanding and polyphonic accentuation that is so decisive in chamber music. It is never a matter of whether a pianist plays too loudly or too softly but whether he can give the music the proper voicing at a given moment. If he can achieve this, it is possible to perform the sonatas with an open concert grand without forcing the violin to its dynamic limits.

At the end of our world tour we will give a concert in the house where Beethoven was born. We will perform here on December 17, 1998, the anniversary of Beethoven’s baptism. This concert will be dedicated to the restoration of Beethoven’s home.

Have you studied the original scores of the sonatas in Bonn?

ASM: Yes, the ones that are preserved there; some are also to be found in Vienna. I have visited on many occasions the house in Bonn where Beethoven was born. By studying the original scores you can see how he wrestled with every note. Especially with the Seventh Sonata. The sheer number of corrections lends the sonata a life of its own.

Which of your Stradivari have you selected for the sonatas?

ASM: The Lord Dunn Raven from 1710. I bought it a dozen years ago. My first, the Emiliani, is superb, but is missing a certain dimension. It sounds superb, but that’s all. It has no stridency. It lacks unbridled power. I need this harshness for the eruptive moments of the Beethoven sonatas. One needs it for Brahms, Sibelius and contemporary works. 

You are recording the sonatas live. How did you decide in which order to record them and in which halls?

ASM: We will begin with the last five sonatas. They have been in our repertoire for several years and thus represent familiar terrain. We have chosen to record these sonatas in a hall which does not favor either instrument, one in which an attentive audience will support us with their silence. The Musikverein in Vienna would also have been quite suitable, but we will not be playing there until the end of the tour. Our choice is the Philharmonie in Berlin, which is imbued with so many wonderful memories of Karajan. The first five sonatas will be recorded in Carnegie Hall in New York, which has excellent acoustics. This will occur around the middle of the tour. We decided to record live, because in order to play this music well it must be played in the presence of a passionate audience. It is the breathless silence of the audience that forms the fertile environment in which music thrives.

Do your concerts allow you time to tend to your foundation?

ASM: I occupy myself with contemporary music and its Future performers. Not yet belonging to the older generation, I believe that young people should be helped. My great mentor Aida Stucki raised me in the tradition of Carl Flesh. This unique teacher must not be forgotten. For this reason I am working to restore the Carl Flesh Competition in London. I also have a foundation in Munich that supports Future string-instrumentalists worldwide. We grant stipends to talented violinists, violists and cellists. These stipends and my contacts with international soloists enable my young colleagues from all over the world to find inspiration in exchanges with people their age.

Acquiring an instrument is of existential importance to every string-instrumentalist. Because our instrument is our voice, our very intimate partner. It is part of our personality. Foundations that closely follow bureaucratic regulations often jeopardize the artistic development of a musician because they demand that instruments which have been lent to them be returned much too soon. Financing a string instrument is a major problem. All these are things that are dear to my heart, because they are obstacles that I had to deal with during my youth. And once these problems are overcome, perhaps the greatest danger of all remains – the nightmare of music marketing. With today’s aggressive marketing, it is often not the performer that makes the impression but rather packaging, youth, virtuosity, sensation. Music is not a business. Music and creative arts are as important as the air we breath. We need this nourishment for the spirit and the soul.

  • Beethoven: Die 10 Violinsonaten
    Beethoven: Die 10 Violinsonaten

    Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lambert Orkis

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