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Beethoven at the Gardner: Uncorked at the Fuga


On Sunday, December 14, 2008, Paavali Jumppanen wrapped up his version of the complete Beethoven sonatas—32 in all-over a two-year, eight—concert cycle at Boston’s prized Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Within a relatively short time, this young, Finnish pianist has captured numerous awards, thrusting him onto the international stage. That he has recorded the complete piano music of the modern French serialist Pierre Boulez to glowing reviews tells us that he must be in the possession of considerable technique-never mind a mind to take on higher complexities in music. The young Finn furnished his own extensive program notes on the three Beethoven sonatas opus 109, 110 and 111. They are fascinating, even insightful, about the pianist and the interpreter.

His thoughts on Opus 110, Sonata in A-flat Major, third movement, Fuga:

“The following fugue Allegro ma non troppo is filled with hope. The fugue is the most tranquil and most uniform in texture of all of Beethoven’s fugues. Its mood is the complete opposite from the lamentation, while still remaining in solemn context. The culminations are ecclesiastical and even the joy of the climax at the end contains some self-restraint.”

It was at this very point in the concert when pianism took a leap to another space, becoming truly tangible, even sensuous. Up to this quite remarkable level of playing, Jumppanen commanded our attention to each and every note. All sorts of shapes and shades of sounds from Beethoven whizzed by ears with hardly a mishap; and those that did occur were only subtle ones. But up until this point my sense was that the drama came out the pianism, if that makes any sense at all. A kind of abstract expression, if you will, where one is aware that a story is unfolding yet unable to get up close enough to realize any discoveries. There was anticipation up to this point, though, of something to come-and come it did, uncorking at this juncture.

Jumppanen makes much of the piano, low growls, high whimpers, trills turned expressive through rhythmically nuanced meddling. He kept us suspended on those many unresolved Beethovenian cadences. He bore down on notes that lie outside consonant harmony, ones that we would expect to be continuing on toward their resolution, all of this adding up to a more dissonant but totally engaging play of what belongs and what does not.

Overall, the middle register melodies in the right hand became awash with over articulating. Their expressiveness turned into predictability. More of the softer sounds that he had conjured up in so many other kinds of passages would have been welcome here, too.

“Beethoven’s…opus 111 begins dramatically with the boulder-like chord declarations, pushing the listener into a world threat and despair. The three stony phrases of the Maestoso introduction each contain three blows of destiny and a trill figure fleeing away from them.” After the brief intermission the action continued with Jumppanen taking his seat at the piano and without further notice attacking those “boulder-like chord declarations.” I felt less in the world of Kant and Goethe that he later writes about and more in the midst of a scene of intense melodrama. Which leads to this…

Leaving the concert, my impression was that the pianist’s own detailed program notes did, to good extent, create an insightful map showing the way of his youthful journey into the mature works of a master of all masters. Today, Paavali Jumppanen emerged as a pianist whose labor of love in every known to him sought to reach the heights. Even when the going became a bit “abstract” for this listener, there was still the promise of much more to come from this devoutly searching and inviting pianism this newcomer has shown us today. With his obvious passion and curiosity he will most likely later, if not sooner, be one of those few who takes us to the full heights that Beethoven and music would have us reach. I look forward to hearing him again.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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