On Sunday afternoon pianist Yuan Sheng of the Beijing Central Conservatory faculty played four of the most famous and popular sonatas of Beethoven’s, the Pathétique, Waldstein, Moonlight, and Appassionata for the Frederick Collection on a piano made by a little-known Viennese builder, Caspar Katholnig, somewhere between 1805 and 1810. The instrument was formerly owned by the Esterhazy family and housed in their palace at Eisenstadt while Johann Nepomuk Hummel was their Kappelmeister, so it is very likely that his fingers touched its keys – you can find details about the instrument in an earlier review of a recital in which it was featured here.
It was a full-plate, heavy program/meal for numerous reasons, not the least being that everyone knows these works and has heard them numerous times, and is therefore quick to take note of any flaw(s) in the performance, but it’s safe to say that none of us had ever heard performance quite like these To begin: the chosen order very effectively highlighted the similarities and differences among the works, the pair on the first half opening with movements marked “con brio” that are followed by markedly contrasting slow ones with exquisite melodies, followed in turn by Rondos marked in a variety of allegro, the whole concluding with a prestissimo. The second-half pair didn’t match quite so perfectly, because the first is not structured as a standard sonata, as its subtitle indicates, but they went together in mood as well as those of the first half did in form.
Secondly, few if any of us had ever heard the set played on an instrument of Beethoven’s time to experience what he would have heard, assuming that his hearing loss had not yet progressed dramatically, or at the very least hearing them as he imagined them sounding as he wrote. Everyone knows that he wrote to piano makers (many of whom wrote to him first, offering him their instruments) complaining about the softness of the sound, the lack of power. Many pianists take this all too literally, however, by playing much too loudly on a modern piano, which ends up producing an unpleasant noise rather than music. As Sheng said in his comments before the second half, what Beethoven didn’t write about was how all the other aspects of the instruments of his day enhanced his music and made it sublimely beautiful: for starters, the rapid decay of the crystal clear sound, which allows the pianist to hold the damper pedal down as Beethoven specified continuously throughout the first movement of the “Moonlight,” for example, and as Sheng demonstrated, without producing mud, producing instead the precise ‘cloudy’ atmosphere that inspired the work’s nickname. Sheng also said that the decay of the sound is what determines the rhythm of the playing, that the pianist attacks the next note when the sound is at the final moment before fading, and that it is not possible to play this way on a modern piano. The sounds produced by this instrument were as musical as they get, and they all flowed forth naturally; while a modern piano is all about tremendous power, this one is all about expression and creation of harmonious musical tones. The performance revealed a beauty all too often hidden in the mass of sound produced by a modern instrument.
Thirdly, Sheng had absorbed this music so thoroughly that a listener might easily have imagined the composer at the keyboard. He was as physically involved with the instrument as Beethoven is said to have been, really working to get the loud sections (although he did not make any strings snap), but effortlessly obtaining the lyrical passages in a manner that left us breathless and made the creative genius of Beethoven really shine. He focused on the music and the instrument throughout without any extraneous gestural display until he lifted his hands from the keyboard at the end of each work. His impeccable performance made the audience literally spring to its feet (and some of us are of an age where springing doesn’t come easily) at the end of each half to acknowledge his amazing accomplishment.
This was a benefit performance for the Frederick Collection. Sheng apologized that the scheduled departure time of the bus to take him back to NYC left him without the time to play his planned encore, the Andante favori that was originally written to be the slow movement of Op. 21, but which the publisher rejected. He had, however played and recorded it during rehearsal the evening before for the purpose of having it added to the recording of the day’s program that attendees could order/purchase by making an additional $100 donation. The recital was certainly an experience that those of us in attendance will never forget, even without the aid of the CD. How fortunate we are to have this incredible Collection of instruments that draws pianists of Sheng’s caliber from all over the world to play them in our midst!