Not a lot went right as eminent NEC pianist Gabriel Chodos essayed three Beethoven pieces Tuesday night at Jordan Hall. Many measures evinced his naturally rich sonorities, true, and as always a certain patrician maturity overlay the proceedings. Opus 101’s slow movement, to be played yearningly, did yearn. Some of the Appassionata sonata held, or came, together—the four reposeful variations, simply burnished, glowed—and at the end the heedless closing pages got executed impressively, with considerable excitement. But elsewhere, and indeed from the opening notes of the Andante favori, smudge ruled, whether it was trills, runs, pedaling, or thick chord voicings, and frustrating blurs were what regularly floated out into the acoustically marvelous space. On a few occasions we heard near halts to regroup or downshift.
The program promised something. Andante favori was the 34-year-old composer’s name for the former slow movement of the Waldstein sonata (1804). A spacious, decorative, ingratiating rondo, with balletic flavors (William Kinderman), it was wisely excised, to my take, and in the event is not easy to locate in the new heroic mode of the self-aware young man coming to terms with both greatness and hearing loss. The Appassionata dates from a couple years later and was Beethoven’s own favorite sonata for some time (we sometimes forget he was an amazing pianist and had started out as a young virtuoso). Sonorities are at once precise and fierce, the outer movements feeling like torrents held in check (Michael Steinberg), with the last one “in pursuit of a single, tragic mood … allegro with a cautionary ‘but not too much’, so as to set into greater relief the roar—for Tovey a ‘rushing deathwards’—of the final page.” A decade later, piano technology having advanced, Opus 101 announces the start of the composer’s later, weirder, more complicated thinking. Steinberg: “Rather dangerous for an ordinary recital program … it begins in midsentence, the mood reflective, … deep breaths [seek] sometimes to defy gravity with syncopated chords in which downbeats are carefully avoided.” After that poignant slow movement, Beethoven “moves with a new charge of energy into the finale, quick, risky, startling, dissonant, whimsical, learned, and acknowledged to be very difficult.”
As they age, even the top pianists come to a point where they ought not essay certain mainstream composers, at least not their difficult major works. Chopin and Beethoven are often said to be a good test.
The audience response to all of this Beethoven was inexplicably strong, and the encore, a Schubert Musical Moment (no. 2, from 1823, Schubert 26), made it plain we should hope for more Chodos. A longing monotony of patience and impatience, its slow pained drama and choral probing were imbued with rich color.
Another piano critic in the audience, and an old fan of Chodos’s previous elegaic efforts, concurred:
He took brave tempi at times, heedless of his current technique, and would have carried us before him had we not worried about the next breakdown. He had a strangely mushy legato, sounding sometimes simply like overpedaling, although it was not. He was often unable to weight individual notes either in smooth phrases or in even chords. And yet in the Schubert, he could relax into his old magic.