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Beethoven and Chopin by the Sea


Piers Lane, an Australian resident in London, gave an unusual but gratifying piano recital at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport on Friday evening — my third trip to this beautiful and acoustically generous 350-seat hall overlooking Pigeon Cove and the Sandy Bay. The pianist also spoke briefly and informally before each half of the program, but mostly deferred to the good program notes (they were, in fact) in the well-illustrated 104-page booklet covering the summer’s programs.

Beethoven’s Grande Sonate Pathétique, op. 13 shows the master sundering the conventions of sonata form in the simultaneous directions of concision (it is shorter than its immediate predecessors) and of formal imagination — especially in the first movement, in which thematic material from the dramatically expressive slow introduction makes strategic reappearances, and in the brisk finale, in which the rondo form is peeled down to bare essentials and the keyboard-virtuoso element systematically suppressed — all of which make for an intense C minor, foreshadowing the Third Concerto. The pianist spoke of imagining Bach’s C Minor Partita in the background of this sonata, but that would not have occurred to me. In Lane’s performance I especially welcomed the well-shaped slow Introduction, the energetic but perfectly smooth Allegro di molto e con brio, and the warm slow movement that might have inspired Chopin’s nocturne style (even though Chopin himself often expressed doubts about Beethoven).

Lane’s unhurried tempi in the Pathétique carried over into the A-flat Major Sonata, op. 110, at the other end of Beethoven’s career. Many take the first movement too slowly and the second too fast; these felt just right. The Adagio that followed sounded admirably plaintive, and the visual effect of the pianist’s changes of fingering on the Bebung tied notes proved convincing, as did the seriously palpable crescendi on the intensely repeated G major chords at the return (inversione) of the 6/8 fugue. This proceeded effectively to the final pages, where the subject comes back accompanitively in diminution (it really works, but the proportional speed of the semiquavers and demisemiquavers is difficult to figure out aurally at first — poi a poi di nuovo vivente). I would like to hear Lane play the others of the last three:  opp. 109 and 111.

Piers Lane in memorable candlelight concert a couple of years ago.

The second half featured “The Complete Waltzes” of Chopin. I have played several of these since my 11th year— my transfiguring discovery of one of the greatest melodists of all time, as he appears in these amiable household pieces. Stravinsky said, agreeably, that Chopin’s waltzes “are not waltzes but portraits of waltzes.” Historically, if you want waltzes for dancing, start with Schubert (more than 200) even before Lanner and the Strauss family. Lane played 17 of them. (Actually there is one more in the Paderewski edition that he missed… and two more still, which I will get to in a minute.) It wouldn’t have been my choice to play all of these together — they don’t cohere like the 24 Preludes op. 28 — and yet I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear them, from beginning to end. The most familiar to most pianists are the first two of op. 64 (the “Minute” Waltz and the great C-sharp Minor), the Grande Valse Brillante op. 18, and the “Two-four” Waltz, op. 42, plus the exquisite, deeply expressive but not very characteristic A Minor Waltz, no. 2 of op. 34. (My personal favorite: the early D-flat Major Waltz, op. 70, no. 3.) But others exist outside the usual table of contents, including at least two of the 17 Polish songs, op. 74 — one such, op. 74 no. 1, known as “The Maiden’s Wish,” you can find in Liszt’s charming solo arrangement. And of the 56-plus Chopin Mazurkas, all of them of course in triple meter,  a few, like op. 33 no. 2, seem more waltz than mazurka.

I tried to get the numbering and ordering of the Chopin Waltzes straight in my mind by consulting the chronological catalogue by Maurice J. E. Brown (1960; there is a revised edition), which gives “B” numbers, and the listing in the New New Grove, which shows the traditional opus numbers as well as the “KK” numbers from the Polish catalogue by K. Kobylańska (1977) which is not chronological. Neither of these indexes conforms to the “WN” numbers in the program booklet of last night’s concert. Eventually it seemed easier to sort the waltzes by their keys. Thus the lightweight E Major Waltz of 1829, included in some popular editions, arrived first on the program (WN 18), followed by the better-known B Minor (WN 19), also from 1829.

For the unfamiliar and wistful closer, Lane chose pages in A Minor dating from 1847 (B 150; KK IVb/11; WN 63). Lane didn’t play B 146 in E-flat Major (Paderewski edition, no. 17), nor the “Sostenuto” Waltz, also in E-flat Major, from 1840 (B 133; not in the New Grove). (Brown mentions another Waltz, in B Major, from 1848, discovered in 1952; it may have been published by now.)

Lane’s friend Robert Constable wrote the encore Slinky Foxtrot; its slinky harmony reminded me of Billy Mayerl.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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