Notes and Editorial Reviews
Polonaise in C,
Variations and Fugue in E?,
op. 35, “Eroica.”
Fantasia in g,
Piano Sonata No. 32
Inna Faliks (pn)
MSR 1446 (65:34)
Reviewing an album by Inna Faliks titled
Sound of Verse
in 33:3, I described her program of works by Boris Pasternak,
Ravel, and Rachmaninoff as “intelligently planned, exceptionally well-played, and superbly recorded.” Those attributes apply equally to this new release.
With so many pianists currently engaged in, or having recently completed, cycles of Beethoven’s sonatas, Faliks has looked elsewhere in the composer’s catalog to find a couple of semi-precious gems often passed over for richer treasures. Not counting the current recording, ArkivMusic lists only 10 other entries for the Polonaise in C Major, most of which date back quite a few years, and only 18 entries for the Fantasia in G Minor, again, most of which are not recent.
A long, circuitous, and torturous tale, involving Tsar Alexander’s murder of his father, his military adventures, and his subsequent commissioning of Beethoven’s three violin sonatas, op. 30, almost comically seems to lead to the polonaise-loving violinist Joseph Mayseder, one-time member of the Schuppanzig Quartet, and the Tsar’s Tsarina, Elisabeth, on a visit to Vienna in 1814. Beethoven was on record as despising the polonaise craze, but a little flattery from Elisabeth—she complimented him on the violin sonatas he’d written for her husband years earlier—and the even more persuasive 50 ducats she pressed into his hand, convinced Beethoven to compose this five-minutes-plus Polonaise.
In today’s dollars, an 1814 ducat would have had a value of approximately $160, which means Elisabeth paid Beethoven around $8,000 for the Polonaise, possibly the most expensive five minutes of music in history. Two things are for sure: one, with the fees Beethoven demanded for his services, he was no poor, starving artist; and two, Elisabeth got ripped off, for her generous endowment bought her a bagatelle barely worth 50 pfennigs. The album note suggests, however, that the payment was also in settlement of the Tsar’s long outstanding debt stilled owed for the violin sonatas, which makes more sense.
The 1809 Fantasia in G Minor is no mere bagatelle, but it’s surely one of Beethoven’s more curious head-scratchers. Noted musicologist Hugh MacDonald had this to say about the piece: “Despite the widespread belief, still held in many quarters that the classical virtues or order, logic, unity, and organic growth are the mainsprings of Beethoven’s genius, there seems to me to be an equal place in his work allotted to precisely the opposite, to elements that are disorderly, illogical, dis-unified, inorganic, anticlassical, disruptive, and so on. Beethoven’s range is much wider than many have realized. And he can switch instantly from one extreme to the other. He can mix the good, the bad, and the ugly within a single bar. Reason and unreason jostle side by side. This would be more tolerable if we could easily tell which was which, but the disturbing thing is that it is never clear. Listening to Beethoven can be a grotesque guessing game because just when you think you have the measure of his mind he pulls the rug from under, he slips like a genie through your fingers, he slams down the lid of the piano.”
The Fantasia, however, is not a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the same way that some of Beethoven’s other disorderly, dis-unified, and disruptive works are. This piece is just plain weird, unless you subscribe to my theory of its purpose and why Beethoven wrote it. Remember back in the good old days of turntables and vinyl LPs, when you could buy “test” records to measure things like frequency response, rumble, wow, and flutter? Well, listening to this Fantasia, I’m absolutely convinced that Beethoven wrote it to test the mechanical properties of various pianos he was trying out.
What else could possibly explain the utterly ridiculous runs up and down the keyboard that start, then stop midway, the passages exactly repeated in different octaves, the sequences of arpeggios spanning the instrument’s range, the isolated chords to test decay time, the pointillist pecking to test the staccato action, and the bars of lyrical melody supported by Alberti-bass-like figurations to test the pedal and dampers and the sostenuto tone of the instrument? This is just what I would expect if someone sat down to try out a brand new Steinway, Yamaha, or Fazioli grand. It’s as if Beethoven spent a minute or two speed-dating each piano in the showroom, playing little fragments from each of his piano sonatas up to 1809, which would cover 23 out of the 32, all the way up through the “Appassionata.” I mean, good grief; the piece begins in G Minor and ends in B Major! What does that tell you?
The Variations and Fugue in E? Major, popularly known as the “Eroica Variations,” is a much better-known and more widely recorded work. The theme, not originally by Beethoven, is one familiar from the last movement of the Third Symphony, but it’s also one the composer used elsewhere, namely in the
Creatures of Prometheus
and in one of his
The C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 32) is, of course, Beethoven’s last and has enjoyed recordings by celebrated pianists since the dawn of the recording age.
Ukrainian-born, New York-based Inna Faliks is a pianist as brimful of ideas as she is endowed with talent. She draws a tone of deep sonority from her Yamaha piano, and one senses in her playing a technique of such reserves that she doesn’t even have to call on all of it for these works. That allows her to concentrate on matters of interpretation and communication, which, in the former case is penetrating, and in the latter, extraordinary.
I really like, too, the idea of mixing lesser known Beethoven works with more familiar ones; it makes for an interesting program, and in the case of the Fantasia, a fun one. Play it for your friends, while trying not to laugh, and watch their reactions.
Faliks has yet to become a major presence on record, but with this album and her above-mentioned
Sound of Verse
now out on a mainstream commercial label, I suspect that’s going to change. A wonderful release all around, and very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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