Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 8, 14, 23
Shuann Chai (fp)
POSTERN PARK 11 (56:00)
This recording is as remarkable as, or perhaps more than, the music played on it. Shuann Chai, a Chinese-American pianist who studied at both Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory, here tackles three of Beethoven’s most famous and original sonatas on a replica Viennese fortepiano c.1798. Thus we have the rare advantage of hearing this music played on the type of instrument for which it was written. Yes, I know there
are other Beethoven sonata recordings on the fortepiano (I’ve heard some of them), but this one is truly remarkable for one big reason: Chai doesn’t care—in the historically informed sense—that she’s playing an authentic instrument, and so is supposed to be gentler and more circumspect on its keyboard than on a modern instrument. She goes for the boiling emotion in Beethoven’s music with every phrase she plays, and the result is a recital bristling with excitement.
In fact, by the time she played the last movement of the “Pathétique” Sonata, I had reached two conclusions. One: She plays these sonatas exactly the way I would if I had her technique. Let me describe, for instance, the first movement of this sonata by way of example. If you read the score, you’ll see that Beethoven very clearly marks the opening chords—and several passages thereafter—
meaning to be attacked
but to quickly reduce the volume to
Anyone who has tackled this sonata on a modern instrument, regardless of make, knows that this is very difficult, because any chord of that size attacked
takes a while to decay. But Beethoven doesn’t give you time to let the sound decay—he wants that
sound to carry over into the next phrase before another
attack. Yet on the fortepiano, with a frame made entirely of wood, not metal, the sound decays very quickly. Beethoven knew this. He was incorporating some of this into the actual fabric of his compositions. Thus, like Berlioz, Wagner, Debussy, and Mingus, he was a composer interested in timbre, at least that of his own instrument, for which he wrote some of his most personal musical statements. If the reader is following me so far, he or she will understand why I am so impressed with this recording. Chai seems to understand this principle, and exploits it.
I am, then, delighted to read a statement from her in the liner notes that says exactly that: “I’ve often mentioned the feeling I have that Beethoven was pushing out against the boundaries in the music he wrote … on the fortepiano. … The dynamics and the articulations take on a very organic meaning when played on an original instrument, and the music really lifts off the page.” In this context, then, it is perhaps less interesting to hear Sonata 14 played on such an instrument than the two more powerful sonatas that bookend it. Yet even here, it’s interesting to hear the first movement played as Chai does it—completely muted, with the damper pedal down throughout. Again, even with the damper pedal down, there is a bit more decay on a metal-frame instrument than on one with a wooden frame. Chai shows how Beethoven built this sonata, dynamically, from the almost eerie first movement, through the gentle waltz melody of the second movement, to the sudden explosion (by this point, undoubtedly expected by Beethoven fans but a surprise to many listeners) in the third. And it is in the third movement that I most appreciate Chai’s playing. She attacks the keyboard with such gusto that the notes practically rattle, the piano wires throbbing with overtones.
One might expect something similar in the last movement of the “Appassionata,” but here Chai reserves her key-rattling for the
coda. The rest of the movement is played at the marked tempo, which is a shade slower than many pianists (myself included—I have to be honest) like to take it. On the fortepiano there are, perhaps, a few moments one registers as disappointing, such as when Beethoven marks crescendos, but only because the fortepiano has a narrower dynamic range, not because Chai is giving any less.
I hear you saying to yourself, Beethoven was deaf when he wrote these sonatas, so how could he tell what effects he was getting? Ah, but he wasn’t deaf when he wrote the “Pathétique” (1798–99) or the “Moonlight” (1801). The Heiligenstadt Testament was written in 1802, and even then, Beethoven was not yet completely deaf—he just had that incessant buzzing in the ears and difficulty separating sounds. (His housekeepers recalled how, even in later years, he would put a pencil in his mouth, touch the other end of the pencil to the soundboard of the piano, and thus get some indication of the note and volume of the sound vibration.) Beethoven knew
what he was doing when he wrote the first two sonatas in this set, and his intimate knowledge of what the instrument could and could not do kept him going into his later years.
Anyway, this is a heck of an impressive CD. I was tired, really weary, when I put it on to review, thinking to myself, “Oh well, it’s just another Beethoven recital.” But it’s not. It’s a real ear-opener.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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