Saturday, February 28, 2015

Playing Beethoven again

Some months ago a friend gave me the three volumes of Beethoven piano sonatas in hardcover. They'd never been used, and though they were fairly elderly, they were in pristine condition.

I hadn't played the sonatas for some time, although I've had the books since I was a teenager, and learned them most of them (with a few exceptions) as a young man. During the years I've come back to them a number of times, but had found myself less and less enamoured of them for some reason.

Over the summer holidays I didn't play the piano much, and of course, at my age, that's not a good idea. Your fingers quickly lose their suppleness and agility - that is, what suppleness and agility they still retain. So it was quite a workout to get back to playing at all well again.

I decided to tackle the Beethoven sonatas one by one, remembering that at some point in my life I'd read that Beethoven had supposedly said he never practised scales and arpeggios: learning a piece (he was probably talking about one of his pieces!) was in itself sufficient to make his fingers work. And with that in mind, I began with Sonata I and worked my way through the first book.

It was a terrible effort at first, and I felt as though I could barely play at all. But then gradually, as I worked my way from the front of the book to the back and then back again to the front, the fingers decided that they could get up and going, and now they're doing very well.

I can't say I'm playing the fast sections up to speed, and there are still innumerable moments when I have to stop and check if I'm really playing what's written (I've found a few spots where I've been playing things wrong since I was a youth!), but I'm enjoying these sonatas all over again, and have now started on the second volume. Just played through the 'Moonlight' Sonata which of course was never named that by Beethoven. In fact the last movement of it is anything but romantic moonlight. It's a major workout, and is riddled with arpeggios.

Beethoven, for the most part, wrote piano music that most people could play. Occasionally he goes crazy and writes things that are almost impossible and sometimes writes things that require a huge amount of work just to achieve something relatively simple. But surprisingly, as I play these pieces again, I find they're more straightforward than I thought. It helps that I know where most of them are going and that they're familiar, but in general he uses relatively simple means to achieve his effects.

And the slow movements are something that you're much more in tune with as you get older. I can remember as a teenager wondering what the great gaps were in one slow movement and wondering why I had to count so carefully when nothing was happening. That's something youth doesn't appreciate so readily. At my age the wondrous slowness is something you fall in love with again and again.

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