By Ted AYALA
Confronted with the music of Beethoven leaves one with the temptation to paraphrase Herbert von Karajan’s remarks about the symphonies of Jean Sibelius being like erratic glacial blocks: It is there, it is colossal, it is of another age and nobody knows how it got there.
Thorny, wild, endlessly inventive, strange, cryptic – few artistic works of the 19th century speak with the urgency and immediacy that Beethoven’s late music communicates to the modern listener. No surprise then that those works tended to be disparaged and ignored well into the 20th century. Its disorienting turns, tendency to splinter and fragment, the sudden outbursts of raw humor sound like a Robert Walser novel rendered into tones, a world where its foundations have been shaken, where the realm of the past has been drained of its organic purpose leaving behind only its forms and conventions, now bereft of meaning and turned on their head. It is perhaps those latter qualities that give late Beethoven a vital sense of currency even after nearly two centuries. Beethoven in his final years was neo-classical a century before the term was coined, a post-modern nearly 200 years before an exhausted Modernism left its heirs at the dawn of the 21st century in bewildered disarray.
Standing among those craggy peaks are the “Piano Sonata No. 29,” better known as the “Hammerklavier,” and the “Diabelli Variations”. Each work is a sprawling irruption of maximalist musical expression – the Hammerklavier’s slow movement alone is about 20 minutes long – yet each work stands as the other’s antipode; the former work a summation and apotheosis of classical form, the latter shattering it and turning an ironic mirror on it.
Programming both works poses daunting challenges for the performer not merely because both works require a superlative pianistic technique, but also a pianist that can inhabit their sharply diverging worlds that sometimes can feel as if they are standing at opposite ends of the universe. Pianist Adam Neiman with his 10 fingers and consummate musical intellect did just that on Tuesday night at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for a Camerata Pacifica recital devoted to both of these works, spanning the entire universe that stands between these two milestones of piano literature.
Neiman spoke Beethoven’s rough, blunt humor with all the fluency of a mother tongue, sharply accenting and coloring Anton Diabelli’s music hall ditty, the basis of the “Diabelli Variations,” with appropriate beery, rustic cheer. How Beethoven manages to construct his weird musical curio box from this most unlikely of foundations – everything from comic études to Baroque arias to a Handelian fugue, a music-box minuet, and even an uproarious reference to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” – is enough to leave any listener dumbstruck. Neiman captured this sense of awe at the teeming bizarreness of Beethoven’s variations with aplomb, allowing each variation plenty of individual character while keeping a tight control over the work’s overall architecture. His concentration held over this 55-minute work with a fearsome iron grip, unflinching even when an audience member in the back row began convulsing in a seizure during the work’s very final bars. It was in every respect an interpretation of the “Diabelli Variations” that will live long after that final C-major chord resounded.
The titanic proportions of the “Hammerklavier” can sound lofty, even forbidding. But Neiman brought the work down to a more human scale. It was intimate, warm, never aloof. His traversal of the slow movement had a clear-eyed and almost naïve lyricism that almost evoked Schubert or Mendelssohn. But it was never maudlin and, as in the dizzying cosmic fugue that brings the work to its close, Neiman was able to richly convey what Wilhelm Furtwängler called in Beethoven “the laughter of the universe.”