Friday, 30 August 2019

Struggle and serenity: Piano works by Schoenberg, Nono, and Beethoven

Schoenberg, Nono and Beethoven: three composers and five works present a coherent programme that denies, even scorns, sentimental distinction between emotion and intellect. Dialectics of the conscious and unconscious, of struggle and serenity play out within and between, leading us not only back but also forward to Beethoven. All these works, moreover, have classic Pollini performances and recordings to their name. That does not mean we should know what to expect: both in themselves and in combination, there will always remain more to be said, played, and heard.

Illogic of the Unconscious

In 1908, Schoenberg had written his Second String Quartet op. 10, first freely breathing Stefan George’s ‘air of another planet’ – or what we, Schoenberg’s dislike notwithstanding, have come to know as ‘free atonality’. The following year proved a veritable Wunderjahr, the Drei Klavierstucke, op.11, initiating a white-heat outpouring of music: Das Buch der hängenden Gärten op. 15, the Fünf Orchesterstücke op. 16 and Schoenberg’s first completed opera, Erwartung op. 17 quickly followed. 

Brahms’s ghost often looms large in Schoenberg’s piano writing – and not only in his piano writing; the instrument had never really been Schoenberg’s ‘own’. By contrast, however, with Schoenberg’s earlier, (then) unpublished piano pieces, ‘influence’ had now been thoroughly absorbed. Crashing Romantic chords, liable to fragment horizontally and vertically at any moment, are part of the picture; so are remnants of the idea, even the form, of Brahms’s late piano works: ‘pieces’, intermezzos, rhapsodies and so on. The first piece’s ternary form (ABA) invites comparison with Brahms, as do aspects of motivic progression, though any Classicism is swiftly and, later, savagely eroded. Energy lies in a very 1909 (for Schoenberg) state of permanent flux, form and tonality dynamically annihilated almost before it can come into being: Mephistophelian or Lisztian, we might say with equal justice. That ‘almost’, though, remains.

Arnold Schönberg Center

D minor, always a favourite ‘Second Viennese School’ key, haunts the left-hand, minor-third (D–F) ostinato of the second piece, playing with thirds itself a favourite procedure of Brahms. It is nonetheless a ghost suspended and, in the third, flayed alive. ‘For a human being’, Schoenberg wrote to Busoni in 1909, ‘it is impossible to feel but one sensation at a time. One has thousands at once. […T]his variegation, this illogicality […] set forth by a soaring wave of blood, by some sense- or nerve-reaction, this I should like to have in my music.’ Schoenberg here comes close to that very ‘expression of feeling […] which connects us with our unconscious’. Ruthless deletion of all hints of repetition in manuscript emendations had him come closer still

Distilled Drama

Schoenberg’s musical thought, then, was ever dialectical, without that precluding great variety of expression, whether within and between works. In Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op.19, we hear Schoenberg at close to his most aphoristic, each piece of a brevity courting comparison with Webern. That, however, is the only point truly held in common – and places excessive emphasis on duration. Beethoven’s late bagatelles perhaps offer more meaningful kinship: apparently simpler than much of his piano writing in their distillation of drama, expression and technique, yet at least as enigmatic as the sonatas. The hyper-expressivity of op. 11 is taken less to its logical – recall Schoenberg’s insistence on illogic – than to another, different conclusion. A line, a harmony, a poetic suggestion is voiced in purest essence: continuation of and escape from Schoenberg’s earlier self. Preoccupation with intervallic relationships characterizes many of these utterances, heard as if spoken epigrams, rich in both Brahmsian homage and serial anticipation. Obstinacy of the repeated major third (G–B) in the second piece is both generative of conflict and yet serenely unchallenged by it. Violence in the fourth likewise recalls op.11, yet stands also beyond that invitation to the abyss, on the cusp of Schoenberg’s later neoclassicism. In the final piece, inspired by the bells of Mahler’s funeral, we feel the graveyard’s chill breath: ‘wie ein Hauch’. Simultaneity of subsidence and climax offers further ‘nerve-reaction’ and an unusual degree of final peace.

Suffering Serenity

Such serenity provides both starting point and goal for the poetic idea of Luigi Nono’s 1976 …sofferte onde serene…. The waves are Venetian, so too is the tolling of bells, almost as if transposed from the Vienna of Schoenberg’s op.19 no.6. Heard, felt and answered from Nono’s home on the Giudecca, those sounds seem, as with Schoenberg’s, not only to say farewell to earlier, angrier compositional and aesthetic tendencies – tendencies that had culminated for Nono in the high-watermark of his politically committed art, the opera Al gran sole carico d’amore – but also to sustain them in distillation, in further development. ‘I could say’, Nono remarked, ‘as Schoenberg did, that, at the conclusion of each work, I wish more than ever to breathe the air of new planets’. It also continued Nono’s artistic collaboration with Pollini, initiated by Como un ola de fuerza y luz (1971–2), although the two leftist musicians had known each other since the mid-1960s. …sofferte onde serene… displayed, as Nono averred, a reduction in the multiplicity of musical material: a new path taken following a period of compositional silence.

Claudio Abbado, Luigi Nono, Maurizio Pollini

That apparent simplification in itself inspired further ‘waves’ – lagoonal and sonic – in collaboration enshrined at the work’s heart, Nono’s purpose amplification rather than counterpoint. Dedicated to Maurizio and Marilisa Pollini, it operates on two acoustic planes: Pollini live and on tape. They merge, realized in the air through artistry of sound direction – first Nono himself; tonight, André Richard. Vibrations, shadows and resonances sustain and transform memories of loss suffered by composer and pianist. Ghosts of other sounds and works in Pollini’s repertoire are honoured and transformed. (Late, Venetian-themed works by Liszt, La lugubre gondola and R.W. Venezia, were performed at the 1977 premiere.) The moment of Schoenbergian hyper-expressivity – sometimes stark, sometimes on the edge of audibility, sometimes even falling into silence –compels active listening. Nono’s politics have not drowned; they are revealed anew in the waters. So as not to confuse the political ‘provocations’ for earlier works with their substance, we must listen, suffering to break musical silence as the composer did, inspired by his pianist and friend as much as by the instrument. Counterpoint and conflict seem conspicuous by their absence, certainly by comparison to Nono’s preceding works. Whether we feel that absence as an integral aspect of the work is an impossible yet necessary question.

Fracture and enigma

Beethoven’s final two piano sonatas, opp.110 and 111, foreshadow – or in this programme, echo – the co-dependent anger and serenity of Schoenberg’s piano pieces; we might also hear them in this context heroically responding to, retrospectively inciting, the kindred humanism of Nono’s suffering waves. There are dialectics aplenty. Furious counterpoint already strains at the bounds of tonality, even the bounds of the sonata principle. By contrast, in apparently necessary response, we find music of a doubtless illusory simplicity that comes just as close to Beethovenian rage to defining our notions of the Romantic sublime.

The A-flat major sonata, though in three movements, hardly conforms to Classical expectations, the first two far shorter together than the expansive, complex finale. The serene first movement’s songfulness extends even to typically ‘late’ trills. It is marked sanft – probably at Beethoven’s dictation, for the manuscript reveals another hand – in an attempt to render con amabilità into the language not only of Goethe but also of Romantics such as Novalis. For Donald Tovey, that did not ‘mean “soft” but, as nearly as may be, “gentle” in the most ethical sense of the word.’ A sonata form that seems almost to preclude conflict, yet cannot quite, offers in its way as great a challenge as more overtly ‘heroic’ struggle. In its final bars, a prominent third interval, C to A-flat, prepares the way for re-harmonised restatement in the second movement’s new key of F minor. A scherzo in all but name, this flash of gruff, humorous brilliance proves once more, like its composer, very much its own beast, resistant to categories that would pin down rather than liberate. It culminates in a coda of sforzando cries and whispered intimacies that here may recall Schoenberg.

Highly expressive instrumental recitative prepares the way for the finale’s Klagender Gesang (‘lamenting song’), opening out a chord of A-flat minor as if a musical version of the Romanticism’s proverbial blue flower against a wintry landscape. Beethoven alternates between arioso of great sadness and fugue in constructive chain of fourths. The latter emerges in almost conciliatory fashion, in turn rendering the arioso’s Neapolitan-hued return all the greater in tragedy. Hope is restored by fugue-in-inversion, so confident in its play as to tempt one to consider it divine, beyond those mere mortals who must listen and – perhaps – even perform it. Una corda pedal extends a twin sense of mystery and certainty: the realm, perhaps, of religious faith. Through enigmas and fractures alike, Beethoven’s humanity shines through in all its contrapuntal – and other – obstinacy. Perhaps there is something, then, of the still later Missa solemnis to Beethoven’s plan. Bach’s lessons are Romanticised in music defiantly strange and strangely defiant, played out in a tonal arena that can only make sense, and then only just, in the age of the sonata.

Exorcising the daemon

The C minor sonata stands in two, highly contrasted movements, in tonic minor and tonic major respectively, symbolic in themselves of struggle and reconciliation. The diminished seventh chord, as in Beethoven’s own C minor Pathétique Sonata (op.13) and Fifth Symphony, offers both vertical and horizontal impetus from the opening melodic interval onwards: a lesson well learned later by Wagner, leading to the threshold of Schoenberg’s Klavierstücke. Fugal methods again feature strongly, heightening the sonata form struggle. The exposition’s move to the submediant, to A-flat major, rather than to the expected relative major, E-flat, helps prepare the surprise, hushed tierce di Picardie conclusion in C major, presaging the finale’s tonality.

It is a set of variations on a hymn-like ‘Arietta’, caught in the balance and dialectic – no more than with Mozart is this a case of either/or – between sublime simplicity and necessary complexity. Beethoven’s metrical shifts can hardly fail to register, nowhere more so than in the celebrated ‘boogie-woogie’ variation – in reality, nothing of the sort. Nevertheless, harmonic rhythm, as always with Beethoven, proves the true engine of progress. Asked by Anton Schindler why he had written no traditional third movement, Beethoven, should we trust his interlocutor’s account, contemptuously responded that there had been no time to do so. For there can be no doubting the transcending finality of these variations: nor the profound quality of resolution Beethoven here offers to the violent conflicts enunciated in the preceding Allegro. White-key C major, possessed once more of but a very few inflections, spins a trilling gossamer path towards a quietly intoned, serenely unanswerable Amen. This, then, is truly music that breathes the air of another planet.

(This essay was originally published in a 2019 Salzburg Festival programme for a recital by Maurizio Pollini.)