As Alfred Brendel’s recital at Disney Hall last week amplified, in no work does the voice of Beethoven – defiant, despairing, triumphant, vulnerable – resound more compellingly than in the next-to-last of his 32 piano sonatas.
I’ve never fully understood that glorious, quirky sonata of Beethoven’s declining years; Brendel’s grand, loving performance didn’t so much solve its mysteries as cast them in wonderful lights. The sonata begins prettily enough; the complexities take over with an unexpected left-hand rumble after the scherzo. On the next page (of my old, tattered copy from Doblinger’s backroom in Vienna), there are half a dozen changes of key, sometimes two within the same measure. There’s a weird sequence of repeated high A’s, like a fire alarm, and a descent like the fall of an angel. A most dolorous lament ensues. In the next minutes, the lament will lead to an orderly fugue, which will give way to a return of the lament, which will then give way again to the fugue, sort of. This time, however, the fugal melody comes in upside down (legitimate practice, if you know your Bach), and not for long. Suddenly, the music gathers a fearsome momentum, not so much from speed as from a triumphant thickening of the harmony. If you want to know what “ecstasy” sounds like in its musical equivalent, these last pages of Opus 110 are what you turn to. I know of no other passage like this in Beethoven for sheer onward musical impulse; perhaps the coda of the first movement of the “Eroica”; what else?
Brendel began his program preparing our ears and our souls for the Beethoven with an unusually stormy, mettlesome late sonata of Haydn, a work in C minor full of jerks and changes and marvelous flights into uncharted harmonic regions. After the Beethoven, there was Schubert: three impromptus, sonata movements in all but name, meticulously dealt with but, to my taste, just a shade too much so. Tears should flow during the rhapsodic second theme in the F-minor Impromptu; the spine should shiver when the principal theme jolts back into earshot. The notes were all there; the music, not quite. (My ears are full, and will always remain so, of the playing of Mitsuko Uchida on a summer day at Ojai.)
To round off, there was more stormy, mettlesome C minor – the familiar, forward-looking Mozart sonata in that key – as if to create a dark, glowering frame for the whole splendid evening.
Doctor’s orders have obliged Jeffrey Kahane to suspend his survey of Mozart’s piano concertos, conducting his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard, with one program (four concerti, including the popular D-minor) postponed indefinitely. One must not be greedy; what we have heard so far constitutes a joyous and distinguished event in our concert life, reason enough to anticipate the final concert, whenever.
Last month’s concert ended with the D-major “Coronation” Concerto. I had somehow forgotten the particular marvels of this late work, the interweaving of harmonies in the last movement. Their echoes remain with me, the uplift gleaned from the remarkable individuality in every one of these two dozen lapidarian works, the two dozen different ways this unique genius contrived to oppose a solo instrument and an orchestra, to create a wordless drama from that opposition, and to make it mean something different and wonderful each time. Everyone who comes under the spell of Mozart’s piano concertos does so for a different reason and falls in love with different moments. (Mine, above all others, occurs during the slow movement of the E-flat Concerto K. 482.)
Newly arrived in Vienna, the young Beethoven was stirred by his encounter with Mozart’s piano concertos, performed the D-minor at a memorial organized by Konstanze Mozart and composed cadenzas for the work. His own rather bland first concerto (published as No. 2) simmered sweetly in Christian Zacharias’ self-conducted performance with the Philharmonic last weekend. Composed in the same year, 1796, Haydn’s final symphony (No. 104, the “London”), which shared the program, was something else again: amazing, robust, adventurous music with a flight of fantasy in the slow movement that, by itself, seemed to close the door on 18th-century musical propriety with a mighty slam.
Edgar Baitzel (1955–2007)
On paper, Edgar Baitzel was the L.A. Opera’s chief operations officer; he was also its heart. I did not rate the monthly breakfasts with him as did my higher-placed colleagues, but I do remember a lunch at the start of his tenure here: 2000, I think. I guess he had done a pretty good vetting job on my tastes and hang-ups. Ever the staunch company man, he came up with a fistful of testimonials to Mrs. Domingo as an operatic stage director, a matter on which I had expressed grave doubts. Better yet, he brought to that lunch table a gift basket of promises of what the L.A. Opera would do under his leadership. One was Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, and of course I laughed myself silly at the possibility of that ever happening. (It did.) Then there was Wagner’s Ring. (Well, that promise is still alive.) There was a menu of pie-in-the-sky at that lunch, and sly Edgar Baitzel saw to it that it got served.
He was the right kind of executive for this company at that point in its development, for a most important reason (among others, to be sure). He knew music. The world is full of opera companies run by millionaires and impresarios and tenors; here was a man who actually knew what was going on on the stage – and, more to the point, what should be going on. He would have fixed the wretched look of that Tannhauml;user or heaved it off the Venusberg.
He will be hard to replace, but he must be replaced. If you ask me (and please don’t), I think that James Conlon has some of the brainpower, the imagination and certainly the musical knowledge that we’ve lost with Edgar Baitzel’s passing. Hold on to him.
At 10 a.m. on Friday, March 23, the L.A. City Council will honor Alan Rich for his contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles.