The most sublime music ever written

That would be the second movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 111 — the final movement of his 32nd and final piano sonata.  Here is what a couple of pianists say about it:

 The pianist Robert Taub has called it “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.” Alfred Brendel commented of the second movement that “what is to be expressed here is distilled experience” and “perhaps nowhere else in piano literature does mystical experience feel so immediately close at hand”.

Andras Schiff, in his lectures on the Beethoven piano sonatas, finally runs out of words (acceptance, forgivenessto describe the last few minutes of the sonata, and can only play the music.  At some point after the first few variations in the final movement, the music takes off into another realm of spirit and meaning, leaving language behind.

Perhaps the most moving piano recital I ever attended was Rudolf Serkin late in life playing Beethoven’s Opus 109, 110, and 111 at Symphony Hall.  He played the 111 after the intermission, and that was it.  No encores.  Just 25 or so minutes of music — after the arietta, there was nothing left to say.

Here is Claudio Arrau playing the sonata in Bonn in 1977, when he was over 70.  Looks like the air conditioning was broken, because the sweat pours off him.  No matter.  I heard Arrau play about a decade later, and he was moving so slowly I thought he’d never make it to the piano.  His tempi were also slow, but he made them work.

Here we are on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination — a time for funeral marches. But at some point you have to get past the funeral marches — and Opus 111 is where you need to go — the triumph of optimism over anguish.


Why don’t symphony orchestras sell recordings of their concerts?

For its 75th anniversary, Tanglewood is providing 75 recordings from its audio archives.  They provide a free stream of a work each day, and then put it on sale.  So far the recordings range from James Taylor in 2009 to Munch and the Boston Symphony playing Bach in 1955.  The prices are cheap — about a dollar per ten minutes of music.  So far I’ve bought Rudolf Serkin playing Mendelssohn’s First Concerto with the BSO under Ozawa from 1975, and Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff’s Third with the BSO and Leinsdorf from 1966.

The sound in the Mendelssohn is a bit distant, and the engineers seemed to have individually miked the people with colds so their coughs could be heard over the clatter of the music.  But I love the piece, and Serkin seems to own it.  I had his version with Ormandy and Philadelphia for a long time.  I played the beautiful second movement in the eighth grade, but the passage work in the finale was too much for me.  Here is Serkin playing the finale:

I saw Serkin at Symphony Hall towards the end of his life playing the last three Beethoven piano sonatas.  That was a peak musical experience.

A special treat on this recording was listening once again to the patrician tones of William Pierce introducing the piece.  He was to the BSO of that era what Johnny Most was to the Celtics.

The sound of the Rachmaninoff is better than that of the Mendelssohn, even though it was recorded nine years earlier.  I have never liked Rach 3 as much as Rach 2.  The first movement works for me, but my mind always seems to wander during the finale.  I can’t tell if Cliburn took the cuts that are pretty standard in the third movement — maybe I’m not the only one whose mind wanders.  Here he is playing (most of) the first movement in Moscow in 1958 during the Tchaikovsky competition that he won:

The Tanglewood project makes me wonder why the BSO and other orchestras don’t make their enormous backlist of concerts available for purchase.  I can understand that there might be rights issues with soloists and guest conductors.  But what about standard performances with just the orchestra and the BSO music director?  Surely the tapes still exist–the BSO currently sells a few compilations “From the Broadcast Archives”.  Do they think there’s not a market?  Why not release a few and find out?