Happy Birthday Ludwig

Julian Jacobson's BPSE Beethoven birthday recital, reviewed by MALCOLM MILLER


Pianistic passion, pathos and poetry were some of the qualities to enjoy in an all-Beethoven recital given by Julian Jacobson, Chairman of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe (BPSE), to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth on 16 December 2020. With the context of a sudden change to COVID-19 Tier 3 for London, the originally live event was swiftly transformed into a live-streamed recital, in association with St Mary's Church Perivale, home to a regular concert series (that recently reached its one-thousandth event!), organised by Hugh Mather, and was given to an empty hall, with a virtual audience on Vimeo and YouTube. The recital was the climactic event in the BPSE's year-long series to perform all thirty-two piano sonatas, which has involved an array of pianists (including the present author) in different venues and online. (Details and recordings are on the bpse.org website.)

Julian Jacobson, who has the distinction of having performed all 32 sonatas in a single day, a feat he has repeated several times in aid of various charities, chose to celebrate the birthday itself with the two famous C minor piano sonatas, the Pathetique Op 13, and the final sonata, Op 111, which most represent Beethoven's stylistic development as a composer pianist. With that in mind, it was apt to start with something more lighthearted - a rousing rendition of 'Happy Birthday Ludwig'.

In the main programme Jacobson's overall approach highlighted the stylistic distance travelled between both C minor sonatas beautifully. From the very opening striking diminished seventh chords in the slow introductions of each sonata, one was aware of both that thread of dramatic potency that pervades Beethoven's music, as well as the quite different strategies and aesthetics developed in the more than twenty years that separate the works.

Julian Jacobson playing Beethoven at St Mary's Perivale on 16 December 2020
Julian Jacobson playing Beethoven at St Mary's Perivale on 16 December 2020

In Op 13 Jacobson steered a balance between a Romantic yearning and classical, light touch. Whilst one may consider Op 13 'proto-Romantic' in various ways, this was a reading that reminded us of its origins in the late eighteenth century, the dynamics restrained in their range as if responding to the properties of the Viennese period fortepiano that Beethoven would have played. Jacobson injected the first movement with drama and intensity; the pathos of the Grave, included in the exposition repeat, was imbued with especial poetic intensity in its exploratory reappearance just before the development, whilst overall the hurtling momentum of the movement did not subside until the very final chord. In the second movement clarity and poise eschewed sentimentality infusing the buoyant triplet textures of the minor interlude and reprise of the theme with just the right amount of piquant spice. In the Rondo finale, a clear focused touch characterised each section of the rondo form without overstatement, as in the tender two-part counterpoint of the A flat major episode countered by sprightly Haydnesque triplet figures in the outer episodes, the entire momentum driving towards the final dramatic pause at the A flat major coda.

The Op 111 by contrast was from the very first gripping octave leaps, and chromatic chords, Romantic par excellence. Indeed the sweep of the sonata, enhanced by virtuoso risk-taking with the occasional slip, was conveyed with vivid immediacy. The fiery fugati, in exposition, development and reprise, came alive with a vengeance, their teleological propulsion driving impassionedly to their goals. Jacobson highlighted with almost orchestral power and colour the dialogue of motivic sequences and racy semiquavers which swaps between the hands, taking welcome time to savour the ray of dreamlike light of the second subject, lightly pedalled, before the return of the turbulent and urgent whirlwind textures that characterise this first of two philosophically challenging movements, whilst the final bars cooled the white hot energy to an azure glow.

The Arietta told a different story, spacious, measured, even if the sense of naïve detachment in the theme itself added to the shadowy poignancy of its A minor second section all the more. The first two variations flowed in a relaxed mood, avoiding dynamic extremes, contributing to a strategy of gradually building strength and energy to the shimmering radiance of the final variations. That process is launched in the jazzy third variation which opens up the space to widely jagged alternations and the deep to high contrasts of the fourth variation, here projected with delicacy and rhythmic precision, introducing the ethereal colours of the final section. Jacobson held the moment after the triple trills, where the melody and bass split to the extreme registers, in a beautifully present immediacy, a moment described by most commentators as time stopping, whilst the faltering off-beat passage in E flat major brought us to a new level of intimate pianistic tone and touch. Jacobson drew us safely towards the final variation, the innocent theme now adorned with richly resonant arpeggiations, giving way to a sheen of playful celestial sonorities with final rise to the registral ceiling, before returning to earth for the final closing chords.

Julian Jacobson playing Beethoven at St Mary's Perivale on 16 December 2020
Julian Jacobson playing Beethoven at St Mary's Perivale on 16 December 2020

This offered a beautiful and soulful conclusion to the recital, the online format of which enables viewing and reviewing a plenty, one of the highlights of a worthy year-long BPSE celebration of Beethoven's inspiration and genius as part of this global commemorative season.

Copyright © 18 December 2020 Malcolm Miller,
London UK








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