On Beethoven, Brendel, and Gilels.
In “The Guermantes Way”, the third volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust writes that when a great musician plays the piano, “one is no longer aware that the performer is a pianist at all, because… his playing has become so transparent, so imbued with what he is interpreting, that one no longer sees the performer himself – he is simply a window opening upon a great work of art.”
It’s an interesting idea, but if it were so, there would only be one way of looking at a great painting, or reading a novel, or hearing Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Yet the reverse is true. The viewer, reader and listener mediate the work of art. And every pianist of note stamps his or her personality on the genius that is Beethoven.
There are many recordings of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas and all show the works in different lights. Among them, as if to disprove Proust’s assertion, two great pianists stand out. The first is Alfred Brendel, who recorded the sonatas three times, in addition to playing them individually or in sets throughout his career. Brendel once said, “I wouldn’t erase the first recordings, but I hope my third cycle of Beethoven sonatas shows that I spent a lifetime with these works.” That third set includes an astonishing live recording of the “Hammerklavier”, one of the pinnacles of the piano repertoire.
Brendel has summed up his musical philosophy by saying, “If I belong to any tradition, it is the tradition which makes the masterpiece tell the performer what to do, and not the performer tell the masterpiece what to do.” He later explained, “I do not mean to suggest that the performer is a passive recipient of the music. He needs to have the ears, the open mind, the heart, the imagination to get the message. He is not a programmed computer but a vessel that lets himself be inspired by the world.”
In contrast to what some see as Brendel’s rather intellectual approach to performing Beethoven is the Russian pianist Emil Gilels, whose heart-on-sleeve singing style and spontaneity place his interpretations on the “romantic” side of “classical”. Whatever those words mean, Beethoven easily straddles the divide and Gilels explores both aspects in convincing and compelling ways.
The only slight drawback is that a complete set of the Beethoven sonatas recorded by Gilels is unavailable. Writing in The Guardian (22 December 2006) and knowing Brendel’s three recorded cycles very well, music critic Andrew Clements says, “Gilels’ Beethoven still remains peerless; it’s one of the greatest sonata cycles ever recorded, and though incomplete, should be a part of everyone’s Beethoven collection.” The greatest omission is Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, Beethoven’s last for the instrument, which Gilels surely knew, but failed to record owing to his relatively early death in 1985.
Proust is wrong. The performer is not a window opening onto a great work of art, but a prism through which the work’s light passes in a glorious act of revelation.