Nailing Beethoven

May 15, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Pianist Andreas Haefliger tackled Beethoven’s toughest piano piece, and nailed some of it…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The second concert in the International Pianists in Recital series presented German pianist Andreas Haefliger, whose program comprised works by Liszt, Debussy and Beethoven. In that order they ran somewhat against the chronological tide, but the reasoning became clearer when one realised they were arranged in terms of climbing the slope of technical difficulty – although Haefliger doubtless had a more sophisticated musical reasons for it.

Liszt wrote many short pieces expressing places and feelings during his travels – almost like a musical travelogue. The four that began Haefliger’s recital came from Switzerland: Chapelle de Guillaume Tell, Mal du pays, Vallee d’Obermann and Les cloches de Genève. They formed a blueprint of Haefliger’s playing; great sensitivity in slower passages where introspection, breathless pianissimo and distinctive voicing were called for, but he seemed to be playing on his limit whenever Liszt set off fireworks – and that limit was just short of the mark.

We have come to expect that all professional pianists should have Horowitzian techniques as a given. When one like Haefliger turns out not to have, we should remind ourselves that there is more to good playing than string-of-pearls runs and jack-hammer double octaves. Haefliger produced some patches of soft magic in the Liszt that engrossed what turned out to be a rather spindly Recital Hall audience.

Similarly in the Debussy, with thee selections from Images: Cloches a travers les feuilles, Et la lune decend sur la temple qui fut and Poissons d’or. Again there were transcendental moments but Haefliger needed gritted determination to get through the technically demanding passages.

After interval it was time for Beethoven’s Sonata in B flat major, Op.106, which musical scholar Scott Davie says is “more demanding on both instrument and performer than any other of Beethoven’s works.” I agree.

It’s certainly unlike any other Beethoven piano sonata in that it runs over four movements and introduces some of the most extraordinary writing for piano – by any composer.

It begins with an explosion of sound as the opening statement. If you want a little amusement go to U Tube and look for Alfred Brendel playing it. He looks as though he’s been shot in the chest, causing a violent jerk upwards than then a slump back to the keys. Haefliger did something similar, but not as pronounced. And, needless to say, Alf edges him out on technique as well.

Back to the music. This is an absorbing piece and it becomes more so as it proceeds. After hacking through the dangerous jungle of the first and second movements, (Allegro and Scherzo) we arrived at a quiet Adagio clearing where Haefliger came into his own with nicely shaped phrasing and rich, lingering harmonies. But there was tough terrain ahead.

The fourth movement begins with a misleading, sober largo but then moves into furious fugues, toppling over one another in their attempt to be king of the castle for inventiveness. They present a towering challenge to play and not run away screaming. Haefliger hung on, sometimes appearing in control and at other times looking with amazement at what his hands were being asked to do.

When it was finished, there was spirited applause, for Beethoven, for the power of the grand piano, for God’s purpose and, of course, for Andreas Haefliger, the man who sweated to bring it forth.


2 Responses to “Nailing Beethoven”
  1. Whilst not directly related to the topic, spiritual keenship urges me to express here, perhaps on behalf of all lovers of the finest music ,the sadnees at the passing of the GREATEST lieder voice ever, Dietrich Fischer Diskau.
    An unequalled interpreter of lieder and opera, one that has given my family and I the most moving, deepest emotions one could achieve through music.
    Vale Fischer Diskau……………

  2. Yep, Hammerklavier is a veritable tour de force and Haefliger a welcome proof that fine music is alive.
    Brendel , Richter, Baremboim and Lupu have been magicians of this piece. I remember interviewing, as a young journalist in Romania, Lupu after him winning the Leeds, I think in ’69, and he told me that this 45 minute sonata was , by far, the hardest piano opus to endure in the entire piano literature.

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