Charles Rosen

Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op.120

Charles Rosen (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The reputation of Charles Rosen as a writer and thinker on the broad range of Western art music has tended, at least on this side of the Atlantic, to obscure his standing as a pianist in repertoire ranging from Bach to Boulez. Beethoven has been a lifelong preoccupation, and it was two highly contrasting works by this composer that formed the programme Rosen chose for this London appearance.

80 this year, it would be all too easy to describe Rosen’s keyboard technique as ‘not what it was’ – except that technique per se has never his prerogative. Even the most cursory listen to his recordings of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas confirms that his is playing for which the piano just happens to be the medium through which this music is presented. Not that Rosen is noticeably lacking or deficient in technique; rather he focuses on the music as an unfolding process in sound, with no desire to make it seem difficult other than in terms of the form to be clarified and the expression to be conveyed. It is not hard, live or recorded (and it is inexplicable to note that Rosen’s CBS recordings of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas were not on sale in the QEH’s CD outlet), to locate more highly charged, emotive or, indeed, alluring Beethoven playing – but performances that communicate the music’s essence so intently yet undemonstratively will always be at a premium.

For this reason, the ‘Appassionata’ might seem an unlikely work for Rosen to choose at this stage of his career, yet the sheer physicality of its outer movements respond well to his lucid yet probing approach – homing in on the music’s unequivocal nature without recourse either to dynamic extremes or heightened expressive contrasts. Nor was any false pathos brought to the follow-through of the central Variations – here achieving a limpid poise between a first movement of tensile energy and afinale that built steadily (as its ‘ma non troppo’ marking directs) but remorselessly to a febrile close. Such passages as were skimped or approximated were never detrimental to the music’s coherence, while to say that Rosen failed to sustain the finale’s coda at so headlong a tempo is to miss the point entirely. As with Artur Schnabel in his (in)famous 1934 recording of the ‘Hammerklavier’, specifically the opening movement, such striving after the unrealistic demonstrably captures the music’s spirit better than any amount of technical precision ever could. Better, after all, to travel in hope than to arrive.

There can be no doubt, however, that, of all Beethoven’s major piano works, the ‘Diabelli Variations’ is the one that responds most fully to Rosen’s protean musical intelligence – not forgetting that sense of humour essential in this of all pieces. How much better to play the theme itself as the unassuming trifle that just happened to motivate the most comprehensive set of Variations after Bach, pausing so that the conceptual divide between Diabelli’s world and Beethoven’s is pointedly underlined. As to the 33 Variations themselves – other pianists have brought out more fully their extremes of style and character, as have others their scintillating technical demands, but few pianists of any era have gone beyond these to elucidate just how Beethoven reconfigures their all-round diversity so that the whole sequence coheres not in spite, but because of itself; an encapsulation of the piano’s capabilities at the most crucial point – between the cusp of the Classical and Romantic eras – of its evolution.

It would require much more than a review to detail the myriad insights of Rosen’s account (his 1977 recording evinces many of these, and urgently needs restoring to the catalogue), but to take just those ten Variations that Beethoven added when he returned to the work in 1822 (and which, as Nick Breckenfield pointed out in his programme note, are crucial to its feeling of inclusiveness) gives a fair idea of its strengths. Thus the portentousness of Variation I, the geniality of II and sardonic humour of XV; the careering, then ruminative, uproarious and finally elegant nature of Variations XXIII-XXVI; the ebullience and seriousness of XXVIII and XXIX, then the soulful intensity of XXXI. Innately powerful as was the climactic fugue, it was the wistful final Variation with its inscrutable coda that rightly left the deepest impression here: Beethoven rounding off this ‘journey of a life’ with calm satisfaction.

The Diabelli Variations has received numerous fine performances in London these past two decades, and Rosen’s account – ‘intellectual’ in the most engaging sense – can rank with the best. As if seeming to apologise for the short measure of his 70-minute recital, he casually launched into the last two of Beethoven’s Opus 119 Bagatelles – iconoclastic miniatures – and a Chopin Waltz to conclude a provocative recital.

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