On the day prior to the duo’s performance of the Beethoven sonata cycle in Alice Tully Hall, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented a first-time double master class in the Rose Studio, in which five cello-piano duos played the sonatas in chronological order for David and Wu Han. This was the first master class given by the Society’s artistic directors in the annual series, which presents Society artists and guest artists as master teachers in public classes.
in David’s words…
Virtually at the same moment we committed to performing the Beethoven sonatas for CMS, we also suggested the idea of a double master class to the Society’s education department. We had previously taught the five sonatas in three classes at the Aspen Festival, during the summer in which we recorded them in Harris Concert Hall, and it was a thrilling and memorable experience for us, one that we had dreamed of repeating. This opportunity – amidst the Beethoven season at CMS during which all the quartets would be performed, plus all the violin and cello sonatas – seemed highly appropriate, and sure enough, the reservations for seats in the room soon filled to capacity.
Hannah Sloane, cello; Marnie Hauschildt, piano
We heard five well-prepared, eager and cooperative duos over the space of almost five hours. We always admire, from the outset, the courage these young people have to possess to submit themselves to God-knowS-what in front of an audience. But it is a chance for young musicians, in the hands of considerate and well-meaning teachers, to benefit from the experience musicians like us have had studying, practicing and performing works like the Beethoven sonatas over many years. In addition, it is an opportunity to share stories and experiences with students and audience that can make a difference forever in one’s perspectives on music and on performing (see “Master Class Master Class” in the blog for a more in-depth analysis of the master class teaching format).
Very interestingly, each sonata presented different challenges for the performers that we did our best to analyze and offer solutions for. The opportunity Beethoven offers for drama, especially in the improvisatory introduction in the first sonata, requires physical as well as musical discipline in order to hold the audience’s attention, especially during silences. We worked with the duo to help them create a sense that they were actually improvising, that ideas were occurring to them in the moment, something that’s very hard to do when, as a well-prepared performer, you already know what’s coming.
Carl Baron, cello; Suki Guerrier, piano
We spoke a lot about the setting in which the two early sonatas were premiered, what the audience probably expected, and the impression we believe Beethoven was trying to make. The second sonata, in g minor, is much more challenging than the first in every way, and once again, we discussed the increased possibilities for dramatic impact. Wu Han worked with the pianist on the legato of the introduction’s mysterious, descending dotted-rhythm scales, while I was concerned with the cellist’s ability to sustain the long lines. The second stormy movement presents challenges for balance, the cello easily lost amidst the piano’s many triplets. And the finale, often played in four rather than in two as Beethoven intended, received an infusion of about ten additional points on the metronome, and these gifted young players really brought the movement to life in a display of technical fireworks.
Seohyun Hong, cello; ByungHee Yoo, piano
The final sonata of the morning session was the great A major sonata, Op. 69, and we spent some time speaking about how Beethoven’s style had changed. Wu Han read from her famous list of Beethoven works from this period, a list that she carries inside her own music to the sonatas. Rhythmic accuracy in the Scherzo is tricky, as the entire movement is phrased across the bar line, and in a very quick tempo. The technical difficulty for the cello increases drastically here, and the responsibility is now much more equally balanced between the instruments. The A major sonata requires not only great instrumental finesse but also a depth of feeling and maturity not found in the previous sonatas. Sustaining lines, passing ideas back and forth, and completing each others’ melodies are instrumental and ensemble skills required in depth for this piece.
Dmitri Atapine, cello; Hyeyeon Park, piano
After a lunch break we moved into Beethoven’s late style sonatas of 1815, and a completely changed musical world. The first of the two, in C major, is composed in the shape of and to a certain extent the style of a baroque trio sonata. The tranquil first part is composed in three lines, one for the cello with left and right hands of the piano carrying equally important contrapuntal lines. Finding the right color for the cello part, and pairing it sonically with either the piano’s upper or lower line, is a tricky task, since it’s hard to hear what’s really coming out when you’re playing on stage. We took the music apart so that the intricacies could be easily heard, which was very enlightening. The movement also presents challenges in terms of tempo and articulation, which have to handled with the greatest delicacy and discrimination. The ensuing Allegro, with its tightly compressed structure, dotted rhythms, lack of transitions and down-time, is the emotional polar opposite of the opening, and makes heavy demands on the performers’ and listeners’ concentrations. The next movement is a written-out improvisation for the two instruments, with moments of dreamlike bliss and terrifying darkness emerging spontaneously. The heavenly return of the first movement needed more magic, and we actually wound up asking our performers to play the preceding section less beautifully in order to hold something special in reserve. And the finale, also like a fast baroque movement (we compared it to a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos) demands a steady tempo, square rhythms, and perfect control to pull it off.
Lynn Kabat, cello; Liza Stepanova, piano
The final sonata in D major is Beethoven’s culmination of the cello-piano genre. In it, especially in the daunting fugue which closes the cycle, he achieves full integration of the two instruments. The first movement, like the closing of the fourth sonata, needs even, baroque-style bow strokes in the running sixteenth notes, but the intervening material is much more schizophrenic than any baroque music. It’s as though Beethoven’s musical train of thought is constantly being interrupted, distracted, pulled in many directions. Totally inexplicable events take place, yet in the end, they all make sense in a way that only Beethoven’s music can. For the tragic slow movement, we loaned the performers our own mental picture of a funeral march, complete with heavy trodding, the sound of horses’ hoofs, and later, even goblins and ghosts. The middle section, which is in major, we believe was meant to recall better times, and contains probably the most profoundly beautiful music of the entire cycle. Our young performers took the final fugue at an astonishing clip. While they could really play all the notes, our audience voted for a slower tempo in which they could better digest all the information, and we closed the class with all marveling at Beethoven’s creation, composed in deafness, but with so much for us all to hear. Having really only scratched the surface of possibility with each sonata, we thanked our performers and the audience for being with us, and expressed again our gratitude to Beethoven, wherever he his, for having given us the gift of these sonatas to cherish forever.