1816 on the piano
Jonathan Berkahn and Heather Easting solo and duet piano
Music by Clementi, John Field, Weber, Schubert, Diabelli and Beethoven
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 6 July, 12:15 pm
For me, there is a rather compulsive fascination with musical and other anniversaries, and with the fitting of events, of births and deaths, into a time-frame. Here I’d met a kindred spirit who introduced the programme by referring to some of the major events of around two hundred years ago. They had mainly to do with war – the Napoleonic Wars and most closely, the Battle of Waterloo, which took place six months before the year in question. The Congress of Vienna too, had run from the end of 1814 to the June in which Waterloo had taken place. The Congress was intended to and largely did dismantle everything that Napoleon had achieved, and effectively restored absolute monarchy wherever it had prevailed before. It was in the city where the waltz was becoming a craze and where someone responded to an enquiry how the Congress was faring, saying “il ne marche pas, il danse” (a play upon the dual senses of ‘marcher’, being both, literally, to march and to come along or to progress.
Jonathan Berkahn’s contribution to Congress lore was to remark that it experienced much but learned nothing, a variant on ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ (how many egregious examples could we find today!).
There were one or two names we’d heard of, like Schubert and Beethoven, and others like Weber (no not Webern) known to the scholars, and others who might have become more famous if their names had started with B or S.
Clementi, for example, opened and closed the show. Those who’d learned the piano for a couple of years knew his name on account of nice if somewhat unmemorable pieces, probably called sonatinas, that were regarded half a century ago as good for children. There were flashy bits that were not very hard but could, in the right hands, sound impressive; but Jonathan played a piece from a huge collection of exercises called Gradus ad Parnassum (Latin: ’steps to the home of the Muses’); No 18, comprising an Introduction and a Fugal allegro, first a series of arresting flourishes and then a not very fugal but confident and courtly number. He captured the spirit, serious and a little tongue-in-cheek.
The final piece, also by Clementi, was a Waltz in C, Op 38 No 9 which Berkahn characterized learnedly as cheeky and cheezy; indeed it gave one renewed respect for the composer as someone who could be flippant and playful, and excellent at writing ideal pieces to end concerts with.
One of Clementi’s students was Irishman John Field, famous for inventing the Nocturne, one of which Berkahn played, the second, in C minor: rolling arpeggios and a melody that might indeed have had a trace of the blarney.
The arrival on stage of Heather Easting to take her cosy place at the bass end of the piano, provided the occasion for some pertinent and amusing musico-political asides. Weber was not one of Clementi’s pupils but was nevertheless a brilliant pianist who wrote a lot of often showy music for his instrument (his most famous piano piece today might well be Invitation to the Dance which we know almost solely through Berlioz’s orchestration). His Rondo from a set of pieces for piano-four-hands, Op 60, was lively and entertaining, for both the players (evidently) and the audience.
Jonathan assumed in his audience a depth of musicological erudition when he said that Diabelli had written more than just the tune that Beethoven set to a massive and famous set of variations in his latter years. He was also a music publisher and a decent pianist who, remarked Jonathan, wrote music for four hands on an industrial scale, and he referred to blood and thunder as elements of his armory which we could discern in the spirited playing by both keyboardists, and which we could agree was all in good fun.
Schubert and Beethoven
Then came the composer who in 1816 was, i) only 19, and ii) probably considered during most of his life, inferior to all those whom we had already heard: Schubert. The piece Berkahn played (by himself now) was an Adagio from what seems to be a musicological conundrum; D 459 was earlier thought to be perhaps a five-movement sonata, but its third movement (this one), together with movements 4 and 5, was later amputated and then called ‘Three Piano Pieces’, D 459A. That left the first two movements as a putative two-movement sonata in E.
It was here that Berkahn engrossed his audience with an autobiographical snippet about a 17-year-old, grade 7 level piano player who discovered volumes of Schubert’s sonatas in the Wellington Public Library (probably still there: have a look), which included this. It was an immediate epiphany, a Road to Damascus, leaving the pianist with a permanent affliction with which to titillate his listeners ever after.
As with most of Schubert, every exposure is a fresh, profoundly musical discovery, and Jonathan’s playing supported his story.
It might be hard to insist that was on a par with the Beethoven sonata that followed and one would not try. This was one of the four that form a sort of inter-regnum between the ‘Middle’ and ‘Late’ periods, between the Appassionata and Op 101. In fact, he could have played the sonata Op 101 here as it was actually written in 1816, but Berkahn clearly wanted to make a case for the three or four somewhat wayward sonatas, Opp 78, 79, 81a and 90; it was the last, Op 90, in E that he played, and in the context of the other more or less contemporary music played, perhaps we listened through altered ears and musical associations. It also allowed Berkahn to quote Beethoven’s perhaps apocryphal remark that its two movements represented first, a battle between head and heart and second, a love-song between the two. It was a delightful image which the music seemed to be in accord with.
The entire programme delivered a liveliness and spirit of delight, perhaps not always note perfect but which had the far greater virtue, on the part of both pianists, of being contagiously persuasive and fun.
If you were to get the impression that I’d rather enjoyed myself, in both the head and the heart, throughout the concert, I would have to plead guilty.