Online Journal

Koch International Classics 3-7521-2 HI
TPT: 63'03

Mikhail Pletnev – piano
Deutsche Grammophon 457 493-2
2 CDs, £££
TPT: 152'15

Beethoven composed Bagatelles, mere trifles? It hardly seems possible, this composer from whom every note seems to have been dragged as if as the result of some tumultuous artistic struggle.

Yet he did – three sets in all. And he himself refers to them as 'trifles'. Not that surprising, really, when we remember that music was his language; hopeless with words, he expressed himself fully only – and totally – through his music.

And so the Bagatelles are his small talk, his relaxation. One imagines him sitting at the piano at the end of a hard day's composing and playing for his own benefit, something light, as it comes into his head, with no worry about somehow unifying it into a cohesive whole of three movements, as with a sonata, for instance.

The listener must approach the Bagatelles in the same way. The set that Susan Kagan chooses for her recording is the second, Opus 119. Their genesis is interesting: Barry Cooper, the British Beethoven scholar, has established that numbers 1-6 date from as early as 1797, 7-11 much later. The complete set was published in 1823 – the year of the Diabelli Variations and the Ninth Symphony, underlining the impression that they provided repose from the serious business of composition.

Kagan's pace is brisk, no-nonsense; the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev takes a more contemplative approach. Number 7, for instance, with its explosive final run, in Kagan's hands is a swift minute: Pletnev takes a full 14 seconds longer, building up to that run in a suspenseful way that makes you long for the release it provides.

Number 2, by contrast, is regular and jaunty in Pletnev's reading, slower in Kagan's. But this is an exception. Pletnev, by and large, invests the Bagatelles with more drama. Is he looking for drama that really isn't there? It's possible, but I confess it made me listen to the Opus 119 set through new ears.

Both discs offer utter gems. Kagan is internationally recognised as the champion of Archduke Rudolph, best known to us today as the dedicatee of the Emperor Concerto, the Archduke Trio, Missa Solemnis…in fact, of more Beethoven compositions than any other individual. Lesser known is the fact that he was a fine composer and pianist in his own right. He is the only person who ever asked Beethoven to teach him composition, which Beethoven did.

Kagan here offers what she calls his chef d'oeuvre for piano,Forty Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, a huge work lasting for thirty minutes – its fascination lying in the fact that before publication Beethoven corrected, emended and polished it. It's a fine piece, varied, at times explosive, at other times thoughtful – and it makes you realise just how many light years ahead of all his contemporaries Beethoven was! It is, in effect, worthy but largely unmemorable.

As is, sadly, every piece of music composed by Beethoven's young helper in Vienna, Ferdinand Ries – and that means no fewer than 180 pieces, none of them today in the standard repertory. How I came to like Ferdi Ries while I was writing my Beethoven trilogy, and feel sympathy for him as he wilted, buckled but never broke under his master's unrelenting chastisement! He was the son of Beethoven's violin (!) teacher in Bonn, Franz Ries, and Beethoven taught him piano from the earliest age. He followed Beethoven to Vienna, finally leaving for London in 1813 where he became a tireless champion of Beethoven's works – despite all the indignities he suffered at the great man's hands.

His piano piece, Le Songe – as Kagan points out in her sleeve notes – foreshadows the early Romantics. It is a disparate piece, consisting of six sections, which really do not relate to one another. That is the problem with lesser composers than Beethoven: the structure is so often missing.

But I listened to both the Ries and Rudolph pieces with a half-smile on my face, and I am pleased she has taken the trouble to record them. (Only one tiny complaint: please, Ms Kagan, there is no such word as "concertize", as in "Ms Kagan has concertized in the US and abroad.)

Pletnev's double CD set is an absolute treasure: practically every piano piece Beethoven composed that you haven't already got on CD! All the Bagatelles, two Rondos, five sets of variations, minuets, a polonaise and an andante. The first piece – appropriately – is the very first composition for piano that Beethoven ever published. He was 11 years of age. The Variations on a March by Dressler are, as Cooper points out in his comprehensive and indispensable notes, an early statement by Beethoven of his manifesto: life is a serious business. And Pletnev's playing bears this out; you'd think almost this was a composition by a mature Beethoven. And marvel at how an eleven-year-old boy could play – let alone compose – the ninth and final variation. Each variation seems to grow out of the one before – the 'structure' I've mentioned that seems to be missing in lesser composers.

Disc 2 contains an absolute favourite of mine, not to mention hundreds of amateur Viennese pianists in Beethoven's time. The Andante in F major, known as the "Andante favori". The nickname was given by Beethoven, exasperated at its popularity. "I can't walk down the street without hearing it coming from one window or another!" he complained. I could perhaps have wished for a little more explosiveness in the jaunty middle section, but, as I've said regarding the Opus 119 Bagatelles, Pletnev invests every piece with a seriousness, almost sombreness, as if he can't quite let himself go. And so his reading of the Andante takes almost a minute longer than the only other recording I know of.

The little Rondos are a delight and I have to confess I did not know Beethoven wrote a set of Six Variations on a Swiss Song. He wrote them either just before or after his arrival in Vienna as a 21-year-old, determined to make his way as a composer, and they are clearly the effort of a young man feeling his way.

I hesitate to use the word "easy-listening", as this can never truly be applied to Beethoven, but at the end of a busy day, with a glass of wine in hand, when I want to listen to his music without either furrowing my brow or having to concentrate too hard, I will reach for Pletnev's wonderful set.

John Suchet  

Problems? Comments? Suggestions? Contact Us.
Site coded by passive.
Copyright © Bridgewater Multimedia 2001.