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Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110, 111



‘From now on I intend to take a different road'. Beethoven's famous remark of 1802 could in a sense be thought of as his compositional adjuration throughout his life. But the appearance, from our vantage-point, is not of a different road but of many—crossing, diverging, reconnecting; a maze of crooked paths that Beethoven-asgenius could not resist exploring in all their extravagant detail. In particular he was torn between the vertical and the horizontal (chords/counterpoint), and between the dynamic and the contemplative. His increasing interest in counterpoint and the works of J.S. Bach meant that the sonatas of his 'last period' (say 1814-22) lose the configuration that distinguished the 18th century sonata from the fantasy or the prelude and fugue. The number of movements is variable, sometimes arguable and the balance between them often precariously held through dynamics, length, harmonic language and the chordal/contrapuntal flux.

Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110, 111


The following interview with pianist Vladimir Feltsman and his producer on these recordings, Max Wilcox, was conducted by Susan Elliott just moments after the final sessions at the American Academy & Institute of Arts and Letters.

How did you two find each other in the first place?

Vladimir Feltsman: When I first decided to record these pieces, the people at MusicMasters suggested several producers, Max among them. Just a few months before I had listened to a beautiful recording of Bach played by Edward Aldwell. The quality of the recorded sound was absolutely exquisite, so I looked in the notes to see who had produced it. It was Max. So I said, 'Yep, I'll take this guy.'

Did you know at the time that he had been Artur Rubinstein's producer?

VF: No. I didn't know he had worked with Rubinstein. Have you recorded these pieces before, Max?

Max Wilcox: Yes. I've made two total sets, one with Claude Frank in the mid-'60s and one with Richard Goode. And I've recorded many other Beethoven sonatas with Van Cliburn, Rubinstein and various others.

There seem to be two kinds off record producers. The hands-off, laidback type - i.e., 'whatever the artist wants is OK by me' - and the totally involved type. I have the impression Max is the latter.

VF: Max told me ahead of time that he gets deeply involved in the process. Of course, somebody else had already warned me about that, they said you'll either like the guy or hate him.

MW: [laughing]: Intrusive is the word.

VF: Actually, they used even stronger words. Luckily for me, the chemistry is good. Sometimes he doesn't like what I do and he'll say the tempo is too slow or too fast, try this or try that. Maybe I get a little annoyed. I think, it's none of his damn business. But in the end, it's very helpful and I absolutely don't mind.

MW: Some producers think of themselves as musicians who happened to become recording producers and some think of themselves as technical functionaries. I think of myself as a musician. Rubinstein always called me his collaborator, not his producer. He once told me, “l have the feeling you always know what you want to hear”. I knew, just as I hope I do with Volodya, what he liked.

What criteria did you use in choosing this recording site?

VF: It's very quiet, the acoustic is natural, so you don't need to add any artificial effects - no electronic cheap tricks like reverberation or equalization. It's very simple. Two omnidirectional mikes. That's the way I like it.

MW: It's virtually ideal here. I'm not one to get sentimental, but the first record I ever produced was in 1959 atChristmas time, right on this stage, with Rubinstein playing the Brahms F minor Piano Sonata. The microphone setting I use today is, within 2 to 3 inches, exactly the same one I've been using since 1976.

What piano did you use?

VF: A Hamburg Steinway. A German piano usually has a sound that's a little richer, a little rounder, more noble than an American. It's Model No. 230. It's pretty popular for recording. Max recommended it.

How involved do you get in the recording process, Mr. Feltsman? Some artists don't even listen to playbacks, much less choose takes.

VF: We choose them together. And when I like something I've done, I yell, 'Max, that was a good one, mark it in the score!' And he usually says, 'Yeah I already did.' MW: After I edit a recording, I send of copy of the rough mix to Volodya. I'd say he's very involved. Last time, he sent me back several pages of very detailed comments.

Mr. Feltsman, how do you approach recording repertoire that's been recorded as much as these pieces have?

VF: Frankly, I don't care how many recordings there are. After a certain stage in your life you just have to do what you have to do. I'm 40 years old. I don't have time to waste. I have to do what is really dear to my heart, which German music always has been, especially Bach and Beethoven. Besides, I make a point of not listening to recordings of the pieces I'm about to record. I don't think anybody really influenced me in these recordings. I did what I felt was right.

Why did you choose these particular sonatas?

VF: They are unique, each in its own way. They are quite apart from whatever came before. They are probably the most important music Beethoven wrote for piano, an amazing and unexpected outcome of his earlier works. I've studied them on and off for most of my life and played them all in concert. But to play in concert and to record are two very different activities.

MW: What do you mean by that?

VF: In a concert there might be certain imperfections in your performance that are alright for that moment in time. But in recording that's not the case. Especially this music - it's very serious stuff.

What about live recordings? You've done several of those.

VF: True. I have several live concert recordings out, but mostly of romantic repertoire. You can play music of that tradition more easily because there is a lot of "make-up" and technical dressing that, if you have good hands and general musicality, will all come together somehow. But I cannot imagine making a live recording of this music.There's no playing around with it. You are naked - under X-Ray. Every slur, every articulation, every dynamic marking must be played very carefully with a great reverence and understanding. Sometimes just one bar will have three dynamic marks and changes of tempo. Beethoven was the first composer in history who really bothered to make himself clear because - absolutely and rightly so - he didn't trust us performers. He was one extreme, Bach is the other. Bach indicates no dynamics, no tempos, nothing - just white notes, so it's complete freedom. In Beethoven almost every bar has certain instructions. Bach gives you absolute freedom. The freedom in Beethoven comes only after you've followed all of his instructions.

How do you address the interpretation of these sonatas?

VF: This music doesn't need to be interpreted. I prefer the word "realization."

So in a blindfold test, how would I recognize your sound?

VF: I have definite ways of thinking as a musician. What I try to bring out is the structure. Beethoven's music is built so unbelievably precisely. Nothing is incidental. He has an amazingly definite pattern of development. And I try to make this as clear, as lucid, as possible. So you might recognize the character of my sound because of the thinking behind it.

How would you characterize your 'realization' off these pieces?

VF: I wouldn't. Some musicians, even great ones, play themselves. I don't. Performers are in a very low category of creativity. In fact, we don't really create. We just play the music that has been written for us and try not to spoil it. One of the highest principals in art is anonymity. Let's not forget that some of the world's greatest paintings are by "anonymous".