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Beethoven in a Golden Setting

New York
Consulate of the Republic of Poland, New York
01/18/2011 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Andante Favori in F major, WoO57 – Sonata in C major (“Waldstein”), Op. 53 – 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120

Roman Markowicz (Piano)

R. Markowicz (© Herring Rollmop)

The piano recital at the Polish Consulate last affirmed a) that music is mightier than art, b) that art makes music more musical, and c) that music critics can play music.

In this case, it was Roman Markowicz, perhaps best known in New York for his influential reviews in Polish journals. But Polish-born Mr. Markowicz is a graduate of both Manhattan and Juilliard schools, and is equally well known in New York for his chamber playing. This, though was the first occasion I had to hear him in recital.

One caveat, though. No matter how Mr. Markowicz would perform, the art of the setting almost overcame his art of the piano.

The Polish Consulate is housed in perhaps the grandest example of Beaux-Arts architecture in all Manhattan, built at the end of the so-called Gilded Age, in 1904, by a copper tycoon. The outside architecture is heavy with stonework, and a colossal mansard roof. But the inside has a dazzling lightness. Whatever the original owner had ransacked from Europe (as was the case of his neighbor, Pierpont Morgan and fellow moguls), the concert hall at least looked the part of a French salon of the early 19th Century.

Here are the high painted ceiling, the huge gilt mirror, gold borders, wide windows with flowing curtains. Spacious carpeting below, tiny cherubs above. Even the anteroom, where the audience overflowed, had a lovely painted ceiling, while in the corner was an old bookcase, obviously from the 18th Century.

More important, though, was that this salon resembled–completely–the kind of salon in which young Herr Beethoven would play for the Viennese Counts and Countesses. And while he made a pretense of despising them, Herr Beethoven was hardly loath to ignore their aristocratic presence, and the monetary gifts they would give him.

True, Beethoven’s piano, a lowly Erard piano was without pedals, and had nowhere near the resonance of the Consulate’s Grand Yamaha. By the time Beethoven was enjoying the more elegant Broadwood pianos, alas, he couldn’t hear the sounds they were making.

His own presence, and his inner ears in those elegant chambers made up for the musical shortcomings.

Polish Consulate (© Polish Consulate)

Mr. Markowicz didn’t resemble the Titan of Bonn, and his short introductions were more lightly humorous than the dour Beethoven would have offered. But musically, this pianist didn’t let a salon preclude some stormy playing in the “Waldstein”.

Preceding this, though, was a rarity today, Andante Favori. Originally a middle movement of the “Waldstein”, (called “Andante grazioso”), it was “favored” by Beethoven (thus the name). At the same time, it had become such a catchy little rondo that he usually muttered “I wish I’d never written this piece.”

It is certainly different from the “Waldstein”, but Mr. Markowicz tried to eliminate the “grace” from the original title, giving the interesting modulations and the wonderful false endings all the emphasis.

The Opus 53 Sonata will always be a problem, both in volume and tempo. Mr. Markowicz could have been less percussive in the last movement, but then it would have seemed like an 18th Century piece gone wild. Instead, he let the keys and pedals do their damndest (he certainly has the technique for it), and since nobody moved away from the front rows, he obviously made his point.

This is a stormy piece of music (except for Mr. Markowicz’ highly poetic little middle movement), and not even a passing fire engine could put out his flames.

As to my nonsense written above, that music is superior to painting, the final Diabelli Variations proves my point. As Mr. Markowicz pointed out, this was Ye Complete Beethoven, every variation echoing another part of Beethoven’s complicated irreducible mind and spirit. At first, one thinks that the writer must have had utmost enjoyment in the composition. For, as Mr. Markowicz played it, the satirical march was hard, the Vivace movement whirligigs, the tempests came and went.

But when he arrived at the 22nd “Don Giovanni” variation, the entire work took on a more organic power. Mr. Markowicz now performed with more decisiveness, building up to the three slow movements, showing Beethoven at his deepest.

Paintings have a single image. This music takes a specious little waltz and bleeds out every possible meaning and emotion, transforming 16 bars of music into the measure of a Man.

Like Beethoven the man, the “Diabelli” can transform even the most elegant surroundings into a gilded incidental backdrop.

Harry Rolnick



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