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Beethoven and All That Jazz

New York
05/12/2017 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 24 in F-sharp Major (“For Theresa”), Opus 78, No. 22 in F Major, Opus 54 & No. 30 in E Major, Opus 109
Paul Schoenfield: 32 <2 (World Premiere) – Boogie 54
Paul Chihara: Rag 109

Yael Weiss (Pianist)

Y. Weiss

Israeli-American pianist Yael Weiss could well have given a program of Schumann (one of her favorites) and Beethoven (another), and still attracted a good crowd at BargeMusic last night. I had never heard her, save on YouTube, but her reputation is an estimable one, and she showed from the first notes, has reputation is well-deserved.

Instead, she did the unthinkable. She played three Beethoven sonatas–and paired each one with a jazzy Beethoven variation written for her by two well-known composers. No doubt, this was a risky thing to do. After the last notes of a Beethoven sonata, does one really want to hear something in a lighter vein? Do the resonances of one 19th Century powerhouse clash with the rolling syncopation of a 21st Century mutation?

The results were mixed, yes. But for the most part, Ms. Weiss, with a rare digital technique, did pretty well on both sides of the coin.

True, the opening 24th Sonata was played with such solemnity in the first movement that one greeted it more with respect than adoration. The second movement did move with all the vivacity which an Allegro vivace deserved. Ms. Weiss left her studied phrasing behind, and let the piano roll along with the eponymous BargeMusic barge.

Paul Schoenfield’s first work of the evening was the kind of showpiece with which the composer revels. I last heard his Cafe Music, which almost–almost!–became kitschy before it turned slowly on its head. The work he wrote for Ms. Weiss, 32 <2, was impossible in concept. He took themes from virtually every Beethoven sonata, linked them together with a syncopated beat, and led it through a seamless tour de force. True, one’s brain was ofttimes distracted by wondering which sonata he was quoting. But this hardly detracted from the work as a whole. Ms. Weiss gave it her confident totality.

The next duo was disappointing and amiable in turn. Ms. Weiss’s performance of the Beethoven 22nd Sonata, should have been joyful, rollicking, Beethoven romping around that newfangled pianoforte, giving an ironic look at the old-fashioned minuet, and then galloping headlong between major and minor modes like champion stallion racing on flatlands and leaping over steams and trees.

The minuet might have been an homage to Papa Haydn, but one should be able to dance to it. Ms. Weiss started somberly, and played the dance with little grace, with digital perfection but not the elegance–even the ironic elegance–which the composer demanded. Those following triplets, a Beethovian guffaw, can bounce off the keyboard, an anomalous contrast to the minuet, but Ms. Weiss played them straight. Good pianism, a paucity of feeling. After all, the originality of starting with an old “third movement” form was a happy inspiration, though Ms.Weiss’ happiness was subdued, literal.

The following Allegretto–actually a perpetuum mobile–doesn’t need to go full steam ahead, but Ms. Weiss turned it into a full-fledged Allegro vivace toccata. Nothing wrong with that when Bach does it, but Beethoven was doing more than a piano trick. Beethoven’s Titanic enjoyment of the challenges was hidden by Ms. Weiss’ all too decent technique. It was quite impressive, all in all. But not nearly as impressive as the following work by Mr. Schoenfield.

If the Beethoven spirit was obscured by such serious playing, Ms. Weiss gave all the oomph, delight and fascinatin’ rhythms to Paul Schoenfield’s Boogie 54. Where his previous 32 <2 was an anthology of Beethoven themes with a Bach-style counterpoint, Boogie 54 was an electrifying real boogie rhythm, with the themes of both movements from Opus 54 paraded, torn apart, re-constructed, and entangled. If Yael Weiss had seemed held back in the Beethoven sonata, here she let herself go. This was not uncontrolled by any means, yet Mr. Schoenfield had given her notes offering the opportunity to sound like a Memphis Slim or Cow Cow Davenport improvisation. She took the bait and played with unreserved flair.

Very wisely, Paul Chihara’s Rag 109 preceded Beethoven’s Opus 109. First, because nothing, absolutely nothing can follow this E Major Sonata, when played well. Second, because Mr. Chihara, in the audience last night, inevitably diminished the original work. It wasn’t his fault, but playing these original notes, so inner, so much part of the Beethoven psyche, as part cocktail music, doesn’t really do more than gild what is already pure gold.

Actually, some say that the notes of this Sonata are so beautifully written, the variations so logical (unlike the quirky logic of the preceding sonatas), that any fine pianist can succeed. Ms. Weiss is certianly a fine artist. While one could be unfairly picky her earlier work, this piece sung with her very adept sensitivity.

Did she tell us something new about the work? Possibly not, but Beethoven’s poetry was sufficient, the quiet ending should have given us an “Amen” to the evening.

Unfortunately, Ms. Weiss dispelled the atmosphere of that work by giving an encore, the slow movement from the Pathétique. Good playing for a wonderful work, yet its consequence was to unnecessarily jolt us from the unearthly repose of Opus 109 down to the Brooklyn earth.

Harry Rolnck



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