BEETHOVEN: The Last Sonatas: Piano Sonatas Opp 109, 110, 111 – Gerardo Teissonnière, piano – Steinway & Sons 30188 [Distr. by Naxos] (1/18/22) 69:06 *****
Each art form has its own version of Mount Olympus, and in music, the last three sonatas of Beethoven offer a transcendent vista entirely their own. Gerardo Teissonnière, a pupil of masters themselves in the Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot tradition, initiated his ascent 7-9 September 2021 at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia. The cumulative result stands as an essentially lyric realization of compressed, highly subjective compositions that revel in idiosyncratic counterpoint, variation technique, harmonic audacity, and bravura impulses in trills, rhythmic flexion, and melodic expressivity.
The E Major Sonata (1820/21) receives from Teissonnière an opulent sonority, lavishing no end of pearly play in the course of the abbreviated first movement, Vivace ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo. He takes the two opening subjects as demanded, Sempre legato, so the natural tension of the diminished sevenths in the second theme seems assuaged by the articulation of the arpeggiated figures. Doubtless, an emotional menace saturates the ensuing and jarring Prestissimo second movement, 6/8, set in the minor mode of E, with a countersubject in B Minor but no real trio section. The fierce polyphony reflects Beethoven’s intense look at Handel, especially as that master would influence Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the Overture to the Consecration of the House.
Teissonnière takes the opening Andante of the last movement very slowly, savoring its melodic contour in eight measures in triple time as the source for a revelatory series of variations. The real rhythmic propulsion enters at Variation 3, in scales forte allegro. Teissonnière makes delicacy of touch a major concern, which instills a lucent clarity to the evolution of the themes, now having assumed the sense of an original improvisation. The 9/8 Variation has shapeliness and grace. The application of repeated, rocking figures and pedal effects creates an epic tension-and-release, leading to a martial variant No. 5, Allegro, in strict counterpoint, here performed with resonant force. For the last variation, the pedal has become a major factor, establishing the dominant harmony while trills and thick scalar motions contribute to a climax, whose disarming reappearance of the original melody, resonates with stately, etched, renewed simplicity.
Teissonnière establishes a richly ornamented exposition, Moderato – Cantabile espressivo, for the 1822 Sonata in A-flat Major, with its juxtaposition of dynamic contrasts, broad, flowing melodic tissue, con amabilità, against minor key anxiety, especially in the boldly enunciated bass line. The gentle pulsations take us to a remote locale in E Major in the circuitous course back to A-flat. Yet, the initial, lyric impulse has never ceased even while maintaining Haydn’s sense of sonata form. The pregnant pauses increase the sense of hallowed ground, enriched by arpeggios, descending scalar motion, and considered appoggiaturas. The final cadence over a tonic pedal seems a consummation devoutly to be wished.
A marcato gravity opens the F Minor Allegro molto, a scherzo utilizing a kind of antiphon between piano and forte, set in highly punctuated syncopes. The leaping, grumbling D-flat Trio section sounds as if it were teasing us with remnants of folk-tune impulses. The movement reluctantly cedes its motion to a cadence in the tonic major that will abruptly descend to B-flat Minor to open the extraordinary Adagio ma non troppo third movement. Some may find Teissonnière’s slow progress mannered, but the tensile beauty of the melodic line does not sag. The music then sings arioso dolente, a “song of lamentation” according to Beethoven, in A-flat Minor. The three-voice Fuga then appears, built upon three parallel rising fourths separated by two falling thirds. Some find in the sighing figures in G Minor a melancholy uttered in Bach’s St. John Passion. With Teissonnière, we seem to be groping for the light, the bass clamoring in agony in 27 repeated chords. Suddenly, the gloom yields to G Major, the fugue subject inverted and progressing in descending fourths – a gambit not lost on the later Scriabin – until we move into a glorious realm of spiritual liberation.
A sense of rage begins the Sonata No. 32 in C Minor (1822), Maestoso – Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Here, Teissonnière exploits his own bravura capacity for motor power and its inverse, the sudden impulse to subito and halt the motion with lyrical, musing figurations. The explosive momentum easily recalls equally potent moments from Clara Haskil and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Counterpoint itself seems merely a means of intensifying the hopeless catapult into the abyss. The hands scurrying in unison might indicate a skeletal loss of faith in the midst of the mortal storm, a fury that extends over six octaves. The coda, too, suffers a kind of spiritual entropy, taking five octaves to exhaust itself.
The huge second movement, Arietta – Adagio – Molto semplice e cantabile, opens in compressed, elegiac steps, with two octaves’ serving to separate the right-hand melody from the bass set in intimations of mortality. All subsequent, variant evolutions develop organically out of the original materials, a distillation of techniques and sonic maneuvers that expand the range of keyboard to express what well may truly ineffable. Variation three has been called a forerunner of jazz motifs, having emerged from the dotted figures of the second variation two. If Schumann were to review this performance, he might claim that Florestan had overwhelmed Eusebius, so intent is Teissonnière on projecting power over intimacy and inwardness. For the juxtapositions of soft and loud pages, this approach proves dramatic. Now, we await our muscular guide to soften the music into poetry, to allow the high registers, low tremolos, and the trains of trills – another influence on our friend Scriabin – to shed the mortal coil and illuminate the aether. And Teissonnière succeeds, allowing the bass to “cushion” the material world with a renewed sense of mystery. Laus Deo.