What do we expect when we go to hear a pianist play a famous dead composer’s work? Do we want a radically “new ” take on it, or do we want it served straight? And if that composer happens to be Beethoven (1770-1827), whom even the man on the street swears he knows intimately, do we expect to hear a performance which “dialogues ” with previous ones, or is that just ” the baggage ” of western music history? These are just some of the questions which any recital of Beethoven’s solo piano works, especially his thirty-two sonatas ( 1794-1822 ), provokes, because they’re seen as the absolute Everest of the form. Even more is at stake when the pianist, Saleem Abboud-Ashkar, is not only a Palestinian who was born in Nazareth in what is now called Israel, but because he’s embraced a tradition foreign to his own.
And then there’s Beethoven who’s often seen as a very internal composer with a message. But what exactly is that message? Is it that “all men are brothers ” as Schiller’s “Ode to Joy ” has it in the composer’s Ninth Symphony (1817-23), which reminds me of what poet James Schuyler said about fellow poet John Ashbery — ” John is always marrying the whole world ” — or is it Beethoven’s struggle to get out of his own isolation from himself and others? Both things are present in the man and his music which is heroic in character and in Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase “human, all too human.” And Abboud-Ashkar, who played entirely from memory, fused these seemingly contrary aspects into one coherent whole. The “public” and the “private ” man was alive and kicking here.
Abboud-Ashkar’s substitution of the Sonata No. 7 in D, Op. 10, No. 3 for the printed program’s No. 6 in f, Op. 10, No. 2 ( both 1798 ) was a wise move because its opening movement, marked ” Presto “, is faster than No.6’s opening “Allegro”, and you don’t want to start a concert with something too “demanding ” but whet the audience’s appetite for something more. His playing of No.7 was crystal clear, beautifully shaped, and full of that famous Beethoven drive. His evenness of tone and grasp of the music’s melodic/harmonic weight was equally impressive.
Abboud-Ashkar’s playing of the truly iconic No. 23 in f, Op. 57 ” Appassionata ” (1804-05), which exploits the full range of the keyboard, was appropriately impassioned but sounded a bit too thick and harsh in parts perhaps because his Hamburg Steinway Model D — his piano of choice in his second home, Berlin is a Bechstein — went a bit out of tune. But that’s to be expected with playing of this intensity, and the piano tuner got right to work after Abboud-Ashkar left the stage.
His readings of the two other sonatas on the second half of his program were equally arresting. He mined the lyric depths in No. 26 in Eb, Op. 81a “Les Adieux ” ( 1809-10 ), especially in its second movement — L’Absence: andante espressivo — which was touching but not the least bit sentimental, which is quite a feat when you consider how some pianists don’t let this music speak for itself. The concluding one — Le Retour: Vivacissimamente — though played at breakneck speed, felt comfortable, and — inevitable, and if any composer’s work is inevitable it’s certainly Beethoven’s. This quality shone through Abboud-Ashkar’s playing of No. 31 in Ab, Op. 110 ( 1821 , which likely observed the composer’s metronome markings which usually indicate a faster tempo than the ones we often hear. Beethoven’s sonatas may be monumental, but they also move, and Abboud-Ashkar’s performance vindicated Charles Rosen’s belief, which he noted in his penetrating book The Classical Style (1971 ) that Beethoven was after a unity of tempo so that the music sounds like a continuous variation on one central rhythmic pulse, and that’s what you got here. And the pianist brought the house down with his playing of the third and final movement’s fugue. He may have been sweating bullets, but the end result was logical and completely inevitable, and the audience gave him a loud and richly deserved standing ovation.
21.iv — 9.v.17 C 2017 MICHAEL MCDONAGH