Klassik  Soloinstrument  Klavier
Michael Korstick Ludwig van Beethoven: Klaviersonate Nr. 15 op. 28 „Pastorale“ / Sechs Variationen über ein eigenes Thema op. 34 / Eroica-Variationen op. 35 OC 619 SACD
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FormatSuper Audio CD
Ordering NumberOC 619
Release date08/05/2009
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Beethoven, Ludwig van

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      Klaviersonate Nr. 15 op. 28 „Pastorale“
      Sechs Variationen über ein eigenes Thema op. 34
      Eroica-Variationen op. 35
      Michael Korstick, Klavier

      With vol. 6., Michael Korstick‘s highly appraised Beethoven cycle, which is largely structured chronologically, enters a stage where Beethoven gave rise to the precognition of later developments of his works to come. Sonata 28 veers away from the classical character couple of main and secondary theme in favor of a consistent motif development. Op. 34, which Beethoven himself – together with op. 35 – described as “novel“, takes the variation form to a new stage of development: Each variation has a key of its own and embodies a distinct musical stature. Op. 35 eventually reaches to the stars and fathoms extreme forms of compositional style. The splendid final fugue already points to the Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106.

      German, European, global?

      A journalist recently succeeded in silencing his interviewee Michael Korstick for a thoughtful moment by asking the question “Are you a German pianist?” with ominous emphasis on the penultimate word. After all, this was not a question which could simply be answered by glancing at the pianist’s passport, but was rather attempting to determine his artistic position. And if we follow the phases of Korstick’s career and his musical preferences, it quickly becomes clear that this question can indeed not be answered in just one sentence.

      The nine-year-old began piano lessons in his neighbourhood in Cologne completely free of expectations; the surprise was therefore great when Korstick came away from the local “Jugend musiziert” competition with a first prize two years later. As regards his early years at the piano, Korstick says that the lessons were seriously deficient particularly in the area of technique, but that it turned out to be a tremendous advantage that he first had to play every newly assigned piece at sight during lessons, as this helped him develop an exceptionally quick grasp of new pieces and enabled him to learn extremely fast. At fifteen, he had therefore already learnt all of Bach’s suites, fifteen sonatas by Haydn, as well as all the Mozart sonatas and his first Beethoven sonatas.

      On deciding to take up the piano seriously, he changed to his first professional teacher Jürgen Troester, whose own teacher Conrad Hansen had been a representative of the great German piano tradition. Troester first put Korstick’s technique on a solid foundation and then began to expand his pupil’s horizon with Brahms, Schumann, Debussy and Ravel, whereby it soon turned out that Korstick already had his own highly individual artistic ideas which during lessons he regularly had to justify to his teacher.

      Entirely new roads were then opened up through the time he spent with the Russian master pianist Tatiana Nikolaieva, starting with masterclasses and then developing into an association lasting many years. Korstick was particularly impressed by her – romantic – interpretations of Bach, and he found her visual thinking a “great enrichment” for music of the 19th and 20th century, while his view of the Viennese classics remained almost entirely unchanged.

      For two years, Korstick studied under Hans Leygraf in Hanover, who focused on the production and conscious deployment of tonal colours. This was described by Korstick as “tremendously instructive” and “a godsend”, as in Leygraf he had a teacher who was ready to support and assist in the realisation of interpretational decisions which deviated from his own concepts as long as these were wellfounded and logical.

      In 1976, Korstick finally went to the USA for seven years, where he studied at the Juilliard School under Sascha Gorodnitzki, who had been favorite pupil and assistant of the legendary Josef Lhévinne and embodied the Russian-American tradition of Romantic piano-playing. During his early years in the USA, Korstick spent the summer months at the Aspen Music School, where he worked on the fine points of his technique with Jeaneane Dowis. During this time, Korstick acquired the “big tone” and other means of the “Romantic style”; at the same time, he distanced himself to some extent from the polished surface and smoothness which constitute the ideal of this school, and remained true to his European ideals particularly when it came to Beethoven.

      It is therefore not surprising that Korstick did not want to answer with a simple yes or no to the crunch question mentioned at the beginning, and described himself as a “mishmash” who had “drunk at many wells”.

      Rather than subjecting oneself to the thinking of a particular school or faction, Korstick feels it is important to be capable – while possessing an unmistakable individuality – of deploying the widest possible range of instrumental possibilities in order to be able to meet various stylistic requirements with the appropriate means. After all, one of history’s great pianists had already demonstrated this, and so Korstick concluded: “If you were to insist on branding Walter Gieseking as a ‘German’pianist, I could live with such a label at least without biting my pillow every night…”

      Variations on Beethoven

      All three works on this CD have one thing in common: each of them in its way points far ahead to future developments in the output of Ludwig van Beethoven. With the Sonata op. 28 composed in 1801, Beethoven returns to the classical fourmovement form after the two Sonatas op.

      27 titled Quasi una fantasia, but already the opening, which in fact contains the nucleus of the violin concerto, makes it clear how far the composer has moved from his roots and is pushing open the door to a new century. However, this should not lead to hasty conclusions, e.g. that Beethoven’s intention was to compose a “pastoral” work in anticipation of Schubert. Such ideas are belied by the numerous spiky sforzati and irritable gestures with which Beethoven – if they are not smoothened over by the performer – creates an atmosphere which has precious little to do with Biedermeierstyle cosiness. The novelty lies rather in the fact that the composer creates a continual flow and eliminates the classical contrast between main and secondary theme in favour of the principle of continuous motivic development. In the second movement, we find the method of placing a sustained legato melody in the right hand over a pizzicato-like accompaniment in the left which had already been tried in the Largo of the Sonata op. 7; however, the effect is much more ascetic here. The middle section anticipates an idea from the second movement of the 2nd Symphony almost note for note. The third movement is clearly more economically structured than the scherzi which preceded it, and the fourth links to the long pedal points of the first movement. We may assume it was these elements, foreshadowing the 6th Symphony, which after Beethoven’s death earned this sonata the sobriquet “Pastoral”, which did not help make the work really popular but which at least is not totally far-fetched.

      The significance of variation form in Beethoven’s oeuvre is frequently reduced in public perception to astonished admiration of such a giant work as the Diabelli Variations op. 120; however, for a composer who had an almost unparalleled ability to perfect themes by continuous polishing and to use them to maximum effect within a given structure, this form was actually a unique opportunity to open up new possibilities of expression within a fixed framework. It is therefore no coincidence that the first surviving and printed work by Beethoven is a set of variations (on a march by Dressler, 1782) composed in Bonn when he was just twelve years old.

      When Beethoven published his op. 34 and 35 in 1803 after 18 piano sonatas, he had already composed 13 sets of variations for the piano in which he had tried out innovative piano techniques, but had hardly gone beyond ornamental changes to the themes, mostly popular melodies, as Mozart had done. A letter which he wrote to his publisher in October 1802 is therefore revealing: “As these v(ariations) are clearly different from my earlier ones, rather than labelling them with just a number like the previous ones (for example no. 1, 2, 3 etc.), I have included them among the actual number of my larger musical works, as the themes were also composed by me.”

      No-one could have described the significance of the works better than Beethoven himself: “Both have been worked out in a wholly new fashion, each of them different, […] Normally I only hear it said by others when I have new ideas, as I am never aware of it myself, but this time I must assure you myself that the nature of both works is entirely new for me.”

      Opus 34 begins with a 22-bar theme in F major written in three-part form, which is a full-scale character piece in itself. This is followed by six variations, each written – and this is truly revolutionary – in a different key (D major – B-flat major – G major – E-flat major – C minor – F major) and embodying its own individual character, such as Scherzo, Minuet and Funeral March. The theme is repeated in its entirety after the final variation, this time in richly ornamented form.

      Within this unheard-of concept, Beethoven limits himself to an uncomplicated form of pianistic writing; he largely dispenses with virtuoso demands, and the challenges with which he confronts the performer are purely artistic in nature.

      This is quite different from his gigantic opus 35, a pinnacle in the literature for piano: here Beethoven uses variation form as a field of experimentation, to penetrate new dimensions both of expression and of pianistic vocabulary. On closer investigation, we find that this work actually already contains all of the elements of Beethoven’s late style, which are being “tested” for their possibilities of use. The fifth variation, for example, contains the nucleus of the fifth variation in the final movement of the Sonata op. 109; the end of the fifteenth variation (from 7’50”) contains the idea for the end of the second Arioso section in op. 110, and even the famous passage in the Arietta variations of op. 111 so vividly described by Thomas Mann in his “Doktor Faustus”, where treble and bass are separated by a gaping five and a half octaves, is foreshadowed at 4’55” and 6’10” of this fifteenth variation. Moreover, the outrageously difficult fugue already contains almost the entire pianistic vocabulary of the notorious final fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata op. 106. Further examples could be found in this gigantic work, one of Beethoven’s greatest compositions which is second to none in terms of musical expression and overwhelming force.

      The title Eroica Variations, under which the work is known because Beethoven later used the theme in the fourth movement of his 3rd Symphony, is thus a highly appropriate character description; however, it might be even more appropriate, also in the philosophical sense, to refer to the work as “Prometheus Variations” after the actual origin of the theme from the ballet composed in 1800/1.

      Sascha Selke
      translation: ar-pege translations

      Tracklist hide

      SACD 1
      • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
        Sonata No. 15 in D major op. 28 „Pastoral“
        • 1.Allegro11:27
        • 2.Andante08:16
        • 3.Scherzo: Allegro vivace02:10
        • 4.Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo04:52
      • Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major op. 34
        • 5.Thema: Adagio cantabile01:50
        • 6.Variation 101:37
        • 7.Variation 2: Allegro ma non troppo00:57
        • 8.Variation 3: Allegretto01:17
        • 9.Variation 4: Tempo di Menuetto01:47
        • 10.Variation 5: Marcia. Allegretto02:05
        • 11.Variation 6: Allegretto – Adagio molto04:15
      • Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat major op. 35 „Eroica Variations“
        • 12.Introduzione col Basso del Thema. Allegretto vivace00:47
        • 13.a due00:48
        • 14.a tre00:47
        • 15.a quattro00:37
        • 16.Thema00:41
        • 17.Variation 100:36
        • 18.Variation 200:50
        • 19.Variation 300:36
        • 20.Variation 400:37
        • 21.Variation 500:41
        • 22.Variation 600:32
        • 23.Variation 7: Canone all´ottava00:35
        • 24.Variation 800:48
        • 25.Variation 900:37
        • 26.Variation 1000:39
        • 27.Variation 11
        • 28.Variation 1200:41
        • 29.Variation 1300:38
        • 30.Variation 14: Minore01:41
        • 31.Variation 15: Maggiore. Largo06:37
        • 32.Finale: Alla Fuga. Allegro con brio04:35
      • Total:01:04:56