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Onay’s Beethoven

If Romanticism could be defined as an imaginative power, as lyricism stirred up by vehement passions, then Beethoven could be considered the first and perhaps greatest Romantic.

He [Beethoven] is the man of our time… He is romantic to the supreme degree

Delacroix / George Sand (Journal, March 7, 1847)

Another romantic, Gülsin Onay, who graduated from Paris Conservatory at the age of 16 with the Premier Prix de Piano, studied piano with legends like Saygun, Haas, Boulanger and honored with the award of an Gold Cross of Merit of the Polish nation by the President of the Republic of Poland for her contributions to the establishment of Ankara’s Chopin Society was recently released an album of Beethoven to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Beethoven dominated the concert repertoire (Fig-1) between 1860 and 1980. This domination is both by the means of staging and technical difficulty. Due to this wearisome road, few pianists undertook the task of recording composer’s sonatas.

Yes, Beethoven catalogue is vast; Schnabel being the first, Gilels and Kempff recordings were always credited for their exclusivity.

In this review, with a fresh attitude, I will put my facts in order to explain why Gülsin Onay’s album must be in the archive of every Beethoven enthusiast.


Prologue

Beethoven’s piano sonatas were written over a period of forty years (1782-1822) and it is customary to view Beethoven’s works in three periods.

The first period generally is perceived as extending from about 1782 to 1800, including 11 piano sonatas from Op. 2 to 22. The second period extends from 1801 to 1814, including 16 piano sonatas from Op. 26 to 90 and the last, third style period, extends from 1815 to 1826 which includes his last 5 piano sonatas.

Despite there is no common agreement related with the above period divisons, it is a matter of convenience to aid in comparative study.

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As per the choices of Onay, we will visit all three periods which were discussed above with Op. 13 of 1799 being first, Op. 53 of 1804, second and Op. 111 of 1821, third.

I am not very fond of the album design since I am not a supporter of artist being framed at cover. For this very album, my choice of cover would have been Carl Moll’s (b. 1861) Döbling Wien painting of 1961.


Opus 13

Beethoven’s “Sonate pathétique,” Op. 13, was published by Eder, in Vienna, in 1799, and afterwards by Hoffmeister, who announced them on December 18 of the same year.

The sonata was well-received by the public. The thesis, which explains the success was well written at the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung‘s 21st issue, dated February 3, 1800:

The clear return to the mood of the first movement in the finale, after the lyrical interlude of the Adagio, gives the work a binding aesthetic unity…

Onay’s interpretation, not prone to point-making for expressive effect, is exactly within this aesthetic unity.

The slow introduction begins with a series of heavy chords, each followed by a short dotted figure. A similar opening could be found at the G-minor Sonata by Clementi, Op. 34 no 2, composed approximately 10 years earlier,

With a negligible sharp release of sustain pedal in the 6th measure (0:57 sec) which hinders smooth fading of bass, every run performed with expressive exclusivity and all melodic outlines were preserved. Silences in the opening grave of the first movement and dynamics are noble.

Speaking of dynamics, which must be emphasized for Beethoven Sonatas, there are 11,508 dynamic markings in the 102 movements as per the Kalmus edition. In simple words, Beethoven notates a dynamic marking nearly every two bars!

Regarding tempo, I believe, one should not measure the metronome ticks per theme within a movement but compare reference records. My ear did not noticed any overdriven phrasing. For reference, Gilels (DG, 1981), Brendel (Brilliant Classics, 2007) and Onay played first movement in 9 minutes, Schnabel (Warner, 2016) in 08:30 and Backhaus in full flight, 06:15.

Thank god, Onay and Backhaus matched each other at the last movement Rondo: Allegro in 04:30 where Gilels preferred a steady walk for 5 minutes and Schnabel with a little more pace, 04:08.

The last movement, an emotional breeze for my taste, is the first meeting point of our romantics where Onay well maintained both illustrious side of the composer and compositonal peculiarities.

At the closing, Onay’s fortissimo is much more aligned with original Eder’s (1799) version of print rather than modern one’s.

Eder
Modern

Opus 53 and the Story of Andante Favori

Not on my life would I have believed that I could be so lazy as I am here. If it is followed by an outburst of industry, something worth while may be accomplished,” Beethoven wrote at the end of his letter of July 24, 1804. He was right. His brother Johann secured for him the lodging at Döbling where he passed the rest of the summer, and where the two Sonatas Op. 53 and 54, certainly “something worth while,” were composed. Op. 53 was published in May, 1805 by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie in Vienna.

A friend of Beethoven’s said to him that the Sonata was too long, for which he was terribly taken to task by the composer. But after quiet reflection Beethoven was convinced of the correctness of the criticism. The Andante was therefore excluded and its place supplied by the interesting Introduction to the Rondo which it now has. A year after the publication of the Sonata it also appeared separately. In these particulars Ries is confirmed by Czerny, who adds: Because of its popularity (for Beethoven played it frequently in society) he gave it the title ‘Andante favori.’

Onay used maximum dynamic and textural contrast to emphasize Waldstein Sonata’s almost orchestral nature. This monumental piece, thanks to Onay’s velvet like touch, had been transformed to a fantastic voyage.

Virtuoso pianism always pays off; opening movement thrown off with apparent ease and Onay delightfully played the music, without rush, leaving enough time for the listener to convey almost every aspect of Beethoven’s complex character.

Her distinctness and evenness is graceful. She never lost the melodic substance introduced by dominating metrical accents. Shading is within imaginable radius which makes pulse more natural.

Owing to Onay’s emotional expression capabilities, my favorite part which I listened persistently is the final movement; a decisive victory where very note was glorified! Scales are fast, tonality changes are merciless, however, Onay’s Chopinistique touch amazes listeners with the pace kept, melody sung.


Opus 111

Ideas utilized in the C minor Sonata, Op. 111, are found amongst those for Op. 110 and particularly among some for the Agnus Dei. The autograph bears the date January 13, 1822, and it is plain that most of the work was done in 1821.

It was published by Schlesinger in April, 1823, after Beethoven had offered it to Peters of Leipsic. Corrections for these three sonatas occupied a great deal of time; the engraving of the French edition of the C minor was so faulty that Beethoven demanded proof copies three times; twice his call was granted, the third time it was refused.

This Sonata, Op. 111, was dedicated to Archduke Rudolph. Beethoven had left the matter to Schlesinger, but he afterward made a suggestion as to his wishes, for in a letter to the Archduke on June 1, 1823, he writes: “Y. I. H. seemed to find pleasure in the Sonata in C minor, and therefore I feel that it would not be presumptuous if I were to surprise you with its dedication.”

In addition to above, as per the letter dated February 18, 1823, Beethoven dedicated London edition of Op. 111 to Antonia Brentano which was published by Clementi & Co.

A classical Beethovenian C-minor, Op. 111 opens with Maestoso introduction, with its double-dotted chords, prepares the way for the energy and conflict of the main Allegro.

As instructed by Hans von Bülow, Onay’s trills begin with the principal notes which give the rhytm its predominance. Her arpeggios are rapid and distinct.

Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung critic Hoffmann describes the second theme in the first movement of Op. 111 as ‘the loveliest contrast to the powerful, passionate impulsiveness‘ which hardly stops for a moment in this whole movement and which drives everything restlessly forward.

One can hear the percussive quality of Onay’s accents, dynamic contrasts and majestic control of the pianissimo passages. Lenz describes both parts of this piece as “Resistance and Submission” at his Critical Catalogue of Beethoven’s Works. Is it possible to disagree with this thought?

The term semplice appears several times in compositions of the late period, as in Op. 106/II/46, Op. 111/Arietta. The simplicity Beethoven sought is one of expression and not of compositional technique, again masterfully served by Onay.

The variations in the second movement feels like a faster progress is required as more notes are injected inside measures. However, Beethoven insists on a stable tempo with L’istesso tempo markings.

Tempo issue was also addressed by Antonio Diabelli. When Beethoven sent (June 1823) the manuscript of the sonata for Diabelli, he clearly requested his help for proofreading: “I advise you to have another look yourself at the C minor sonata, for the engraver is not sufficiently musical”

This request was due to composers eye illness of that time. From the reply letter, it is understood that Diabelli asked for the metronome markings and composer assured him to send them very soon.

Onay’s both hand speak ‘freely’ with each other, granting listener the comfortable “tempo” journey which ear is asking for, neither with any time stretching nor shrinking.

With arresting grandeur, this is music that needs, and deserves, stronger advocacy. Altogether an enchanting album!


Fig -1 : Composer appearances by period


References

COOPER, BARRY. “Beethoven’s Uses of Silence.” The Musical Times, vol. 152, no. 1914, 2011

Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, Volume I & II, Edited by Elliot Forbes

Hughes, Walden. “BEETHOVEN’S PIANO SONATAS The Final Decade.” American Music Teacher, vol. 37, no. 1, 1987

Wallace, Robin (1990). Beethoven’s Critics: Aesthetic Dilemmas and Resolutions During the Composer’s Lifetime. Cambridge University Press

Sheer, Miriam. “Dynamics in Beethoven’s Late Instrumental Works: A New Profile.” The Journal of Musicology, vol. 16, no. 3, 1998

The Letters of Beethoven. Compiled, translated and edited by Emily Anderson. 3 vols. London: Macmillan, 1961.

Huron, David. “Crescendo/Diminuendo Asymmetries in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7, no. 4 (1990)

Gould, John. “What Did They Play?: The Changing Repertoire of the Piano Recital from the Beginnings to 1980.” The Musical Times 146, no. 1893 (2005)


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