Piano Recital: Fabian Müller
Ives / Brahms / Beethoven
Zimmermannhaus, Brugg, 2018-11-03
I just like these concerts / recitals in the Zimmermannhaus in Brugg—a historic building and city institution that holds both an art gallery, as well as a small concert venue, for just below 100 people. The concert hall is nice as such already, under the roof (the roof construction is visible). On top of that, it is part of the art exhibit (the main part of the art exhibit is in the floor below).
This time, the exhibition featured photographs by the Swiss art photographer Gabi Vogt (*1976). The wall behind the instrument showed a gallery of 39 photos (all the same size, in a 3 x 13 arrangement), showing stone blocks in man-made environments. The piano, a mid-size Bösendorfer Model 225, formed a strong contrast to the white wall and the predominantly bright colors in the photos (all in bright, slim wooden frames):
The Artist: Fabian Müller
This concert was a recital by the German pianist Fabian Müller (*1990, see also Wikipedia). Müller grew up in Bonn, where he also received his first piano education. At age 15, he was accepted at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln, into the class of Pierre-Laurent Aimard (*1957). In 2011 and 2015 he won first prizes at competitions in Germany. At the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition 2013, he was awarded the prize for the best interpretation of a work by Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924). Fabian Müller has since launched a career as concert pianist, with appearances in Germany and several other countries in Western Europe. The artist has recently founded his own Chamber Music Festival in Bonn, the “Bonner Zwischentöne“.
Considering his artistic upbringing under Pierre-Laurent Aimard, it is no surprise that Fabian Müller started his recital with a challenging work by the most prominent American composer of the first half of the 20th century, Charles Ives:
- Ives: Piano Sonata No.2, “Concord, Mass., 1840–60”
- Brahms: 3 Intermezzi, op.117
- Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata“
After the intermission, Müller worked his way back through Brahms’ Intermezzi, op.117, to Beethoven’s Appassionata. It was good to see that Fabian Müller didn’t just confront the audience with Ives’ big, challenging sonata, but he also spent some time giving explanations on the composition.
Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) started collecting material for his Piano Sonata No.2, “Concord, Mass., 1840–60” (also called “Concord Sonata”) as far back as 1904. However, he did the “real” work on this composition (which Fabian Müller called “the most important American piano sonata of the last century”) in the years 1911 – 1915. Ives published the sonata in 1920, and again 1947, in a revised edition.
Philosophical Background, Movements
The sonata is the result of Ives’ interest in transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that people often associate with the city of Concord, Massachusetts, where prominent exponents of that movement worked and lived. Consequently, Ives dedicated the four movements to prominent exponents of transcendentalism:
- “Emerson” (after Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803 – 1882): Slowly — Moderately and quietly — Allegro
- “Hawthorne” (after Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1804 – 1864): Very fast
- “The Alcotts” (after Bronson Alcott, 1799 – 1888, and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, 1832 – 1888): Moderately
- “Thoreau” (after Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 1862): Starting slowly and quietly
One can see this sonata as experimental music, as the composer purposefully aimed at avoiding all beaten paths. The notation for some of the sonata is using three, not two systems, and major parts of the music lack barlines. The second movement calls for clusters that the pianist must create using a 37 cm (14 3/4-inch) wood block (seen on the photos below), and “heavy enough to press the keys down without striking”. I’m adding more of a description in the comments to the performance below.
Given the technical challenges in this sonata of around 40 minutes, plus the challenges in notation, it is understandable that Fabian Müller performed this from the score, using a tablet computer, turning pages by operating a foot pedal.
I. “Emerson”: Slowly
It took a few seconds to get “into” Ives’ sound world—completely atonal, building a climax, not so much in volume, but in the dissonance and the complexity of the sound clusters. It’s not as repelling as it might sound. Already the second phrase resembles the first one, creating an “instant déjà vu” experience. And both these phrases include the “tatata-taaa” from Beethoven’s fifth symphony—first hidden in the right hand, thereafter loud and strong in the bass. If a listener overlooked the first occurrence, the second one is definitely most obvious. With this trick, the composer evokes the listener’s interest—and all of a sudden, one doesn’t experience dissonances, but rather a colorful sound painting.
Fabian Müller played this with verve and expression, fetching out the quoted melody fragments. The aforementioned Beethoven quote returns throughout the sonata (I was tempted to call it “Beethoven”!). But there is more: soon after the initial Beethoven quotes, one hears a chorale melody in the bass, strong, in octaves. And there are more snippets from melodies, actually tonal (!) cantilenas that seem recognizable. Ives often repeats these melodies in other voices. However, the average listener will barely have the time to identify such fragments, as the music moves on, and the melodies are embedded in a dissonant, constantly modulating context. Still, the music seems to tell stories, and the tonal melody fragments move through the voices, the clusters, keeping the listener’s attention.
Moderately and quietly
Temporarily, the music calms down, turns cantabile, like a recitativo accompagnato. By now, a listener should be “in” the music enough not to feel the dissonances. Rather, one starts to recognize the harmonic progression as “Ives’ own tonality”. I saw it as a Leitmotiv technique, amidst dissonances and clusters that build up in waves.
The music is not just difficult to read, it also requires total rhythmic independence of the two hands. In the Allegro segment, the left hand plays rapid, virtuosic passagework, while the right hand plays jubilant, joyful chord sequences, gradually turning into melodies.
The following “solo” section of course remains atonal, but features cantilenas amidst classical textures, many more “tatata-taaa” quotes. Often, there are stretches with an apparent base beat, but without recognizable meter. And in the rare instances where a meter seems apparent, the tempo changes, and with it the texture, the dynamics. At the climax, the Beethoven motif is “shouted out” repeatedly, in fff chords, thereafter, the music fades away, ending pppp, and a final “tatata-taaa” in the bass…
II. “Hawthorne”: Very fast
Ives added a lengthy explanation to this movement, rather than giving annotations. In essence, he wanted this to be as fast as possible, free in the rhythm (ignoring the 2:1 relationship between semiquavers and demisemiquavers), and “using both pedals almost constantly”. The few annotations in the score are for the dynamics, and marks for the use of the wood block for clusters.
Melody fragments hidden in rapid passagework, jeu perlé scales amidst intricate, fast figures, short, rhythmic segments (some reminding of horse riding)—all played emphatically, with verve, momentum. Most of the “woodblock clusters” are actually pp, and held for longer periods, creating an eerie effect when the resonances from the left-hand notes are mixing in. Allusions to American folk music seem to mix in, the Beethoven quote returns with force. Then, the right hand plays a chorale melody in dissonant chords, while the left hand is busy with rapid semiquaver passagework.
Pictures at an Exhibition…
Suddenly, the music turns tonal for seconds, in a short, solemn chorale segment. This is interrupted with a wild, chaotic pattern. And the chorale returns, solemn, toughing—entirely baroque. In a way, this reminded me of the introduction of the “Ode to Joy” theme in Beethoven’s Ninth—though here, a wild eruption follows for moments, then an American folk tune / march sets in, a jazzy segment with syncopated rhythms. Frequent changes in tempo / pace: a multifaceted sequence of pictures—”Pictures at an Exhibition”? How well that suited the art exhibit on the wall behind the artist!
Virtuosity and complexity in the music are building up to a level that almost remind of the “Circus Galop” (for player piano!) by Marc-André Hamelin (*1961). The scenery changes to serene and peaceful, but the folk tune with virtuosic accompaniment returns… and it’s all most entertaining, for sure!
III. “The Alcotts”: Moderately
Albeit with a few harmonic distortions / alterations / excursions, the beginning sounds like a baroque chorale prelude: solemn, contemplative. Then, the melody seems to get lost, resonating in the eerie sounds of an Aeolian harp. Beethoven’s “tatata-taaa” appears to merge with the chorale, returns over and over again in weird harmonic combinations. Dissonances with intermittent Christmas tunes, totally harmonious, then a melancholic, popular melody. The piece moves further on, into bitonality, polytonality. And the harmonies finally re-unite into a jubilant climax that combines the chorale, Beethoven’s Fifth, the folk tunes—then it all recedes into a harmonious pp ending.
IV. “Thoreau”: Starting slowly and quietly
The opening feels like a serene scenery in nature, a gentle wind blowing, birds singing. Then, multiple layers are superimposed on top of each other, including folk tunes. The harmonic complexity grows, the music is freshening up, calming down again, reflective, pensive overall. Fabian Müller skipped a major segment of that movement, in which the composer added a flute to the piano part.
Fabian Müller’s performance left a strong impression, through Charles Ives’ music, but equally by the fact that the artist had the guts to tackle this monstrous sonata. The performance wasn’t pure virtuosic show: the pianist did not try hiding the inherent technical challenges in this music. He exposed the artisanal aspects. This way, the music was actually more impressive and compelling than a polished, flawless performance in technical perfection.
Brahms: 3 Intermezzi, op.117
In 1892, at age 59, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote his 3 Intermezzi, op.117:
- No.1 in E♭ major, Andante moderato — Più Adagio — Un poco più Andante
- No.2 in B♭ minor, Andante non troppo e con molto espressione
- No.3 in C♯ minor, Andante con moto — Poco più lento — Più mosso ed espressivo — Tempo I — Più lento
Brahms apparently called these pieces “Lullabies of my pains” (Wiegenlieder meiner Schmerzen)—they are all introverted, pensive.
Intermezzo No.1 in E♭ major
Andante moderato: dreamy, pensive music, restrained in emotions, but definitely with a confident trait—so serene, with scarce, bitter-sweet dissonances. Towards the middle part (Più Adagio), the music stayed calm, but turned more pensive, pondering.. Luckily, the initial, serene atmosphere returns in the Un poco più Andante, now even calmer, transfigured, with a joyful trait. Wonderful music, really!
Fabian Müller’s performance had all the necessary calm for this music: unexcited, pensive, never hurried even a tiny bit.
Intermezzo No.2 in B♭ minor
A lyrical piece, which Fabian Müller played with expressive dynamics in every phrasing arch, while highlighting all the small melody fragments that hide ion the demisemiquaver figures. A performance that balanced the bigger phrases with the small motifs, the melody fragments. The middle part is more lively, but also more moody, hesitant, then a little rebellious, grumpy? The ending seems to bring some peace of mind. Yet, the piece ends with a question mark.
Intermezzo No.3 in C♯ minor
I liked how Fabian Müller formed the first part (Andante con moto — Poco più lento) into one big arch, over which the emotions and the expectation were building up. Too bad the pianist omitted the repeats in the middle part (Più mosso ed espressivo). But in the final part (Tempo I) I really enjoyed how the melody in the middle voice in the right hand was singing. Fabian Müller’s young age did not show at all in Brahms’ final, slightly resigned gesture. That was no longer a question mark—one could almost see a little tear in the composer’s eye…
The one little quibble here was that the tuning of the Bösendorfer appeared to have suffered in the bass. Would it have been better to end the program with Ives’ sonata?
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata“ between 1804 and 1806. It is maybe Beethoven’s most famous sonata from the middle period—so well-known that I’ll save my words here, just giving the movements:
- Allegro assai
- Andante con moto
- Allegro ma non troppo — Presto
I. Allegro assai
Fabian Müller’s performance was impulsive, in a way putting the movement into the Sturm und Drang period. He placed eruptive gestures & phrases above detailed articulation. As expected for a performance on a modern grand piano, trills were fast & fluent (“continuous”), short notes became part of the bigger gestures. Where Beethoven (on his instruments) might have intended to work with colors, Müller focused on flow, on dynamics, on harmonious emotional arches. He avoided over-accentuating ruptures, abrupt dynamic changes. Still, he produced eruptive climaxes, letting the emotions boil up in impressive waves.
A performance for the modern piano, sure—but still one that showed Beethoven’s revolutionary attitude. One could feel how the composer felt free from any conventions, letting out his emotions without any restriction.
II. Andante con moto
In the serene second movement, an Andante con moto with three variations, I noted a very slight tendency towards over-pedaling. I’m sure Fabian Müller intended to play the theme “as legato as possible”. However, in this small venue, listeners can hear over-pedaling of even a tiny fraction of a second (producing a very short overlap between successive notes). I felt that with an instrument with such nice, full and round sonority, there was no need to “reinforce” the legato. That said: Müller’s tempo was calm, absolutely natural, the music serene.
There was maybe a little, momentary unrest already in the first variation, but definitely in the second one (semiquavers). The third variation showed somewhat of an excess of focus on the demisemiquaver chains. Overall, Fabian Müller put the entire movement under one single, big arch. An impressive, smooth performance, sure—but to me, it felt a bit “too big”, too “grand”, too much “modern grand piano”. In comparison to a performance on period instruments, that is.
III. Allegro ma non troppo — Presto
Beethoven ends his sonata with a wild, eruptive movement. Eruptive it was, indeed, with boiling emotions—though Fabian Müller kept it under control, avoided extremes, overdoing it in expression and dynamics. A good performance, but definitely not a revolutionary one, rather staying “close to the crowd”. I suspect that Ives’ strenuous sonata, as well as the substantial challenges in the Appassionata itself started to show their effect on this last movement, where one could hear occasional, small mishaps or superficialities. To a large degree, however, these went unnoticed by the audience.
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Encore 1 — Kurtág: “Pantomime (Zanken 2)“, from Játékok (Games), Volume I (1979)
Fabian Müller offered two encores. The first one was really special: a piece which he selected in view of the many notes that he was performing in the two sonatas. He performed a piece from Játékok (Games), Volume I (1979) by the Hungarian-Swiss composer György Kurtág (*1926). The movement “Pantomime (Zanken 2)” is very short—and exactly what the title says: a mere pantomime of less than half a minute. The pianist plays intensely, with all gestures and facial mimics, but without touching a single key. What a nice idea, and a brilliant joke!
Encore 2 — Brahms: Lullaby
An encore consisting of mere silence is of course a strange ending for a concert, and so, Fabian Müller returned to Johannes Brahms. He played a piano transcription of No.4, Wiegenlied (Lullaby “Guten Abend, gut’ Nacht“) from 5 Lieder (Songs), op.49. It is hard not to like this popular song—maybe too hard: somebody in the audience started to sing along… but who wanted to be upset about this, after such a demanding, intense recital program?