Saturday, January 11, 2014

Beethoven's Shadow book review

Music is one of the greatest pleasures of humanity and sometimes a bit of information or background knowledge can enhance the experience. Not only composers and listeners are relevant in the music communication, but performers frequently have a say.

In his book, Beethoven's Shadow, American pianist Jonathan Biss shares his performer's view on music in general and on Beethoven in particular. Not long ago he agreed to record the whole of Beethoven's piano sonatas and this book is a companion of sorts to the project.

It is a short book. It also has no obvious structure. Rather, Biss writes something closer to an extended essay. In it he explores, the project at hand,  recorded vs live music, virtuosity Fleisher, Schnabel and Serkin, with emphasis on the latter's philosophy, his (Biss') relationship with the sonatas and the quest of the 'ultimate' performance. The result is that more than listening/reading a lecture one feels he has him on one's living room having tea.

He has too much respect for the sonatas. From the start one can feel even something close to fear from his part seep here and there until he finally admits to it, defuses it and lays it to rest; all without losing admiring wonder.

The only thing that's missing are clips of the pieces he talks about.  I guess that those really interested can find them, but it would have been nice to have had them on the spot.

Now a short ramble on my impressions.  What I liked most was how he, being one of the most overexposed persons to the pieces, still find new aspects and secrets in them. My trepidation with music I like is listening too much to it and getting too familiar with it. Should that happen I fear getting some sort of diminishing returns by liking the piece less, not more. Biss sets my mind at ease. In other matters his impression on what ultimately is music echoes what Gleick describes in The Information when early theorists were trying to define the same question. Is it the scoresheet? A certain recording? The sum of all performances?

Both the audio and kindle editions are under $2, so, if you play an instrument or really listen to music, why not?


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