The musical world is brimming with commemorations and tributes to Ludwig van Beethoven. Why this craze? Because he was born two hundred and fifty years ago. Deuce. Eager not to let ourselves be drowned in this torrent of reverences, we too have decided to pay homage to the deaf of Bonn, by asking several musicians to tell us about a part of his repertoire. Today, pianist François-Frédéric Guy, French specialist in the composer, talks about Release Beethoven’s five concertos, of which he has just released a “play-directed” recording, that is to say that he conducts them from the piano where he also performs the solo part. Also note that François-Frédéric Guy will perform on Friday at the Dijon auditorium, in a sonata program – always by Beethoven (before overseeing a presentation of the complete sonatas, at the end of March, at the Radio France auditorium. ). But back to the concertos.
What place do concertos occupy in Beethoven’s work?
We cannot say that they form an autobiographical ensemble like sonatas or string quartets whose composition spans his entire creative life, but they nevertheless have a privileged place. They are intended to make Beethoven shine as a performer as well as a composer. There is no concerto from his last creative period: deaf, Beethoven refused to perform as a soloist. So he did not perform the last concerto. It makes us a little angry. Because Beethoven took on the concertant genre after Mozart’s 27 concertos, and he seized power, so to speak, from his 3e concerto: the works are no longer calibrated, Beethoven revolutionizes the relationship between the piano and the orchestra. He explores emotions more than he writes pure music.
It opens the way to romanticism …
Yes, it foreshadows it. A changeover occurs with the 3e concerto, then the 4e and 5e give birth to the romantic piano, with its virtuoso character. Beethoven also composes for more extensive orchestras, with a readily symphonic writing, the piano and the orchestra are nested in an organic way. This will be confirmed later in the plays of Brahms and Schumann. And we must not forget that these are five masterpieces. Performers and the public still adore these concertos without finding them aged. They will never be dated, Beethoven is in a permanent revolution, even with hindsight one cannot say that he is academic. Two hundred years later it is still incredible to hear what he dared to do.
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What do you find in concertos that you don’t find elsewhere?
They also mark a turning point in the piano making. Beethoven found that the pianos of his time had a lousy sound and could not convey all of the emotions. This stimulated the instrument makers, who added octaves, pedals that hold the sound. And that had an impact on the game: multi-trills, alternate octaves … all of a sudden instrumental music has moved into the modern world. The composers who follow were a little frightened by Beethoven’s novelties. It seemed so radical to them that they procrastinated. And then the striking character of the concertos also resides in the relationship between the piano and the orchestra. The instrument grows, the orchestra competes and everything becomes grander, developed. Popular music, with melodies and tunes that are easily remembered, while its foundation is extraordinarily clever.
How to interpret the concertos?
They were not composed for modern pianos. The Steinway of the XXIe century doesn’t have the same sounds as Beethoven’s last piano. So you have to learn to master the composer’s style. You can’t play it like a Rachmaninov concerto, you have to take historicity into account and not interpret it in a way that Beethoven could not have known, even if his deafness had also taken him away from his time. But it should not however be played with a small sound. It is up to us to support it in its visionary side, but to put it in context. At first it is scary, but after twenty years of career, we know.
There is therefore always, even in the hollow, a historically informed approach…
Yes still. We can no longer play the symphonies by forgetting the work of [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt [célèbre chef d’orchestre autrichien, ndlr] : there was much less vibrato before, the sound was different, the timpani different, the reading of the score too. Nothing to do with the orchestras of the 50s. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. But you don’t have to be rigorous. The interpreter is master on board. It must be personal, of its time, but also that of the composer.
These concertos do not proceed in the same way and are distant from fifteen years, but is there an architecture which connects these parts?
Historically, the 5e cannot be linked, Beethoven did not interpret it. But, no doubt, he would have played it without his illness. It is no more complicated to lead than the former. The 4e or the 3e are more difficult to drive from the piano. They conceal an almost perfect alchemy between all the combinations, the instruments, the necessities of the concerto genre. Musical osmosis is not always found when you have a conductor, because you don’t have much time to work: you often work at the same time a symphony given in the second part of the program.
You conduct these concertos from the keyboard, is that an additional challenge?
A challenge and a help. These concertos were created and conducted from the piano. The approach is authentic. The pianist is not a soloist against the orchestra but with the orchestra around him. I’m back to the audience, the orchestra surrounds me, like chamber music. There emerges a uniqueness of thought which produces internal coherence from the first to the last note. There is certainly an additional difficulty in the gesture of battering, upwards, which is contradictory with that of the pianist. This should not be suffered, but it also facilitates the internal logic of the work and dramatizes the solo part. There is no longer a filter between the orchestra and the soloist. I have met huge conductors who lead the concertos, but that does not replace the played-directed. I need both. And I’m happy to have re-recorded the concertos after a version led by Philippe Jordan ten years ago. These recordings represent for me the culmination of seven or eight years of concert and research in play-directed.
Your best concerto memory?
The 5e, with Philippe Jordan and the Philharmonic of Radio France, in 2009 at Pleyel. On the momentum of the recording, we gave a first complete in Paris, an important moment in my career. We had an extraordinary agreement with Jordan, a perfect alchemy. The 4e, the first one we played, it was love at first sight. Jordan is an extraordinary chef, who was less known at the time. But he already had all these qualities. Respect for the text and authenticity, post-Harnoncourt but not fundamentalist, with romantic qualities. And then at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, on January 18 this year, this time for a full evening.
Beethoven: the complete piano concertos, François-Frédéric Guy with the Sinfonia Varsovia (December 2019, Printemps des arts de Monte-Carlo).