Pianist Kuerti taps Beethoven the strange

Anton Kuerti played the little-played at his Wednesday Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the Kimmel.
Anton Kuerti played the little-played at his Wednesday Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital at the Kimmel. (MARTIN TOSOIAN)
Posted: February 10, 2012

Somebody needed to program the orphans in Beethoven's output, and pianist Anton Kuerti was the one to do it at his Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital Wednesday at the Kimmel Center.

Never a glamour pianist, the 73-year-old Vienna-born, Canada-based Kuerti - his hair longer and wilder than ever - has been performing cycles of Beethoven sonatas for as far back as I can remember (40 years) and is a model of nonapologist performers. As majestic as Beethoven can be, his piano sonatas contain some of his most private music - cranky, quirky, and not always clear in what it has to say, especially pieces published not in a litter, but by themselves, without catchy subtitles or nicknames. If they're less attractive and more difficult than more widely heard ones, it's perhaps for lack of close siblings that elucidate an obscure idea with one that's conceptually similar but rendered in more evolved form.

Beethoven's Op. 7 and Op. 26 sonatas, as well as the even more rarely played Fantasia for Piano (Op. 77), were played by Kuerti without pianistic airbrushing. Even when Beethoven cast a particular movement with some familiar form - a folksy melody or a choralelike chord progression - there was never any doubt that those features were mere jumping-off points in his complex musical laboratory. Received forms are seriously scrambled. The Op. 26 sonata begins with the sort of theme and variations more typically found in midpiece. The music often explores the logic of extremes, culminating in the Fantasia, whose first minutes sound like three pieces spliced together. Such a concert may not be fun, but it puts you in touch with Beethoven's strangeness, so easily lost in all-purpose veneration.

These were followed by the well-known Op. 57 "Appassionata," whose second movement has conceptual similarities to the Op. 26 first movement. But given what preceded, there was no way to hear the piece as you used to. It too seemed strange and extreme raging as much as any of them. And though Kuerti isn't a pianist you go to for feats of technical wizardry, he generated plenty of heat, though not of the typical sort. The different moving parts of the final movement seemed to crowd one another and threatened to fall out of sync. That's true excitement, as opposed to just raising the music's temperature. And you came away feeling you knew Beethoven far better than before.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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