Pianist Elinor Freer is candid about what draws her to Beethoven. "I find him to be one of the most difficult composers to perform," she says. "I find it a real challenge. That's one of the things that I'm drawn to — it's exhausting to practice and perform."
Freer, piano, and Mimi Hwang, cello, will perform the five Beethoven sonatas for piano and cello in two recitals at Nazareth College, the first half of the two-part concert series taking place on Sunday, January 27, and the second concert being on Friday, March 22.
"Project Ludwig: the Piano and Cello Sonatas of Beethoven" is a two-part program featuring the five sonatas for the instruments by Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven, a German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827, wrote extensively for solo piano, including 32 piano sonatas. Only five duo sonatas were written by Beethoven for piano and cello.
According to Freer, Beethoven's works can be thought of as falling into three periods: early, middle, and late. Beethoven's loss of hearing began at the age of 26 (1796), approximately toward the end of the early period or beginning of the middle period. The five duo sonata works on the programs span all three periods of Beethoven's life, and, according to Hwang, one can learn from the late works to help performance of the early works, and vice versa.
The works also coincide with the emergence of the fortepiano into the modern pianoforte (or simply "piano"), and Freer will perform one concert on each instrument. Freer explains that the cello, as an instrument, is largely unchanged since Beethoven's time except for strings and bow. The adjustment having to be made by Hwang is to tune the cello lower to accommodate the fortepiano.
Freer calls it "revelatory" to have the opportunity to seriously study several of the duo sonatas on the fortepiano. She says that there are differences between the fortepiano and the modern piano in how the pianist controls the volume of the sound, the articulation, and the pedaling.
And, even though the pianoforte being used for the second concert is a modern instrument by a Belgian maker, Chris Maene, it was constructed based upon a Viennese instrument that would have been in existence around 1875 or so, according to Freer. Both instruments used in the concerts will be on loan from Eastman School of Music to Nazareth College.
Hwang proposed these concerts to Freer because Hwang is working on learning all 19 of the Beethoven string quartets with the Amenda Quartet. "I was inspired by the work on the string quartets, and I thought I'd love to be able to do the duo sonatas with Elinor," says Hwang. "Elinor and I have been friends for a while and we've always enjoyed playing with each other. When I asked her, she said yes right away."
Freer says that there aren't many composers whose works she would consider performing as a cycle, meaning in a complete set of a single format. For Freer, Shostakovich might be the only other composer she would consider for an "all-something" program. "Shostakovich has that same sort of diversity and incredibly wide span of emotional content as Beethoven," she says.
Two things fed into preparation for these programs. First, Freer had to consider the technical demands of performing all-Beethoven programs. Then, Freer had to consider the notion of dedicating so much practice time to one specific type of work by one composer.
"The piano parts are incredibly involved and virtuosic," says Freer, who had previously studied and played three out of these five duo sonatas. "It's extremely challenging to do a whole Beethoven program," says Freer. "It's the most challenging of any composer because it requires so much of you, both in terms of emotional and technical endurance. It's like running a marathon."
Freer is finding that preparing for these Beethoven programs is giving her a "kind of euphoria" and a "sense of accomplishment." She says, "Performing all of these sonatas has also given me a sense of wonder of the music and the diversity of the music. It has been an incredible, exhausting journey."
Also on the first concert program is one of Beethoven's sets of variations for cello and piano. Hwang says that there are three such sets of variations for cello and piano, and she and Freer selected the one that they most enjoyed.
Freer is an assistant professor of chamber music at the Eastman School of Music and a collegiate instructor in piano at the Eastman Community Music School. She has built a versatile career as a piano soloist and as a chamber musician, performing across the United States, Europe, and China. Highlights of Freer's performance history include the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam) and the Valery Gergiev Festival (Rotterdam). Freer is co-artistic director of the Skaneateles Festival with her husband, David Ying.
Hwang is an assistant professor of chamber music at the Eastman School of Music and a lecturer of music at Nazareth College. She is a founding member of the Amenda Quartet and the Franciscan String Quartet. Her performances have taken her to concert halls throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and she has performed with the Beijing Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.
At a time when so much of the classical music world seems wrapped up in conversations over the performance values of older, iconic composers such as Beethoven versus modern and even untested composers, Freer says there's a reason Beethoven continues to appear on programs and delight audiences.
"You really can listen to an entire program of Beethoven and not get tired of it," says Freer. "His genius of craftsmanship is something every composer respects and admires, whether they want to admit they are influenced by Beethoven or not."
Hwang adds that as a performer, "You can work on these masterpieces for a lifetime and enjoy them and learn new things about them all the time. You can keep digging and digging and finding new things."
And Freer can take that argument on Beethoven's behalf to an even more compelling level than the "timelessness" angle.
"The stories about Beethoven are legendary — he was messy, dirty, rude, anti-social, he destroyed pianos. There are so many legends about him that it may be difficult to separate fact from fiction," says Freer. "But, he obviously was an incredible juxtaposition of so many things, spiritual and earthy. He must have been an incredible, spiritual person."
Freer says that this pair of concerts for "Project Ludwig" is an excellent opportunity for the audience on many levels. "These are all-Beethoven programs. So whether you're a Beethoven fan or even if you're new to Beethoven, you'll get a range of compositions from youthful, fresh, exuberant, and full of joy to transcendent, searching, and spiritual. Beethoven has a connection with the human spirit."
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.