Anton Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital
You overhear these conversations all the time at concerts: “Well, he/she didn’t put enough emotion into it.” Or: “He/she put a lot of emotion into it.” Non-musicians can be forgiven for being confused by this issue, but the fact is (in my opinion, anyway) that “putting emotion in” is about 95% of the time the result of following the written directions of the composer, laid out in the score. These guys (and gals) knew what they were doing, especially Beethoven who was positively obsessive about putting the most minute instructions in his manuscripts, occasionally on nearly every note. It’s when performers don’t really take the trouble to learn the music in depth, when they take the once-over-lightly approach, or worse, when they decide that they know better than Mr. van B, that they end up sounding cold, or unemotional, and generally run aground on a lousy performance. They’re not cold, they’re just lazy. You don’t add emotion, you allow it to emerge by really knowing the musical score in the deepest possible way. A good musician has to master it all — to internalize every detail of the composer’s instructions — and only then begin to decide how to best reproduce the work.
Anton Kuerti is not lazy.
Mr. Kuerti’s extraordinary all-Beethoven program last night — two Sonatas: the Op. 26 in A-Flat, and the Op. 57 in F minor “Appassionata” plus the massive 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 — was overflowing with carefully observed details, and, as a result, it had the kind of effect on the emotions that most performers think they are achieving but never do. Kuerti has studied these works for a lifetime, and knows every jot in these scores. So, one could ask, is there no room for individuality? For a more personal interpretation? Of course there is, and Mr. Kuerti’s playing was full of freedom and fantasy — individual touches like the tiny delays which served to intensify cadences and provide breathing room in phrases — it’s just that he started from a place where every mark Beethoven put on the page was accounted for in full, and embedded in his playing.
Audiences don’t get the opportunity to hear a performance like the one Kuerti gave last night very often. This audience clearly knew it and erupted in a standing ovation as soon as the Diabellis, which closed the program, ended. This enormous set of 33 magical variations on perhaps the most banal tune ever written, something like 55 minutes in length (I glanced at my watch as it began intending to time it, but became so engrossed in the playing that I forgot to look again), is not the sort of piece that usually calls forth that kind of reaction. It is of great length, relentlessly repetitive, and worst of all it ends slowly and quietly. Nevertheless the audience, with more than a few of the worlds best pianists sprinkled in, was on its feet at the end — a well earned tribute to the fantastic journey it had just taken with Mr. Kuerti leading the way. The pianist is 74 now, and his fingers occasionally slip. It matters not at all. For a couple of hours last night, he showed us what a good musician is, and what a good musician does.