This past year I learned and twice performed Beethoven's Variations and Fugue in Eb, Op. 35, commonly known as his Eroica Variations, as the theme of the variations is the same theme as the finale of his 3rd Symphony, also titled Eroica. This was never a dream piece of mine per se. A friend of mine had played it in our undergrads, and I heard Jeremy Denk do it live once. But it's not a piece I knew much about, nor one that I could "hear" in my ear (besides the theme). I knew it existed, but beyond that, my mind was a blank slate.
So last summer, I decided to learn it, and keep my mind free of the interference of other interpretations. (I discussed the problem of being influenced by recordings in my Artistic Messages blog series last fall, particularly #4.) I thought this would be an ideal piece to see exactly how much my artistic voice would differ from that of others: this is a significant, virtuosic piece by an iconic performer, but one relatively unknown to most people.
While learning the variations, I listened to just a couple people start the fugue to get a sense of their tempo, that's it. I didn't listen very long, and I tried to ignore all other details of their playing, beyond what I needed to satisfy my discomfort with my own tempo choices. Otherwise, to this day I haven't had any influence from other recordings of this piece. (Though full disclosure, I have played this piece once for my former teacher Thomas Rosenkranz, and twice for my coach Louis Nagel. Both mentors gave invaluable help and advice, yet neither works with me in such a way as to fundamentally change my interpretations. I see their influence as clarifying my vision of the piece or helping me reach that vision more efficiently).
Here's the very first performance of that piece, from my Choosing Joy recital in February.
Bass plus one voice: 1:20 area-I debated a lot whether to bring out the bass, or the 'new' section-the duet. Here I'm not consistent enough with either, though I do like bring out the difference: the duet.
Bass plus two voices: 2:10- I like the dialogue here!
Bass plus three voices: 2:45- I had a memory issue of a different variety in my 2nd performance of this piece too.
Theme: 3:25-I'm pretty happy with the phrasing here, though some of the passagework needs cleaning up. You need this jolly feeling here, but the arrangement and texture is really heard!
Variation 1: 4:05- It's so easy to over rely on the pedal here, but I'm glad that I'm not!
Variation 2: 4:45- of course Beethoven would make one of the hardest variations the second one. I'm quite happy with the tempo and cleanliness of the A section especially. I don't love arpeggios, but am glad it's in the key of Eb, and not C or F#. The mix of black and white notes helps a lot.
Variation 3: 6:09- there's a really tiny memory slip I'm proud to have played through.
Variation 4: 6:30 area- I've debated about playing different tempos in these variations, even with such consistency in sixteenth notes in these first four. But it seems to me they're so completely different in character, that I just need to "help" their differences a little bit.
Variation 5: 7:05- Tempo especially different here, I want to milk these juicy intervals in conversation.
Variation 6: 8:00- Just the week of the performance I was having major memory problems in this variation, so I'm glad I rectified it here. I'll take some unclean broken octaves instead. And again, success in not over-relying on the pedal.
Variation 8: 9:20- A precursor to Waldstein Sonata's finale. Everyone kept telling me to use more pedal here. I like the sound, but maybe will experiment with going further in this direction.
Variation 9: 10:08- for me probably the 3rd hardest variation. Playing these chords, with such short articulation, but still making them beautiful. Not a very successful performance, though the B section was better than the A.
Variation 10: 10:50. Actually one of my favorites. Besides the false, I like how it went. I'm trying to displace the meter as much as possible, each hand disrupting the other.
Variation 11: 11:30 ish. Another favorite. Such a mundane melody, simple accompaniment. I actually had a lot of memory problems in the B section while learning it.
Variation 12: 12:20- I guess tied with 9 for the 3rd hardest variation. My hands don't like to adjust to new hand positions so quickly, but then to play broken chords too, this could have gone worse.
Variation 13: 13:06- it's up for debate whether this or #2 is the hardest variation. I'm still not convinced about how to use the pedal here. I'd take this kind of accuracy; I only completely missed the right hand note once, and a couple other times it was a little messy. I could have slowed down a tiny bit more and no one should complain, but gosh I really want to keep the energy going like I did here.
Variation 14: 13:45ish- I wish I'd changed the mood more here. This should have been slower. But I like the voicing, and how I hold onto dissonances.
Variation 15: 14:42- Very hard to memorize, and to phrase. And to count. I think I found a nice balance in the A sections between the short phrase articulations from Beethoven, but still maintaining a longer line.
Fugue: 20:19- There's nothing so intimidating to me than performing a fugue from memory. My Master's recital had 3, including a 5-voice fugue. Listening to it now, it's been nearly 4 months since I last performed this piece, and I've read through the fugue maybe once or twice. It feels like a foreign piece! I can't 'feel' myself playing it as I listen, as I can with most of the variations. I'm impressed with the speed I have here, but I'm worried that relearning it is going to be very difficult! I'm very happy with a lot of the voicing and articulation, and besides a couple slips, the memory is quite good. This fugue is also difficult because it's so easy to play it all fast and loud. You want the feel of eroica, but without banging. Pacing is so important, and I feel like my performance doesn't get monotonous.
Post-variation 1: 22:42- I never feel like I have great trills, but I really liked the sparkliness of those at 23:27.
Post-variation 2: 23:38- My left hand melodic chords get very rhythmically monotonous, every repetition of the rhythmic device gets the exact same stress. When my right hand moves to 32nd notes at 23:53, I like the phrasing of the left much more.
Overall, I like this performance a lot more now, than when I did a couple of weeks after it happened. I think I capture the distinctiveness of the variations so that this doesn't feel like a long piece. There's enough sloppiness that I'm eager to fix and it's nothing that a 3rd and 4th performance of the work won't fix!
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act