Boris Giltburg on Beethoven's Op. 111 Piano Sonata

In his first special guest blog, pianist Boris Giltburg tells us about 'imagining' Beethoven’s music

Boris Giltburg on Beethoven's Op. 111 Piano Sonata

‘Tell me in words what this music is about’ is a request I used to dread with all my heart. I never ‘saw’ anything besides the music itself, and any story I invented caused more harm than good by forcing the music into an ill-fitting straightjacket. Yet when, rarely, a story sprang to mind on its own, it was hard to resist.

Just now when I was working on the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Op. 111 Piano Sonata, I had an eureka moment – a detailed scenario materialized in my head. The theme, I saw clearly, depicted a meadow in the mountains: a serene place, expectant and timelessly wise (imagine an early morning, frigid air, a feeling of space). As the variations progressed nature came to life (flowing water, trees swaying in the breeze), and became less impersonal, until the eruption of the third variation, a wild colt, galloping through the valleys with unbridled energy, the sun burning in his mane. And then, an abrupt shift to darkness and light – a journey through the cosmos, interspersed with scenes set at some higher, ethereal spheres. 

This was just half of it. Simultaneously (so I saw, and this was what made the discovery so exciting), the music portrayed the human soul: the theme a pure, noble state, either at this soul’s beginning or end (the tinge of autumnal regret over the past in the second half of the theme, together with an acceptance of it, suggested an end), the following variations a journey back in time through memory, with life and energy increasingly returning; the colt variation the exuberance of youth, drunk on happiness and on the impossibility of defeat.

So it went on, in full detail. The balance of the two constituents shifted between the variations (the ending being pure soul, without space or time), but it was in the concurrence of the two – in Beethoven’s incredible ability not to juxtapose but to unite within the same phrases eternal, all-encompassing nature and the transient single soul that the key to the movement lay. So I thought, and I was immensely proud of myself for having cracked it.

I worked on the movement using this scenario, and then played it through, recording and listening to it afterwards. Well, the euphoria quickly evaporated. The gap between the scenes I had imagined and what I actually played was a pointed reminder of both the allure and the danger of extra-musical stories. The theme, of course, was not a mountain meadow, it had never been anything but itself – a collection of notes, intervals and chords played in time. Like the mostly empty atoms that miraculously form a living, thinking, feeling person, it is the miracle of music that those notes and the empty spaces around them form something which may, in the right hands, suggest to us scenes, characters and emotions.

So it was back to the only findings I had from the years-long quest for the secret formula of interpretation. No shortcuts, no magical solutions. First destroy layer after layer of pre-conceived ideas until nothing remains but the naked musical text. Then entrust yourself to it, hoping your intuition synchronizes with some small part and thus gains access to the core of the piece – that elusive, subjectively-perceived spirit which lies beyond the notes, but to which the notes remain, I believe, the only gateway. Should that happen the rest is a matter of time; and the interpretation that develops will be strongly connected with whatever musical truth lies within that work.


– Boris Giltburg

Photo: Sasha Gusov


Boris Giltburg will be recording Beethoven Piano Sonatas next week at Wyastone Leys Concert Hall for his second release on Naxos, out this autumn


This article was originally published in January 2015.



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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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