Catching up with Pianist Luisa Guembes-Buchanan Print E-mail
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Written by Jerry Dubins   
Tuesday, 02 April 2013

Catching up with Pianist Luisa Guembes-Buchanan

This is my third visit with Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, a fascinating woman and pianist who is exploring Beethoven’s keyboard works in her own time and her own way. Earlier interviews will be found in Fanfare 29:4 and 32:3. Luisa’s latest album, titled “Beethoven in D,” gathers together the composer’s three piano sonatas—the only three—that share the key of D: No. 7 in D Major, op. 10/3; No. 15 in D Major, op. 28, the “Pastoral;” and No. 17 in D Minor, op. 31/2, the “Tempest.”

Q: So, let me begin by asking you how you came up with the idea of a key-based program. I’m guessing it’s something that has been done before, but it is unusual. And why “D”? Is it because there are either too few or too many sonatas in the other keys Beethoven used to fill or fit a single CD? There are only two sonatas each, for example, in the keys of A and E, but five sonatas each in the keys of C and G. D is the only key with three and only three sonatas that neatly fill one disc. Was that a consideration?

A: The fact that any number of works can fit or not on a CD has never been a consideration of mine. If you recall, you have previously noted that the Schumann CD was too short and that the Beethoven six-CD project could have fit on fewer discs. After completing the “Late Works of Beethoven” CD, which included his bagatelles, I started looking backwards toward his early works in order to retrace his compositional steps, so to speak. I have always loved the Sonata, op.10/3. The Largo movement, for example, is a forerunner to the slow movement of op. 106. It certainly possesses the depth and feeling of the later work among other things. The fact that Beethoven took from Haydn the method of using short motivic units and, employing that method, was able to write a whole sonata based in essence on four notes fascinated me. The wit of the fourth movement is marvelous. As for the other two sonatas, each had some element that Beethoven explored and developed. In op. 28, which I find to be one of the most serene of his sonatas, he is painting nature, the countryside, if you will. He accomplishes this by the use of pastoral devices, such as the bass drone figure, and by cleverly moving back and forth, using the conventional circle of fifths expanding while seemingly standing still. The op. 31/2 (“Tempest”) brings us paradoxical structures full of contradiction. Here by the artful manipulation of contrasts in tempo and mood Beethoven gives us high drama. The composer himself said that with this work he was embarking on a “new path.” These works share the key of D, but they are very different. Each explores an aspect of Beethoven’s compositional output and creates in its way a path toward his late works.

Q: So far, you’ve given us Beethoven’s final three sonatas, plus his Diabelli Variations , and now these three sonatas in D. Are you mulling over the prospect of continuing on to eventually produce a complete cycle?

A: I have no idea. However, I seem always to go back to his works in one way or another.

I have been exploring fantasies from Bach, Haydn, Brahms, etc., avoiding the obvious fantasies of Schubert and Schumann, and I came upon Beethoven’s Fantasy, op. 77. Needless to say, this unusual work is fascinating to me. Beethoven’s facility to create a quilt that includes variations, cadenzas, etc., and make it sound like an “on the spot” improvisation is pure genius.

Q: I have to admit that that last question was kind of a leading one, because I’ve learned that you’ve recently redirected your attention to two composers who are about as far removed from Beethoven as is Pluto from Earth—Erik Satie and John Cage. Tell me more.

A: I have throughout my teaching, playing, and lecturing career explored many composers and genres, their relation to the other arts, to historic times, and so on. Thus, it is not unusual that in 2012—John Cage’s 100th birthday—I should reflect on his works. I have in the past introduced Cage and Satie among other composers to my students in Germany and we have had some wonderful recitals and talks about them over the years. It was a natural thing for me to try my hand at this. I would be less of a musician if I only played Beethoven. The music of all eras interests me immensely, and I have had wonderful experiences exploring their worlds.

Q: Please understand that you’re talking to someone who regards Cage with more than a skeptical eye and ear. So tell me, what about his ideas fascinates you, and what should the Doubting Thomas, like me, listen for in his music?

A: I have found that trying to convince anyone about the worth of any type of art, whether it be music, literature, or painting, often has the opposite effect. For example, my beloved husband absolutely loves Mahler and has tried in a million different ways to make me love Mahler as much as he does. The result is that I have had a surfeit of Mahler and so perhaps am shortchanging both of us. John Cage to me is the quintessential American composer. With confidence and arrogance he set about changing the way we view the world of music and more importantly the way we listen and hear music as well as how we compose. The influence of Zen Buddhism informing the random compositional techniques of his later work, its concern with removing forethought and choice from the creative model, Cage set out to make music in line with the principles of the I Ching, predictable only by its very unpredictability. I do not pretend to know everything about him and I cannot see myself devoting my life to his world, but it is certainly a world worth exploring.

Q: What piece, or pieces, by Cage, in particular are you working on, and are you planning a recording anytime soon?

A: As of last November you can log on to and download Erik Satie Vexations and John Cage’s Chess Pieces . This is a free download, a birthday present to Cage. In 1944, Cage was invited to participate in an exhibit organized by Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst at the Julian Levy Gallery. All works submitted for the exhibit were to relate to the game of chess. Cage contributed a painting entitled Chess Pieces . The painting contained a music score which the foremost Cage pianist Margaret Leng Tan later transcribed. She described this work as comprised of 22 segments which are complete musical units of 12 bars each. Leng Tan subsequently performed the score at the Noguchi Museum in 2005. Chess Pieces is, in my opinion, the summation of John Cage’s interests, that is to say, music, visual art, and chess.

Q: And what about Satie? Now there, at least, is a composer whose personal eccentricities and musical quirks one can appreciate for their nuttiness, if nothing else; but perhaps in spite of himself, Satie did write some arrestingly beautiful pieces. You’re not planning on performing his Vexations , uncut, are you? So, I’ll ask you the same question I asked about Cage. What pieces by Satie are you working on, and are you planning a recording anytime soon?

A: For many years I have introduced his music to my students. The Pieces de Traverse was much in demand as well as his Rosacrucian pieces that obsessed one of my students many summers ago. On another occasion they staged a “Satie Evening,” which included, among other works, Sonatina Bureocratique , delighting all of those who had studied the worldwide staple Clementi Sonatina in C Major. Satie intended Vexations to be played 840 times. The heading for the piece reads: Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses (In order to play this theme 840 times in succession, it is advisable to prepare oneself beforehand and in greater silence through severe immobilities). “Severe immobilities” is an expression coined by Satie. Vexations is part of my John Cage birthday celebration. As you know, Cage organized the first publication of this work in 1949, and I very much admired the idea behind it. In his book, Silence , a collection of his lectures and writings, Cage gives us some insight into his fascination with Vexations . “In Zen,” he writes, “they say: ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’” I have recorded 60 tracks of Vexations (loosely employing the basic hexagram of the I Ching Book of Changes ) which, when played 14 times, will yield the required 840 performances. The tracks can also be played at random, permitting the listener to create his or her own chance operations.

Q: What do you mean when you say that on your recording the tracks can be played at random, permitting the listener to create his or her own chance operations. Isn’t each repetition exactly the same, or do you vary each one with different tempos and dynamics?

A: I have only tried to keep more or less the same tempo but each segment is slightly different in its duration, dynamics, and mood. I have never been able to play anything twice exactly the same (a nightmare for the editing part of recording). If I wanted 60 tracks exactly the same I would have simply recorded one and duplicated it, no? Using a 60-sided die I have also devised a chart with 14 different possibilities for each track. This chart is also available for free by request. While trying all this, I decided that it would be a very useful tool for teaching students how to listen for nuances in sound. As you can see, Cage unleashed a new way of thinking about music and of listening. Interestingly, this type of experimentation has enhanced, in my opinion, my ability to pursue more color in my playing and my expectation of this from my students.

Q: Returning to Beethoven, I guess it’s not out of order to ask if you’re abandoning what seemed to be a good start on a complete sonata cycle. You also recorded Beethoven’s final two cello sonatas with cellist Philipp Weihrauch. Do you see yourself getting more involved with chamber music, either by Beethoven or other composers?

A: Many years ago I performed all of his piano trios at a local library. I have performed several of his cello sonatas. It is my dream to bring together a group of young performers who would be interested in pursuing the serious study of this music. I am not abandoning anything. At the moment, I am exploring, in addition to the fantasies I mentioned before, Beethoven’s sonatas, op. 7, op. 27/1, op. 31/3, and op. 81a. They just happen to be in E♭! In addition, the last three Schubert sonatas are very much in the forefront of my concerns. I am very interested particularly in the C-Minor Sonata as it relates to Beethoven and his influence on the young Schubert. My wish is that there were more than 24 hours in a day.

Q: I can’t let you go without asking you one more question. The piano you use for your “Beethoven in D” CD has such a radiant sound to it. What is it? Also, have you experimented with different pianos, and, if so, do you find one instrument more suitable than another to a particular composer’s music?

A: I recorded the disc at a studio in Roslindale, Massachusetts. The studio has wonderful acoustics and John Weston is a magnificent recording engineer. We pianists for the most part do not have the luxury of performing with only the appropriate instrument all the time. We find gems often but not always. The Hamburg Steinway used to be the most versatile for me. Now I have the good fortune to have two Fazioli 298 pianos and have discovered a world of variety of sounds. One of them is very brilliant and the other one is mellow and somewhat dark so, now I can experiment. My dream is to make my music room open to young pianists to experiment as well.

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: No. 7 in D; No. 15 in D, “Pastoral; No. 17 in d, “Tempest” Luisa Guembes-Buchanan (pn) DEL AGUILA 55307 (66:37)

As readers are well aware, the same CD sent out for review to two different critics very often elicits very different opinions; and thus it is with this one. In my first encounter with Luisa Guembes-Buchanan back in 29:4, I reviewed her three-disc set of Beethoven’s last three sonatas and Diabelli Variations , commenting that to my ear her approach most closely resembled that of Alfred Brendel. Then, in the much more recent 36:1 issue, colleague Radu A. Lelutiu had the opportunity to review Buchanan’s latest Beethoven album—the one under review here again, this time by me—containing the composer’s three sonatas in the key of D. Lelutiu, in his review, disagreed strongly with my earlier assessment, claiming to hear in Buchanan’s playing none of Brendel but much of Wilhelm Backhaus.

Now it’s my turn to disagree with Radu, for I hear in Buchanan’s playing none of the qualities he ascribes to Backhaus, namely, angularity, impulsivity, and virtuosity. It’s as if Radu and I heard two entirely different recordings. In fact, even without having read Radu’s review, I’d have characterized Buchanan’s performances of these three sonatas in exactly the opposite terms. When I listen to Backhaus, I do indeed hear a pianist who “emphasizes the angularity, impulsivity, and virtuosity of Beethoven’s scores, approaching them with a kind of militancy that favors the whole over its parts,” just as Radu describes. But when I listen to Buchanan, what I hear is a pianist who emphasizes sustaining of the line through a more legato touch and a mellower tone, and who appreciates that you cannot have a forest but for the individual trees.

I’m also at a loss to understand Radu’s impression that Buchanan’s tempos, like Backhaus’s, are on the swift side. It’s said that perception is reality, so perhaps Radu perceives Buchanan’s tempos differently than I do. But when it comes to reality, fact trumps perception, and a direct comparison of the timings between the two pianists reveals that with the noted exception of the Largo e mesto movement in op. 10/3, Buchanan’s tempos are in fact slower than Backhaus’s, though, admittedly, not by that much. Overall, Buchanan takes 22:10 to Backhaus’s 19:11 for the “Pastoral” Sonata, and 22:28 to 21:10 for the “Tempest.” I will concede, however, that Buchanan’s tempos are generally faster than Brendel’s, the pianist to whom I previously compared her.

As for the Largo e mesto , I would just point out that modern views of Beethoven have changed since the pianists Radu mentions—Backhaus, Schnabel, and Arrau—set down their Beethoven cycles. Maurizio Pollini, for example, makes even shorter work of the movement than Buchanan does, 8:18 vs. 8:29; and faster still is Craig Sheppard at 8:07.

You’d think that Beethoven would have provided metronome markings for his piano sonatas, but with the exception of the “Hammerklavier,” he didn’t. Nevertheless, it’s probably not unreasonable to extrapolate from the quite brisk metronome settings he did indicate for many of his other major works that he would have expected his slow movements to be played at more moving tempos than were generally taken by many famous mid 20th-century pianists, not to mention some fairly recent ones. I suspect, though I wouldn’t want to make a generalized statement about it, that performers playing period instruments also adopt a quicker pace. Ronald Brautigam, for instance, makes his way through the Largo e mesto in 8:49.

While a review is not the appropriate place to take issue with opinions expressed by another critic, I feel it necessary to address Lelutiu’s vehement disagreement with my comment in 35:3 that the Adagio to Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata is one of the composer’s weakest slow movements. When I use the word “weak” in reference to a piece of music, or point to the “weakness” in a work, I’m not speaking of its surface appeal, and this is something I need to clarify for Radu as well as the reader. “Weakness,” as I define it, has to do with form or structure, and usually some shortcoming in continuation and/or development. The problem with this particular Adagio , as I see it, is that it’s static in its harmonic ambiguity, much in the way the Introduzione movement is in the “Waldstein” Sonata; but unlike in the latter, the “Tempest’s” Adagio is not anticipatory of anything. It poses a mystery, but then simply ends without fulfilling the promise of that sublime revelation which dawns with those first quiet, exalted strains of the “Waldstein’s” last movement. It’s not uncommon for Beethoven to experiment with a new idea or technique early on in a way that’s not entirely satisfactory, only to perfect it in a later work in which its effect is miraculous and magical. In isolation, the “Tempest’s” Adagio is entirely adequate to its purpose, but you can’t know all of Beethoven and not recognize that it lacks that special spark of what’s to come.

Which brings me back to Luisa Guembes-Buchanan and the three sonatas on this disc. If it’s a Category 5 hurricane you’re looking for in the “Tempest” Sonata, I suggest you turn to Fazil Say. His performance on a 2005 Naïve CD (5016) initially left me speechless—not something easily achieved—but on repeated hearings, as I suspected, it hasn’t worn well. Its speed and ferocity yield the shock effect of a concussive blast and little else, leaving the fabric of the music, not to mention one’s nerves, torn to shreds. Guembes-Buchanan’s storm is ultimately more effective, and more musical, for its cumulative gathering of force as it proceeds through the first movement. How she accomplishes this is not through sudden tempo adjustments or lunging forward into the more animated passages, but rather through subtle gradations of dynamics, where no two fortes are given quite the same weight. As a result, one receives more of a sense of the eddying currents of the winds, which don’t necessarily blow unabated with the same strength, but vary in the intensity of their gusts.

If Beethoven shared Mozart’s sensitivity to the nexus between key and affect—i.e., the existence of emotional or character trait specificity among keys—you’d never know it from the two D-Major sonatas on this disc, for no two works in that key could present as different a character profile as the Sonata No. 7, op. 10/3, and the Sonata No. 15, op. 28, dubbed the “Pastoral.”

It’s clear from the earlier of the two that Beethoven was not just in a rambunctious mood, he was intent on dazzling his audience with his virtuosity and compositional cleverness. In explaining the over 50 repetitions, inversions, and permutations of the sonata’s opening motive, Guembes-Buchanan, in her self-authored album note, quotes Charles Rosen, who said, “Rarely has so much been made of so little.”

But clearly Beethoven was in a mood to push the envelope of the piano’s workings as well; for as Luisa points out in her note—verified by other sources I checked—the high F♯ in measure 22 of the exposition and the low E and D in bars 271–272 did not exist at the time Beethoven composed the three op. 10 sonatas between 1795 and 1797–98. Indeed, in Oliver Ditson & Co.’s 1876 edition of the score, the F♯ is printed above the staff in smaller size than the rest of the notes, with a footnote explaining that it would have been added by Beethoven had the compass of his piano admitted it. This may be taken to mean one of two things, or both: (1) that the note didn’t exist at the time, but Beethoven wanted it; and/or (2) that it was a brand new innovation found on newly built instruments but not on older ones, and that on those new instruments Beethoven would have expected the note to be played.

The “Pastoral” Sonata, written in 1801, not long after op. 10/3, shares with the earlier work the same key signature but is of a D Major completely different in means and expression. Where op. 10/3 was primarily motivic and triadic in construction and concentrated on rhythmic manipulation, op. 28 is primarily thematic and conjunct in construction and concentrated on harmonic manipulation. The “Pastoral” is also unique in another way. Excluding the two early three-movement sonatas, op. 14/1 and 2, dedicated to Baroness Josefa von Braun, and the three-movement middle sonata of the op. 10 set, op. 10/2, dedicated to Countess Anne Margarete von Browne, the “Pastoral” Sonata is the first of Beethoven’s mature sonatas to contain no real slow movement. The second movement, marked Andante , is a strange, almost haunting thing that seems to recall the funeral march movement from op. 26, only in accelerated fast-forward mode.

Guembes-Buchanan proves herself expert at delineating the very different compositional methods and techniques Beethoven drew upon for these two D-Major works. She is exquisitely sensitive to the variety of colors and moods that can be found in scores not that chronologically far apart that share the same tonality.

The “Tempest” Sonata, of course, is a whole different piece of cloth. In the parallel rather than the relative key of D Minor, it may share the same tonic, but it doesn’t share the same key signature. Beethoven didn’t name it “Tempest”—that credit goes to Anton Schindler—but there’s no gainsaying that the sonata—at least its first movement—is tempestuous. Here again, Luisa demonstrates a profound, as opposed to superficial, understanding of the music’s intent. I mentioned earlier the performance by Fazil Say who tears into the piece like a kamikaze pilot on a suicide mission. The problem is that the kamikaze pilot only gets to do it once. Luisa understands that the essence of the music’s power lies not in the force of its gale, which in any event is intermittent and variable, but in its unwavering iron will. Her performance is one of durability.

Luisa’s tempos, as noted by Lelutiu, are on the fast side, but no more so, really, than Pollini’s, whose Deutsche Grammophon recordings I used for comparison. In fact, in a couple of instances—the last movements of the “Pastoral” and “Tempest” sonatas, Pollini is faster: 4:37 vs. 4:51, and 6:04 vs. 6:37, respectively. Again, my take on this is that, given what we know about Beethoven’s metronome markings in the works for which he provided them, Guembes-Buchanan’s faster tempos are more in keeping with modern interpretive thought on the subject than are the slower tempos favored by the mid 20th-century pianists Lelutiu cites.

Overall, this is a very satisfying Beethoven disc, the kind that has enduring value and that one will come back to for sustenance and satisfaction again and again. Jerry Dubins

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 March 2013 )
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