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February 26, 2010

Guest blog review of Anne Koscielny's Beethoven piano sonata cycle

It' ain't easy -- actually, it just ain't possible -- for me to cover every worthwhile musical event in this area. One of the many things I've been unable to attend is the cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas being performed this season by Anne Koscielny at Howard Community College. The Massachusetts-based, award-winning pianist and teacher, will give the next installment in the series on March 27, with three more concerts after that into early June. The most recent program was last weekend. Here's what Benjamin Myers, an associate professor of music at HCC, thought about it (a brief video of the artist follows the review):

For some time previous to the 21st Century, records, and then CDs, had been readily available. It was not difficult for music lovers to collect several recordings of their favorite works, and make comparisons. But the past decade has seen an explosion of recording media and availability. The proliferation of inexpensive personal computers, mp3 players, and sites like youtube has made it much easier to hear a variety of performances of a given work. While music professionals and music lovers alike generally have welcomed this, it is worth considering Aldous Huxley’s view that “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” In the case of music, the recent technological progress has often led to performances becoming more similar to one another, despite the increased number of recordings.

How so? It may be that performers are now more tempted by this easy access to recordings to reference their peer’s work, and subsequently select from (or, to put it less diplomatically, “steal”) attractive elements of these other performances, and include them in their own. There may be something to the admittedly draconian notion posited by some of my former teachers that one should never listen to recorded performances of a given work, in order to ensure a unique and personal interpretation. To my mind, I had always felt that it was important to listen to recorded performances, in order to explore what special insights into the music musicians might have. Or, as one of my roommates from grad school put it, “Don’t you want to know how the masters play it?”

Thank you for sticking with me through that preamble. I felt it necessary to introduce you to this notion of increasing conformity, because I want to emphasize how absolutely unique an artist Anne Koscielny is. I have known Ms. Koscielny now for nearly 25 years, but have never had the opportunity to hear this distinguished master in such a distinctive series—performances of all 32 of the piano sonatas of Beethoven.

Of course, composers have always wanted their music to reflect their artistic voice—not necessarily the style of any particular performer (though composers often have their favorites). In other words, Beethoven should sound like Beethoven, and not necessarily like Richter, Bilson, or Brendel. Certainly, great performers do put their mark on the music, but they also put themselves in the service of the music. Anne Koscielny’s Beethoven is great Beethoven playing, and is unique.

One striking example of this was

how Ms. Koscielny approached the virtuoso passages in the early Sonata, Op. 2, No. 3. Many performers “eat up” the difficulty and exploit the fast passage work, running sixths, etc. to show off their virtuosity. Indeed, some may argue that since Beethoven used these sonatas not only to demonstrate his compositional abilities, but also to show off his consummate pianistic technique, that performers are then justified in taking that “turbocharged” approach. But Ms. Koscielny’s slant on the virtuoso passages was to take natural phrasing, tone quality, and voice leading as primary; thus leading to a more musical approach which still was so technically brilliant as to absolutely knock it out of the park. The same was also true with the fiery passages of the “Appassionata” sonata, which so often simply fall victim to a “Starbucks triple-shot” approach by some performers.

I was also impressed with how Koscielny played the allegro movement of the Sonata in G major, Op. 14, No. 2. I was not surprised at all that Ms. Koscielny would mine the movement for the lyricism performers sometimes neglect—what amazed me was the level of warmth and intimacy in the performance. Yes, allegros should be lively, but Ms. Koscielny was able to plumb the tonal and expressive depths of the movement, and let each listener experience this as if it were meant only for them.

Another good example of Ms. Koscielny’s artistry was how she took care that there be ample variety in her performance of the andante movement of the same sonata, which is a set of variations. Certainly it is a very basic notion that each variation should have its own character, but Ms. Koscielny paid such attention to detail that one felt she cared for each variation as if they were her children.

If you have been attending these concerts, you probably know what I am talking about. The fact that Anne Koscielny received a standing ovation not only at the end of the evening, but also before the intermission, is merely one indication of the caliber of the performance. If you haven’t yet heard Anne Koscielny play these sonatas, you need to start coming. It is increasingly rare to hear great and distinctive performances of Beethoven; and I believe it is absolutely essential to hear these transcendentally unique renditions by a great artist who has devoted much of her distinguished artistic career to the master.

-- Benjamin Myers


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:06 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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