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Haefliger proves skilled at abstraction

At the Getty, the pianist paints Beethoven and Schubert sonatas with thoughtful detail.

March 10, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Every now and then, the Getty Center adds music to the ways it contextualizes art. Currently, the museum is juxtaposing a handful of paintings by the 19th century German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich and the contemporary Gerhard Richter. Both use "strategies of abstraction, expansiveness and emptiness to convey transcendent emotion," says the exhibition's brochure. So too did Beethoven and Schubert, a selection of whose piano sonatas Andreas Haefliger played at the Getty's Harold M. Williams Auditorium on Thursday night.

Then again, you could claim the same about hundreds of composers, to say nothing of poets, playwrights, filmmakers and the Japanese tea ceremony. In this case, Beethoven and Schubert wrote their sonatas in Vienna at the same time that Friedrich painted his landscapes outside Dresden. Beethoven and Friedrich held nature in high spiritual regard. Squint and you might get a suggestion of Schubert's soft lyricism in Richter's slick 2005 "Wald" series at the Getty, although two centuries separate the artists.

The title of Haefliger's program, which included Beethoven's "Pastoral" and "Appassionata" sonatas and Schubert's epic B-major Sonata, was "Fueling the Romantic Imagination." The sonatas did that by subverting the models of Viennese Classicism while still acknowledging the forms. Politeness, when it remains at all in these sonatas, is only on the surface. Haefliger is more Classicist than Romantic. Son of the elegant tenor Ernst Haefliger, the Swiss pianist has a tense, precise, percussive manner. His playing Thursday was understated, thoughtful, serious, unmannered, secure and environmentally conscientious. He was careful and efficient in his fueling of the Romantic imagination. Where Beethoven, Schubert, Friedrich and Richter happily transformed nature to suit their purposes, Haefliger practiced conservation.

What these three sonatas have in common is the thwarting of expectations. Both Beethoven's "Pastoral" and Schubert's last, longest and most glorious sonata begin with repeated notes in the left hand and flowing melody in the right. Direction is implied, but both composers are easily distracted. Schubert, whose opening movement is around 20 minutes (expansiveness), is less goal-oriented. A bass trill keeps appearing like a spectral figure, causing frightened changes of course. Beethoven is a master of silence and of turning ideas into fragments that become weightless and float away (emptiness). All three sonatas are certainly abstract -- the names given to Beethoven's were a publisher's scheme to promote sales.

Haefliger handled abstraction expertly. Details were there to be noticed but not lingered over. A singing tone that can be heard on his recordings was harder to distinguish in the intimate but acoustically dry auditorium. The "Appassionata" did not express fury so much as crisp rhythmic urgency. Yet the playing had a mechanical quality that actually did approach the technical character of Friedrich and Richter. The painters render nature, glorifying it perhaps and even transforming the experience of it. But stand in front of their paintings and you're still, essentially, in the woods.

Haefliger rendered Beethoven's and Schubert's scores faithfully. He did not deny the glories and transforming power of the sonatas, but we were still, essentially, sitting in front of a self-effacing artist at a Steinway.

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