We spoke to violinist Krysia Osostowicz about the upcoming Beethoven Plus concerts
First of all, what is Beethoven Plus?
“The project was based on the fact that Daniel Tong and I have been playing together for a number of years. We particularly focused on the Beethoven violin sonatas because that’s the greatest body of work for violin and piano that any composer ever wrote, and we love the music. So we were going into that in depth and playing all of them in concerts and then we thought: what more can we do to enhance this Beethoven cycle? We wanted to make it a little bit different and put our personal stamp on it with our own approach and interpretation. We had the idea of inviting ten composers to respond to one of each of the Beethoven sonatas and be inspired to write a piece related to a particular sonata. The only rule that we gave was that the pieces should last no longer than five minutes, so not a great big scary new work but a miniature piece that was somehow related to Beethoven.
We wanted to make it a little bit different and put our personal stamp on it with our own approach and interpretation.
What did you hope to achieve with the project?
“That had several aspects; in some cases, we felt that it would introduce audiences to new music in a way that they might not otherwise get the opportunity to – not everyone goes to concerts of contemporary music – but this would be in relation to Beethoven and therefore very approachable. For people who love Beethoven, as we do, we felt that this would throw a fresh light on Beethoven’s music for classical audiences because what we certainly found was that once we got going with the new pieces and realised how the different composers picked up a response to Beethoven, we found that it actually enhanced our own approach to Beethoven’s music and made us think of lots of the sonatas in new ways.”
What can audiences expect from the concerts in March?
“The very first piece that people will hear is not going to be by Beethoven; it’s going to be by Jonathan Dove, because that’s written as a sort of introduction to Beethoven’s first sonata. It’s a very delightful piece that has echoes of what I’d call post-minimalist – it’s minimalist with a smile. It uses lots of little motifs from Beethoven’s sonatas and puts them into a charming, rhythmic piece with lyrical sections and then blends seamlessly into the Beethoven, which is always sort of a surprise when it happens.
The next piece is by a great friend of ours Peter Ash who writes mainly operas, but he agreed to write an introductory piece for Beethoven’s second sonata. And that second sonata is the funny one of the ten – it’s a kind of comic piece. Peter describes his introductory piece as ‘Tom and Jerry meets Bartók’; it’s a very fun, vibrant piece with lots of comic elements that then leads straight into the Beethoven which has a lot of similar characteristics.
After the interval we play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, which is one of the really well-known ones, and that’s almost more like a concerto than a sonata for the two instruments. The last movement is a really crazy fast tarantella, and Matthew Taylor wrote the companion piece for that, which in this instance is played after the Beethoven. His piece is called ‘Tarantella Furiosa’ and he wants the performers to play it even faster than Beethoven’s finale, so the concert always ends in a completely wild and crazy way, which is quite exciting.
The concert always ends in a completely wild and crazy way, which is quite exciting.
So there are a lot of notes for us to play in that first concert, and then in the second concert on 9 March we play the pair of sonatas that Beethoven wrote in the same year – no.4 and no.5 – and no.5 is the really famous one called ‘Spring Sonata’ and for that we’ve got a companion piece written by Huw Watkins. That’s a really wonderful lyrical piece that stands on its own and could be played really in any programme and has all the radiant, lyrical qualities that Beethoven has.
The fourth sonata, which we play first, has a companion piece written by Judith Bingham and is called ‘The Neglected Child’, because unlike Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, the fourth sonata is somewhat neglected – which has been mentioned by several reviewers from the time – so Judith chose to write this sort of melancholy, desolate piece which reflects the completely different character of that Beethoven sonata, which unlike the Spring Sonata is quite bleak. So there’s a really good contrast between those two works.
How did you choose the composers for the cycle?
“When it came to the composers, about half were people that we’d worked with, and the other half were people whose music we admired. Everyone we reached out to was really enthusiastic about Beethoven and the project, and the only people who turned us down were just much too busy!”
Everyone we reached out to was really enthusiastic about Beethoven and the project, and the only people who turned us down were just much too busy!
Did they each choose which sonata they would compose a companion piece for?
“In some cases, the composers chose which sonata they’d like to write a companion piece to, and in other cases we made suggestions based on what we thought they would respond well to. It all worked out very well from start to finish.
A surprising number of the pieces are actually based on tonal harmonies, which is partly a reflection of our timeline where there was a really atonal period when more and more composers turned to tonality as a new tool of expression. And I suppose with Beethoven it’s quite likely that tonality will come into the picture in some way. The most atonal piece we have is by Elspeth Brooke which we’ll be playing in May, and that’s a companion piece to Beethoven’s third sonata in E flat. That’s based on the note E flat, but it’s got all sorts of undertones and quarter tones and twisting sounds in it, so that’s a really interesting one.”
Do you have a favourite piece, or would you be hard pushed to choose one?
“I’d be hard-pushed, I think! They’re all completely different from each other, and there’s no way you could confuse any of them. I suppose they’re all favourites in their own way and they each have something different to offer.”
What has the response to the project been like?
“We have played this cycle around the UK several times and the response has always been really enthusiastic because people love both Beethoven’s sonatas and the new pieces, and people who wouldn’t necessarily go and listen to new music have been really surprised at how much they can enjoy the new pieces. And now that Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year is upon us we’re hugely looking forward to playing the cycle again.”
Now that Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year is upon us we’re hugely looking forward to playing the cycle again.
What’s your favourite thing about playing the Beethoven cycle?
“For us I suppose the really fantastic thing is that Beethoven’s music is always fresh, it’s always as though it had been written yesterday. Somehow it always feels as if it’s ground-breaking every time we play it.”
Krysia will be playing in the Beethoven Plus concerts on 8 & 9 March. You can find out more about them here: beethoven2020.co.uk