Anne Midgette reviews pianist Francois-Frederic Guy's Beethoven sonata series

NIMBLE FINGERS: Pianist François-Fréderic Guy delivered a strong finale in his ninth show.
NIMBLE FINGERS: Pianist François-Fréderic Guy delivered a strong finale in his ninth show. (Guy Vivien)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When a pianist plays nine concerts in 10 days, he can only hope to end with a bang. Fortunately, Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas allow a performer to do just that. Not that Op. 111 in C Minor is a very bang-y piece -- rather the opposite, in fact -- but it packs a powerful emotional wallop. And François-Fréderic Guy rose to the challenge with the last of his nine Beethoven recitals, a cycle he began at La Maison Française on Nov. 13 and concluded with the final three sonatas, Nos. 109, 110 and 111, on Sunday afternoon.

Thirty people purchased tickets to the entire nine-concert cycle. Before Sunday's concert, Roland Celette, the French cultural attache, oversaw the distribution of specially made buttons graced with Beethoven's face to everyone who had attended at least three of the concerts. Only a handful of people in the large audience (Maison Française's auditorium was nearly full) had been to the whole thing, but there was a sense of camaraderie, of conversation, of shared experience that isn't always present at a one-off concert.

There was certainly the sense that a mountain had been ascended; Guy, who did the cycle twice in Europe last year, looked drained. This contributed, perhaps, to the notable sense of reverence permeating the auditorium -- and Guy's performance. This was worshipful Beethoven, Great-Man Beethoven, with the quirks and foibles smoothed away or elevated (in the so-called boogie-woogie variation of the final movement of Op. 111) into a kind of divine frenzy. Attacks were gentle, little nicks of detail varnished over into larger, greater gestures. And rather than making in-your-face assertions, Guy maintained a general tone of restraint. The final movement of Op. 110 in A-flat, was played with supreme control and a feeling of held breath; a chain of left-hand chords in the bass, building with mounting ferocity, pushed the music to some emotional brink, but were reined in sharply as the music returned to its fragile semblance of decorum.

Even the darkness at the start of Op. 111 was tempered so that rather than abrupt jerks and changes of mood, Guy presented a wondrous sleight of hand, pulling one mood out of another, diminishing mountains into molehills and blowing them up all over again, so seamlessly that it was hard to notice the transitions. My own preference is for a little more brashness and a little less reverence, but there was no denying the power and authority of Guy's performance of this final sonata, in particular, which ascended to angelic, aching heights under the famous long trill near the end of the final movement. Rather than bringing the music back to earth, as some players do, Guy let the last bars remain otherworldly, until the sonata evanesced like a soap bubble: a gentle pop, and the whole shining surface was gone.

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