Lithuanian Balakauskas brings Beethoven to life

Artas Balakauskas. Photo: Anuraj Manibhandu

In the hands of Artas Balakauskas, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30, Opus 109 was a breeze. By comparison, the composer’s last sonata, Opus 111, was epic, while Opus 110 was a song.

The recital, rounding off the cycle of 32 sonatas by this giant of a composer, took place almost three years to the day Balakauskas started performing it — on June 21, 2014. Think on it, three years to learn and perform 32 sonatas: a record. Mario Joao Pires’ interpretation of Opus 111 was on YouTube on June 1, 2016, after the Pathetique reached the same website on April 15, 2012 — that was almost four years. Balakauskas, a respected pianist originally from Lithuania and long-time resident of Thailand, beat this well loved pianist, who shot to fame with her rendering of Mozart. Normally, pianists take a year to learn a sonata.

But speed is not all. The point is to make the sonata yours and remain faithful to the composer’s intention. Beethoven wrote because he had to, as is the case with writers, visual artists and sculptors. Balakauskas performed because he had to. He’d internalised so much as a student of the world’s best music schools in Moscow and Paris.

Performing Beethoven’s last work after the break, he took fate “by its throat”, plunging into it with vigour, the drama of dotted notes totally effective. His octaves, especially those in the bass, were round and voluminous. When the music required him to reflect in the treble, his finger work was finesse itself. When the extremities of the keyboard were in opposition or discourse, he delighted in the space between them.

He did everything required of Beethoven. He went suddenly soft from loud, sang with his heart when melodies rose, and hit the crushing sforzandos when they came.

As a student of Opus 111, I watched how he executed the double trills during the return of the Arietta theme, amazingly easy for him it seemed. The trills are in the alto and tenor parts, those in the middle, requiring flexibility and control of the thumb while other fingers were hard at other work, some playing the melody. Arguably the biggest challenge of the piece, which dies away at the end, was spiritually uplifting in Balakauskas’ hands. The boogie woogie that wakes you up as a variation on the Arietta theme is remarkable for the way he picks up tempo. That is a lot more difficult than conforming with the “L’istesso tempo” of the Urtext edition, which counsels staying at the same speed.

The Opus 109 made for a warm beginning, the melody beautifully sung from the heart by the pianist. The airy Variation II, after the theme of the slow movement was stated, was a treat. His left hand rose to the challenge of perpetual motion at speed in the following variation. The fugal variation was admirable, trills in the right hand melting into the return of the theme seamlessly.

Opus 110 was brightly crystalline at the start. Slightly mournfully, the slow movement sang. The fugue was lyrical. Few listeners could have missed the inversion of the theme, and the return of it in the original form, though much ornamented in the bass, was a triumph.