The 19th-century critic Wilhelm von Lenz attributed the singularity of Beethoven's late music to the isolation of his deafness; "genius at odds with reality," as he put it. Richard Wagner turned Beethoven's liability into his virtue: "So is genius freed from all outside it," he wrote, "at home forever with and in itself."
On Sunday, Paavali Jumppanen's performance of Beethoven's last three piano sonatas fixed on a human point between those two poles, Beethoven mixing spontaneity and symmetry with unpredictable speed and dexterity.
Culminating an eight-concert cycle of Beethoven's sonatas, Jumppanen tackled the final three - a formidable interpretive challenge -with forthright thoughtfulness and robust tone. The E major Sonata, op. 109, combines moments of high Viennese classicism with turbulent keyboard textures that made Romantics look to Beethoven as a model. Jumppanen reversed the Romantic pattern, giving fast sections more rubato, more temporal malleability, leaving slow music stately and restrained. The virtuosity came off as more improvisatory and fantastical, making the lyricism the eye of the storm, and, in the final theme and variations, a safe harbor.
Jumppanen took a similar tack in the A-flat major op. 110, while adopting a dramatic approach to match the work's explicitly operatic recitative final-movement introduction. The sophisticated moderation of the opening was contested by the coarse energy of the central Allegro. Combining an unhurried pace and a wash of pedal in the closing fugue, Jumppanen brought out an organ-like quality that, against the heart-rending melodrama of the interwoven aria, made for a sacred-secular juxtaposition that would have done Verdi proud.
The tangled vectors of those two sonatas separate and coalesce in the C minor Sonata, op. 111, the formal rhetoric divided into two divergent monuments. The fast opening again featured sharp variations in tempo, the music violently buffeted by time, freezing into eerie suspensions or captured by snowballing acceleration.
Here was Jumppanen's most colorful playing, as well as his most coruscating technical brilliance. The ferocity is balanced by the closing set of variations, an Adagio "very simple and song-like," as Beethoven put it. Jumppanen's measured reading of the theme left the variations to not simply decorate, but make manifest the richness the theme only implied; a rustling lilt that finally floods the sonic landscape with a shimmering, trilling haze of harmonic light. Beethoven's inward gaze reveals a far outstretching carpet of a view.