Just in time for the 250th anniversary of the birth Beethoven (1770-1827), Editions Musica Ferrum have published the tenth and final volume in their series 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven, surely one of the most ambitious musical projects of recent years.
In this article I will offer an overview and brief review of the ten volumes before including a short interview with Musica Ferrum founder Nikolas Sideris…
A Grand Concept…
“As a citizen of Bonn, I walk daily through the same streets where Beethoven once roamed. In view of the 250th anniversary of his birth in 2020, which will be celebrated worldwide, the desire arose inside me to offer a great gift to him. Something that will engage many musicians, something to last…
With this in mind, I began personally inviting composers to write a piano piece relating to Beethoven…”
So wrote German pianist Susanne Kessel back in 2015.
And so began an extraordinary project that would lead to the commissioning, composition, performance and publication of ultimately more than 250 brand new piano works, each a tribute to Beethoven himself, each by a different composer, each performed and recorded by Kessel herself, the entire opus published in a series of ten weighty books.
Each sturdy volume conveniently presents around 25 pieces, a microcosm of the overall vision. I was not surprised to find that many of the composers were unfamiliar to me, although within each volume a few more recognised names also appear. Almost all of the music will tax the virtuoso player, if not the audience, the pieces obviously written for serious concert use.
The range of styles and techniques included is kaleidoscopic; though an astonishing testament to the abiding respect today’s composers have for the great Titan of the classical era, these 250 works equally represent something of an inventory of the many and varied artistic approaches employed by serious and creative composers at the start of the 21st century.
Many of the pieces include preparations and/or performance inside the piano (necessitating a grand concert instrument), more still use experimental notations, include aleatoric and improvisatory elements; most broadly eschew tonality. All however bear witness to a new music which is at once accessible, engaging and imaginative.
A significant proportion of these pieces include musical references and quotes from Beethoven’s music, often obliquely, and never obscuring each represented contemporary composer’s own voice.
An Enormous Resource…
The books themselves are reassuringly substantial, their content tantamount to an editor’s lifetime achievement and testament to the sedulous industry of Sideris, who must in particular be congratulated for so successfully navigating such a sea of composing talent without drowning.
Each volume begins with an introductory essay on its included works, and ends with detailed biographical sketches of their composers, adding up to something of a cornucopia of insight into our contemporary classical music scene. Due to the experimental nature of many of these works, they are often preceded by detailed performance notes, diagrams, instructions and pictures.
The notation itself is beautifully engraved and crystal clear, printed on high quality cream paper and bound together in publications which are both designed for practical use and destined to withstand the ravages of the next 250 years.
For a body of work on this scale, picking highlights could (and probably should) itself take half a lifetime. The best music so often needs to be well-worn to be comfortable.
That said, there is a two-CD set of recordings featuring the 25 pieces from the first of the ten volumes performed by Kessel. For those coming fresh to the series, this volume and its recordings is perhaps the most sensible place to begin the odyssey.
Digging deeper, though physical copies aren’t commercially available, recordings for the rest can be purchased and downloaded digitally from the 250 Pieces site here, where some of the pieces can also be experienced in live video recordings.
More than a little daunted by the monumental scope of this project, I decided to chat with publisher Nikolas Sideris for a better insight; happily he generously answered my questions about the project…
How did the concept of 250 Pieces take shape?
“The idea and concept belongs solely to Susanne Kessel, who also organized the whole project. She wanted to offer as much as possible, to honour both the composers and Ludwig van Beethoven. To leave a testament of today’s music.”
Can you tell me about how you got involved with this enormous project?
“I was introduced by a Greek composer and we met 7 years ago, in the Frankfurt Musikmesse. After quite a few emails we had reached a common understanding of what this project would be, roughly.”
What were the biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
“The biggest challenge for me, as the editor and the publisher was… the size. A total of 260 composers took part, which means that each one had their own styles, ideas, comments and thoughts, all of which had to be brought together in a single volume.
The logistics started to become more and more complicated, as printing takes place in Greece and with the covid pandemic there were several obstacles to overcome, but we’ve managed.
There never was a time when I felt that we were not going to make it. Even starting out, and needing 250 composers, it was never a question of making it or not. It was always manageable, despite the amazing amount of time put into this project, especially by Susanne Kessel, who was managing everything.”
What have been the musical highlights?
“Listening to the recordings made by Susanne Kessel and having a light bulb moment on how beautiful a certain work is.
Travelling to Bonn once a year to be there for the presentation of the new volume and meeting all those composers who we’ve worked together the previous months. Meeting composers who have been my idol!”
What are your hopes for the 250 pieces moving forward?
“I hope that more and more people will learn about this project and come to enjoy the magnificent music containing in its 1800 (roughly) pages in total.
To have the music heard from the stunning recordings already available.”
Standing as a monument both to the continuing inspiration of Beethoven and to the talent of serious composers in the 21st century, 250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven is probably without peer. The sheer scale of this achievement is simply breathtaking.
Like Sideris, I hope that serious pianists and pedagogues everywhere will take time to investigate this plethora of outstanding new music, listen to the recordings where possible, acquire one or more of the scores and add some of these pieces to their performing and teaching repertoire.
250 Piano Pieces for Beethoven is undoubtedly one of the most impressive classical piano achievements of the current century so far.
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