The composer Arash Safaian has a very special relationship with Ludwig van Beethoven. When he was four years old he entered a record store called “Beethoven” for the first time in the Iranian capital Teheran. The music tapes in the racks there bore the picture of a man with a wild mane of hair and there was plenty more evidence of him elsewhere in the shop. Those classical tapes were his first conscious experience of music, while it was Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, in a recording by Sviatoslav Richter, played to him by his father that ultimately brought Arash Safaian to the piano. “A completely new, unknown world began to awaken in me, something that triggered a fascinating fantasy in me,” explains Safaian. “Beethoven’s music is, if you like, not really music for me any longer; it has acquired the quality of an intensive memory. It frames and sums up the emotions of my childhood.”
It is as if those early aural experiences have provided, thirty-five years on, the deep foundations of the current project “This Is Not Beethoven”, which always bore the working title “a phantasy”. Safaian’s long-term link to Beethoven was suddenly re-awakened when the Hamburg-based pianist Sebastian Knauer called to suggest a renewed collaboration. Knauer had an idea: he asked Safaian to write a Beethoven work, to capture and reanimate the spirit of his youth. Back in 2017 Team Knauer-Safaian won an ECHO Klassik award with their album “ÜberBach”: a clever concert cycle that was an enormous success. This time, they wanted to further develop their idea of a new composition that had worked so well with the Bach. They wanted their variations of pieces by Beethoven to be more independent, more liberated. “Quasi una Fantasia” or the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony have been adapted in masterly fashion, modified, developed and combined like a grand fantasia into a unique piano concerto. For Sebastian Knauer this is an homage to Beethoven and his music.
The Zürcher Kammerorchester (ZKO) and the Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing recorded the “This Is Not Beethoven” cycle, comprising fifteen parts, at the orchestra’s home in Zurich. Sebastian Knauer, a stylistic expert in the field of the Viennese Classical School, has “a keen sense for tempi and style” (says German broadcaster rbbKultur). This master of the nuanced touch has faced up to new challenges with this album. For Safaian the aim of his composition was to “break free of fixed formal boundaries and to rediscover the childish fascination that once so beguiled me and gave me my love of music. I wanted to be free of the narrow, theoretical discourse and dogma associated with academic music.”
It’s true that it might not be that easy to remove Beethoven, in the 250th anniversary year of his birth, from the pedestal upon which the world often places him. “While composing I was not inspired by the Beethoven, who is honoured these days as a god of classical music. Moreover by the Beethoven who was struggling, often failed and striving for liberation,” says Safaian. That said, he abandons the ossified practices of the musical avant-garde that so often strives to capitalize at all costs on the brutish stylistic elements of deconstructivism. He is no friend of hammering away on the piano. Nor does the academic side of art appeal to him. Safaian knocks the plaster Beethoven bust from its base and skillfully reconstructs undogmatically his new work from the fragments. Beethoven for his part was only too happy to make use of popular folk music, something that is evident in the techniques used these days in pop culture. For Safaian the “embracing of millions” from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is something of a guiding principle: “Beethoven chose popular themes that appealed to people.” Using techniques of minimal music, his newly modelled “Moonlight Sonata” opens with a round in which each individual variation is more than just the usual modification of a short and succinct motif. On the contrary, it is a movement in its own right. Freely created, yet always closely related in spirit to a specific work by Beethoven. Such as “Barcelona Pavillon”, based on the Sonata op.106 and oriented on a formal sense of clarity that is to be found too in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe; dissolved in harmonies. In “Variation I-VI”, based on the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony, classical variation techniques are turned on their head, and along comes “Torso Belvedere” in a sort of freestyle with its themes and secondary themes and the thrust of a piece of rock music. The strings clatter through, while complex virtuosity powers through. In a word: “This Is Not Beethoven” explores his approach, his constant urge to embrace the unconventional, simultaneously brave and vulnerable. A popular rebel who now as then gives sound to what is going on around us.