In June, Stewart Goodyear will be performing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in a single day, under the dual auspices of Luminato & the Royal Conservatory of Music. I heard about this undertaking on Karenoke , where the pianist has inspired a parallel (if smaller) mountain-climb on the blog.
Karen is listening to each of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas and blogging about her own trip through the cycle. Her blogging feat reminds me of Julie & Julia: where the writer undertakes a big job that’s run in parallel to that of someone more famous.
When you write that many of a certain type, there’s bound to be some ups and downs. I am tempted to say “YMMV”, short for “your mileage may vary”: as testimony to the astonishing range among those 32.
Today, just to get a tiny sense of what’s involved in Goodyear’s task, I pulled out my sonata book and played through a few. I skipped the first one because I don’t like it very much. I went to the second one, I guess partly because Karen had expressed misgivings about it. I studied it with a teacher long ago, a teacher who –curiously enough—spoke to me in defence of a sonata I didn’t like very much at first glance, the very sonata Karen didn’t like either.
Ha. As I said to Karen yesterday on her blog:
“…don’t feel bad if you don’t love all of Beethoven, particularly not the Beethoven pieces that have never really been very popular. At this point –funny as it sounds–Beethoven wasn’t Beethoven yet.”
That’s what I guess I am thinking about as I post this to the blog. Who says all 32 are all awesome masterpieces? I have some I love dearly, and others that I am still learning to like.
So today, while bouncing back and forth to the laptop –to give my eyes and neck a bit of a rest on a day when I was working really hard—I went off to the piano for breaks in the afternoon.
#2 was harder than I remembered—that is the opening movement was hard—because I hadn’t played it in many years, yet I dove into it without any caution whatsoever.
The second movement? Largo appassionata. Wow I’d forgotten how much I love this one. I realized as I started playing this, that there’s been a revolution in Beethoven. Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, Bruggen, plus assorted locals of the HIP (historically informed performance) persuasion have completely seduced me away from decades of pathos & gravitas. I was once a follower of Klemperer and his ilk, whereas now I am at least conflicted, enjoying the options, between slower and (HIP)faster, heavier and (HIP) lighter.
So I played it way way faster than I’ve ever played it before, enjoying how fresh it felt. Of course it should feel fresh when I hadn’t played it in a long time, and had never tried to re-think the tempi of the sonatas. Hm… It’s a huge question. Omigod, it’s as though these pieces that I thought I knew: are suddenly new. Why didn’t think of this before?
So when I came to Sonata #3 in C major, I played as fast as I could possibly manage in the outer movements. Good thing nobody else was home to hear the train-wreck. There’s no substitute for actual practice, and that includes brazenly trying to play through pieces at full speed. In the inner movements –two of the most amazing things one finds in Beethoven’s single-digit opus numbers—the melodies work at any speed, really. I wonder, with all the attention that’s been paid to symphonic music over the last few decades, whether I simply snoozed through a comparable controversy over the performance of piano sonatas.
For Sonata #4 in E-flat I tried to keep the lightness of the last movement of C major, but without quite so much speed. And then I noticed that I wasn’t loose anymore, as my forearms were starting to tighten. Aha. I stopped trying to force things, and tried to relax as I played (easier said than done). But I managed to get through the first movement.
And so I had a bit of a revelation of how it’s likely going to be for Mr Goodyear. As I started the dramatic second movement of sonata #4, I felt the delicious opportunity to rest, as my arms had a breather, my shoulders and neck luxuriating in this slower movement. Here I was, not yet halfway through the fourth sonata –in other words, not yet even one eighth of the way through the cycle—and I was seizing up. Mind you, I had jumped in without any real warm-up, seduced by the smell of the old book and the familiar feelings it aroused. Even so, I have to think that the cycle calls for a different approach. I felt myself so infatuated with the loud passages in a few places, that I was totally airing it out without any restraint. If this were a marathon, that’s the equivalent of getting so carried away with the view on the waterfront that you forget to pace yourself and start to sprint in your first half hour.
Not a good idea.
But I did keep playing, getting to the end of sonata #6 (having skipped #1) out of 32. I don’t know that sonata at all, but it’s not horribly difficult: which is another way of saying that it was okay for sight-reading but a lame read-through and nothing more. Wow, how cool to discover a movement I’d never really noticed before –the f-minor Allegretto—that finishes with an effect off the beat very similar to what we find in Op 27 #1; in both pieces we meet the melody in unison the first time, whereas the second time it’s as though there’s an echo a half beat later as one hand is out of synch with the other. Perhaps there’s a technical term for this, but I don’t know what it is. It’s humbling in so many ways, starting with the discovery that every one of these sonatas is worthwhile in its own way.
And so, let me think again about Mr Goodyear. I am reminded of other pianistic feats I’ve seen lately. Watching Christopher Mokrzewski play La Boheme in a bar for Against the Grain Theatre, I knew he’d had at least one beer. More recently –playing difficult pieces by Reich & Adams—I understand he (playing with partner Daniel Pesca) abstained until the end of the show. But I recognize that the Puccini that he was able to play effortlessly even with beer is for me still something that I’d be afraid to play after having a drink. I am trying to imagine what kind of energy Goodyear will have available for each sonata, when he has to conserve his energy for the full set…? I am trying to imagine playing the really massive sonatas –the Waldstein, the Appassionata, and especially op 106—as part of a larger cycle where one is somehow expected to keep something in reserve.
Okay let’s have a peek: and so I found this sample, perhaps the most difficult thing to play in context with the marathon. Let me add a parenthetical “Oh my God” (listen and see what you say…now imagine this near the end of the marathon).
I am reminded of a workshop back in 2005, where we tumbled around the floor and still tried to sing with support. You think you have energy, you think you have technique: and then someone comes along with a scenario to make you wonder whether you really know anything at all. If you’re playing correctly and not fighting yourself with bad technique, those hours could be exuberant & transcendental for the player. And if there’s anything wrong with your technique, you’ll know.
I have to think Goodyear already knows his strengths & weaknesses, knows that he’s up to the challenge, having proposed to scale this particular Everest. The more I think about it, the more it makes me curious.
June 9th? I suspect I will have to be there.