I attended the first section of Stewart Goodyear’s “Beethoven Marathon” today at Koerner Hall. I am still trying to wrap my head around this experience, which was in some respects more of a happening than a concert. We were given a big TV screen displaying an enlarged view of the keys from overhead; I was reminded a bit of the Jumbotron at a sporting event, only this time we were watching pianism, not pitching.
The concert also featured a performance from Melati Suryodarmo, commissioned for the occasion to create a complementary composition of subtle movement. I don’t claim to understand the idiom, and admit that I was sceptical at first (wondering if this was an indication that someone didn’t believe Goodyear’s performance was sufficient on its own). The movement was very subtle, reminding me a little of the glacially subtle vocabulary of butoh, a wonderful meditation rather than a distraction. The longer Goodyear played, the more I was hypnotized by these gradual movements. It was as if the broad concert hall/theatre imagery –of pianist and audience, active and passive—were represented on the stage, Suryodarmo’s expressions and movements signifying a kind of concentrated version of our responses. I wonder if I will ever see anything like this again: which I found completely beautiful & lovely to experience.
When the doors opened I was the first one admitted to the downstairs level. As I walked into the empty hall, I stared at the gleaming Steinway on the bare stage, feeling an irrational desire to go up there and play it. But no, the irrational impulse is actually the one that’s been drilled into me and the rest of the us western concert-goers, the one that says “keep silent”, “do not touch” and more fundamentally “repress your joyful impulse to cheer and dance”. And so we (me and others who likely feel the same way) all resist the pull of that sleek animal seductively inviting one to stroke or strike. That only one person gets that privilege-yes privilege-is part of the magic, as if they were the chosen champion of our race, fighting on our behalf.
I am reminded of the early morning photos (and HELLO it’s 9:40 am: not the usual time for a concert) of the Saturn V rocket gleaming on its launchpad, awaiting the lonely voyagers’ arrival, when they will honour us with their risky undertaking. I could understand it as a coming-out party, as Goodyear laid his claim as one of the great Beethoven interpreters on the planet. Yet as of 2 pm when we’d completed the first four hours and thirteen sonatas (#1 through #11, plus #19 & 20), with more than half of the music and arguably the hardest sonatas ahead, I wondered if this was simply a four hour warm-up. Unfortunately I could only attend this part, having too many commitments this weekend.
Speaking of the Saturn V, I wonder if it’s also a launch party, considering that a new recording was available in the lobby: Goodyear’s complete cycle of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I might add that the one sour note for me was that the friendly chap was selling them for a very reasonable price but couldn’t give me a receipt. Am I supposed to buy a set of CDs without a paper receipt in case one is defective? And so I somehow resisted the impulse to make the purchase (sigh).
I am reminded of something I heard recently from Bruno Weil, also concerning Beethoven: “One should approach the “Eroica” pretending you do not know the Fourth through Ninth Symphonies yet.” In other words one should come to each sonata or symphony without the benefit of hindsight nor making any judgment upon the composition. Neither Goodyear nor his audience showed any signs of treating even a single movement as anything but canonical composition. From the opening pair of easy sonatas, namely 19 & 20, that afforded Goodyear a chance to ease into the larger performance, every note was played with respect, often faster than I’ve ever heard it, and achingly expressive. There were some highlights, likely a reflection of Goodyear’s preferences, whereby he brought a higher level of intensity to his playing.
Sonata #3 in C Major was for me an early highlight. I remember this one from a Peanuts cartoon where Schroeder somehow plays it (or at least some excerpts) on his toy piano (NOT a Steinway)
I think Charles Schultz helped me discover this sonata, although I have no idea what motivated Goodyear, whose reading of this sonata was for me the highlight of this concert. All four movements were in some respect extraordinary. The first was rock steady in its meter, precise, and always incisive in its attacks. The second? Goodyear seemed to channel Leonard Bernstein in his romantic approach to tempi & expressive phrasing. Where some pianists who bring fiery readings don’t have a passionate answer in the slow movements that can properly balance that fire, Goodyear comes across as a very mature artist, one who lives his Beethoven from the inside out (a feeling supported by the eloquent program notes Goodyear himself has written). Often in slow movements such as this one, Goodyear’s head drifted back, his eyes on something other than the instrument, as if he were becoming Ray Charles, because he didn’t need to look at the keys. The scherzo sounded like vaudeville complete with its own laugh track: the quick descending octaves sounding like an audience laughing it up. I’ve never noticed this about the piece before, possibly because I’ve never heard anyone play it this quickly. Even at that astonishing speed Goodyear was crisp and clean throughout.
The final rondo of Op 2 #3 was again, faster than I’ve yet heard it, mostly played with gossamer softness, except for the big climaxes. On the screen my mind boggled watching the smooth movement of the right hand floating up and down the keyboard.
So…. Let’s say that they were all pretty amazing, some more amazing than others. I believe the difference is likely an indication of Goodyear’s energy levels, not his abilities, given that he was marshaling his bodily energy for this 32 sonata ordeal. The metaphor they gave us in the programming –“marathon”—makes the physical side of the challenge clear. There’s also a mental side. Consider that for example, an actor who is onstage for an entire 3 hour play must learn all those words & movements. Each sonata movement is like its own self-contained drama, some bigger, some smaller. Goodyear had the entire performance in his head, without a score or a prompter. It’s a physical and mental ordeal unlike any I have seen.
And considering that I only saw one part of it, I still haven’t seen it… I wish I had.