To begin the voyage through Stewart Goodyear’s set on Marquis of the complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, I took two CDs, and listened to each one multiple times. While I seem to be jumping in at either end (CD #1 and CD #9) they represent a kind of logical place to start:
- CD #9 includes the epic Hammerklavier sonata, Op 106 (sonata #29), that gave me my first introduction to Goodyear on youtube.
- CD #1 contains the three sonatas Op 2, or in other words Beethoven’s first three
- In each case there’s an opportunity to compare, both to the internet recordings and to live performances I heard in the “Beethoven Marathon”.
Performance can be understood as a kind of research. When you do something on a stage, on your toes, with your fingers at a keyboard, you are making propositions, and testing hypotheses. While the hypothetical element isn’t a scientific theory, one puts a particular reading—such as an interpretation of a piano sonata—to a test every time one sits down to play. One is especially aware of the hypothetical aspect when one encounters a performer going in a new direction with a well-known piece. The ears and eyes of an audience who think they know a particular composition may resist and may simply not understand.
Listening to Goodyear I feel certain that his mind embraces Beethoven with a calm clarity that lays the music bare before him, taking in not only the shapes of musical phrases, but an understanding of how to sound notes. He is different from what I have encountered before. Playing passages quickly may at first seem to be a virtuosic device, when one has always heard a piece slower. But I have discovered that by playing passages quickly one may discern the sense of the whole. This was my surprised discovery listening to the final movement of sonata #29.
I grew up listening to Schnabel. Then came Ashkenazy’s performance on Decca. I found Schnabel at times percussive, prone to occasional wrong notes, yet coming from a place that seemed inspired and driven by vision: which justifies the wrong notes and the occasional harsh attack. That sense of an inspire romantic is a 20th century tradition, whereby we smile and indulge wrong notes. Ashkenazy seemed so much warmer & more precise, but not as fast & furious as Schnabel. The newer recording of Ashkenazy (in the 1970s?) far surpasses the mono sound for Schnabel
Goodyear gives us the speed & ferocity of Schnabel, with note-perfect precision, and still better sonics. It should be more newsworthy. Why don’t people talk about this? But I guess Beethoven isn’t on MTV and Goodyear doesn’t have a reality TV show.
Coupled with sonata #29 is one of my favourites, namely #28. The Marathon had me looking for compositional parallels, thinking about how Beethoven takes up recurring ideas in subsequent compositions. When one listens to #s 28 & 29 together over and over as I have, one starts to see patterns. The choices of keys –so unorthodox for both sonatas—are particularly intriguing when one looks at the two works as part of one larger compositional journey, as one sees in the Marathon. Consider:
- One sonata is in A, one is in B-flat.
- The 2nd movement of #28 in A is in F: normally a key one would encounter in a sonata in B-flat.
- The third movement of #29 is in F-sharp minor, the relative minor to A.
- The introduction of the last movement of #29, beginning on F as one might expect segues boldly into loud crashing chords in A that strongly resemble the end of sonata #28.
- And everywhere, phrases that answer one another. While it isn’t all contra-puntal, the writing is very dense.
Need I add that Goodyear plays both 28 & 29 with great clarity, at times with a muscular attack reminding me of Schnabel, but crisp and clean.
And then there are the first sonatas on CD #1. But Goodyear brings the same muscular clarity to bear on the early works.
The drama of the F minor sonata Op 2 #1 is infused with Sturm und Drang, a melodrama of great contrasts, very disciplined in its attire. There’s sentiment without sentimentality. Sonata #2 in A opens and closes with fast moving passages leaping up and down the keyboard, with understated drama in the inner movements.
And then comes Op 2 #3 in C, one of the highlights of the live performances of the Marathon. I remembered my sense that Goodyear could see deeply into the heart of the music, in the balance (or is it an emotional symmetry?) one feels in his reading. All four movements are marvellous, but the inner two are particularly fine. The slow movement is one of those delicate explorations of passion that we see in the early sonatas. The scherzo reminds me of the vaudeville show I saw yesterday, the voices dancing up and down the keys resembling –or inciting—a strong sense of hilarity, as if one were listening to laughter. And the closing movement is a liberating exercise in speed and delicacy.
I won’t stop listening to those two CDs (particularly when some passages continue to echo inside my head: a good thing). Now it’s time to hear more of the set.