Waiting for Mr Goodyear : Beethoven Guru

It’s June 7th 2013, a year after a very busy weekend.   Last year I somehow managed to fit a Saturday divided between Glass’s hours of Einstein on the Beach and the first part of Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon, into a schedule including a fulltime job, evenings teaching and the Sunday church gig.  Yes Sunday would have been the logical time for Einstein but I had a family do + church, so there was no other way, but to sample the Marathon without staying for the whole thing.  Hindsight is 20-20, right? I wish i had taken time off.  But I learned from that frenetic week, even if in the process –Arghhhh—I  missed the sonatas I really would have liked to have heard.  Even so it was memorable beyond any recital I’ve ever seen, both as an original approach to programming and for the actual performance.

What was so original? You can read my comments from last year.  But we were watching Goodyear’s hands on a screen at the top of the stage, testimony to the fact that this was in some respects a happening as much as it was a recital.  And we watched Melati Suryodarmo moving to the music.  The Marathon was part of Luminato, which I think with hindsight was a mixed blessing.  Maybe the festival helped promote the event, but I don’t believe the event was given the reception it deserved, that Luminato got more out of this relationship than Goodyear (although he’s too much of a gentleman to say such a thing).  Even Einstein –something I loved, and which I’d awaited fervently for over a quarter of a century—pales beside it.

And now Goodyear’s doing it again in a few places in the USA.  It’s now called the “Sonatathon” rather than the Marathon.  I think the name is better, as I got overly caught up in the notion of endurance.  But as of June 2012 Goodyear had never done it before, so even he may have wondered.  Was it possible?

Over the course of the weeks leading up to the event, I did my own mini-preparation, unquestionably influenced by the film Julie & Julia (a film of two parallel tales, wherein a blogger replicates the glories of Julia Child’s French cuisine in her own kitchen): as I would sit and play several sonatas in a sitting, and yes, wrote a great deal about Beethoven and about Goodyear’s Marathon.  I couldn’t help noticing that this music doesn’t exhaust me but actually refreshed me, giving me a natural high.  This discovery has informed the last year of my life.  I sometimes sit and play for hours.  I played all of Tristan und Isolde one day this winter, astonished how good music can rejuvenate you.  And I’ve played acts of Parsifal several times, especially Act III.  But in fact I had lived through this kind of experience before, when rehearsing shows in which I was music director.   I recall in particular one production where we were under the gun, rehearsing morning noon and night seven days a week, and most of the cast would get the occasional day off, but I didn’t need it. Nope.  I was mortified when the show ended so abruptly.  Che faro senza all my friends in this show?  It feels surreal the way the music heals you, the way your mind clears and quiets, everything else receding before the music.   Maybe it’s not a drug; but it is unquestionably so good for you that you want it again and again.

Playing a show all alone simply doesn’t work the same way, sigh…

But of course –let me get back to Goodyear & Beethoven—he vaulted over the obstacles as if he had seven –league boots.  To misquote a slogan for an energy drink, Beethoven gives you wings.  Ha, when I saw how well he played, how effortless his playing was, I was more than astonished.  This man is the most impressive pianist I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of impressive pianists.  If I get a shot of endorphins playing Beethoven the way I play him –not perfect by any stretch of the imagination—what kind of dose would one get playing Beethoven with unerring precision?

I find my understanding of other composers keeps being impacted by what I heard in June 2012.  The Bruckner CD I reviewed yesterday has me thinking again of pace.  Goodyear plays some pieces faster than anyone, not because he’s showing off (although haha wow it’s impressive), but because he’s trying to show us how to play this music right.  I think his understanding of the Hammerklavier sonata is not just cogent, but inarguable when you listen to his performance.  Everyone else sounds laboured after Goodyear.  I found myself thinking the same thing listening to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Bruckner 6th, that the ponderous approach of Furtwangler or Solti, while conventional and within the usual boundaries of how one interprets Bruckner does the composer no favours.  He’s not Mahler. He’s not Wagner, yet playing him slowly, seeking depths makes him seem lugubrious, vacuous even.  It’s the same problem that I encountered after hearing Norrington’s recordings in the late 80s and early 90s.  I grew up listening to Klemperer’s Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Beethoven, Mahler: and now find it quaint and idiosyncratic. It’s a music of nostalgia for my youth, but not precisely what it used to be, when i understood these to be interpretations of depth.

Click for more information about the set

I’ve had the pleasure of reading Stewart Goodyear’s commentaries in the liner notes to his magnificent set of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas.   Let me say in passing, what a wonderful achievement, just to write these commentaries, the eye-witness account of a great player sharing his relationship with this wonderful music.  I experience something like the glamour of a brush with a movie-star, as though Goodyear is Roger Ebert or Hedda Hopper, getting up close & personal with these stars: but the glamorous stars are the sonatas themselves, that Goodyear knows with an intimacy to make one blush.

When you  read these notes one can’t help noticing that the man is not simply playing, but advocating.  He is inside Beethoven as if he were the composer’s lawyer.  No the composer is not being sued, nor is he in any danger of losing his immortality.  Yet the interpretations from Goodyear make a different case for Beethoven, re-frame him and the entire century’s music by implication.  The implicit connection between bel canto and Wagner –just to offer one vector we could follow, a connection that the composer speaks of, even as interpreters flounder in any attempt to make the connection—is much more readily available when one plays Wagner or Beethoven with some sense of Rossini in mind, a composer who is like the link between the two.  I laugh as I picture how some people I know –pompous people who snort and make loud noises as a kind of non-verbal preamble to dismissive remarks, as though they were Zeus about to hurl a thunderbolt… except instead they’re just noisy i guess—would reject this.

I cling to the memory of Richard Bradshaw, a very under-rated musician whose Debussy & Wagner were among my most cherished memories at the COC.  At one of the Opera Exchange discussions, I recall Bradshaw saying that the trouble with the way many people conduct is that the players with their various solos, playing leit-motivs all seem to want their 15 minutes of fame.   It was such a charming and under-stated way of pointing to the way the music seems to be heavily laden with meaning, with motifs, with climaxes, that can also be achieved at a faster tempo, if not for the ham-actors of the orchestra, hogging the spotlight.   I am not about to offer scholarly backing for these assertions.  It’s late and I want to finish what I am saying about Goodyear, which means my parenthetical digression about tempi & Bradshaw needs to be concluded.  Just as this paragraph is interminable, seeking your attention, so too with those parenthetical passages in Wagner, done at slower tempi with rubati.

Goodyear is clean and forthright with Beethoven, in the same way.

I’ve been reading new comments from Goodyear via Facebook –and am honoured by his friendship –that are the natural outpouring of someone re-visiting last year’s epic journey, bemused afresh.  This time he knows he can do it and understands how the music revives him.  I regret that I can’t be there, but that won’t stop me from thinking about Beethoven again.  I’ll play some sonatas –as I did last year—for that endorphin rush, and also in search of some of Goodyear’s effects (I wish I could play as fast…!).

Goodyear is exploring consciousness & beauty, but instead of climbing mountains, he flies on the wings of 32 piano sonatas.  Enlightened by music,  he is The Beethoven Guru.

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