Stewart Goodyear: Diabelli Variations

While Stewart Goodyear might be the greatest pianist in the world today, as a Canadian he lives under the radar as Canadians so often do. Not only does each country have their favourite son or daughter, but Canadians are a reticent bunch, slow to show the kind of pride Americans routinely demonstrate in support of their own artists.

The epic Sonatathon adventure of the past few years—a one-day reading of all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in Toronto as the “Marathon”, repeated in a few other cities—has been a natural outgrowth of the pianist’s deep love for this romantic composer.

Marquis Recordings captured studio versions of all 32, making them available in a set that does justice to this wonderful body of work. They’re the best such set I know of.

Goodyear is a curious synthesis of the thoughtful precision of a Barenboim, and the passion of a Schnabel, playing several of the sonatas faster than anyone has ever heard them: note perfectly. One might expect a trade-off between accuracy –which might call for a slower tempo—and speed –which might compromise that accuracy. But no.

Goodyear manages to be both fast & accurate.

His Appassionata last movement + coda is the fastest I’ve ever heard yet wonderfully precise.

His Hammerklavier an even greater extreme, considering how slowly some take the four huge movements of that sonata.  I daresay he brought a unique intelligibility to the finale with his breath-takingly fast tempo, as if we’re up in a jet, seeing the huge landscape for the first time, that was previously hidden by the slowness of our traverse (via other pianists).

Click for Marquis website to purchase

And now he’s taken on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a late work that’s a perfect complement to the set. Indeed, I’ve joked earlier that Beethoven’s C Major sonatas are like one extended meditation (from Op 2 #3, the Waldstein in the middle of the book and sonata #32); with these variations Beethoven again takes up his fascination with C Major.
Goodyear has something else to offer, though, which you would have noticed if you’d picked up any of the sonatas or the complete set: namely, he writes astonishingly well. His liner notes are wonderfully eloquent. I am reminded of Anton Kuerti, a Canadian of another generation, whose notes were wonderful reading.

The essay accompanying the Diabelli’s is similarly brilliant. But that’s not why you should get the recording. Goodyear comes at the variations with a bit more care than I thought I noticed in the sonatas, possibly because –as he claims—they’re a recent discovery for him and not the lifelong obsession that we see in the sonatas. In a few places I sense care, a prepared attack, rather than the breakneck impulsiveness we sometimes encounter in the sonatas. But that’s perhaps apt for these pieces. I felt –having listened to the recording twice today (the highlights of my day, and a perfect set of bookends) –that each one is like a jewel. There’s an implicit set of rules or procedures for each variation, and so Goodyear is totally self-consistent in each one. The notes are clear, distinct and untrammelled by excessive emotion. Many are playful. Some are fearlessly powerful. The last one, which I’ve heard turned into something sentimental is emotional without losing its own sense of proportion.

Goodyear’s recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is now available from Marquis Recordings.

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3 Responses to Stewart Goodyear: Diabelli Variations

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