It’s 2020, a year I’m tempted to call “World, Interrupted,” recalling the 1999 film set in a psychiatric hospital. At times our virtual online lives resemble the simulation of real living as though we’ve been wrapped in strait-jackets, locked up in padded cells, prevented from hugging one another. Normalcy has been set aside as we’re all experimenting with varieties of physical distance, without any concerts or theatre performances during the pandemic.
And 2020 is also the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven on a December day in 1770. The commemorative concerts to celebrate? Postponed or canceled. If I could misquote Mame, it’s not that we need a little Christmas. We need a little Beethoven. Never mind “hauling out the holly”, we need a little Ludwig, right this very minute.
It makes me ever so grateful for the recent release of Stewart Goodyear’s Orchid Classics recordings of the five Beethoven piano concerti, recorded with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Andrew Constantine. I’ve been having my own little private festival.
It helps that the performances are all extraordinarily good. Let me explain what I mean, as I’m a bit mystified as to why Goodyear’s importance is not more universally recognized. Is it because he’s black? or Canadian? If he were American he would be a huge star.
Back in 2012 when I first encountered Goodyear as the soloist in the “Beethoven Marathon”, playing all 32 sonatas in a single day, the question of interpretation was almost incidental. We were witnessing something like an athletic feat, a happening. I was flabbergasted that the event was treated by some as a kind of publicity stunt, and not taken more seriously. As an impressionable nerd, I had plunged into what I considered to be the important question underlying this day, namely, does playing or hearing the sonatas this way change our perception & understanding of the composer & how he is to be understood, how he is to be performed: to which I say an enthusiastic “yes”. I can hold more than one idea in my head (as any musician can), balancing the appreciation for the feat, with my enjoyment of his interpretations, my gratitude for his witty commentaries, and a clear perception that his engagement with Beethoven was genuine. While I think of myself as a Beethoven nerd (you know… having almost all 32 sonatas in my head? able to play the symphonies at the piano, etc), I felt like a neophyte in his presence, as he played from memory, a feat making the role of Lear or Hamlet look small in comparison.
There was a youtube video early on of Goodyear performing the first & last movements of the Hammerklavier sonata Op 106, that should have served notice. I’ve been listening to people struggle with both movements, not quite sure how to approach them. Let’s just say that if we were to think of musical scores as puzzles or challenges addressed to the performers of the world, then Goodyear’s solutions are remarkable, coherent, agile & note-perfect.
Goodyear’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas were confirmation of his secure understanding of Beethoven, an approach that reconciles the challenges of the composer, virtuosity with understanding & depth. Yet his is a light-hearted handling that dodges the ponderous pathway of an interpreter such as Klemperer: a conductor whom I worshipped at one time. Thankfully one can have lots of interpretations, several approaches.
So earlier this week when I started listening to the concerti set, I was high as a kite. I listened to the first concerto five times before I went on to the second one (also heard multiple times).
I had read Goodyear’s confessional program note, (that I can direct you to in its entirety online here and click “sleeve notes”), an indication of an unusually intimate connection to the music. I recall Anton Kuerti’s admonition in his own recording liner notes, that to play Beethoven one must become Beethoven. Imaginative identification is paramount. Reading what Goodyear writes I’m inclined to think that he doesn’t mistake himself for Ludwig van B, but does get inside him, understanding & empathizing.
I think Goodyear’s key insight is the following:
“My first impression while hearing the symphonies was that they seemed more public and more extroverted as the sonatas seemed more personal and more vulnerable. The complete piano sonatas felt like hearing a musical diary; the symphonies felt like individual declarations to the public. Two sides of Beethoven so far, equally powerful, intriguingly different.
My journey with the Beethoven piano concertos began at age nine when I entered a national piano competition in Canada. From the age of nine to twelve I competed, hearing movements of his piano concerti performed by various competitors. (In the final round of this competition, the competitors had to choose a movement from a concerto.) Another side of Beethoven was introduced to me as I heard my competitors perform these works; a side of great theatre, great drama, great virtuosity, and most importantly, great merriment. I felt like I was hearing Beethoven the entertainer, the actor, the storyteller, the playwright. So now, there were three sides of Beethoven; the sonatas were pursuits of inner truth, the symphonies pursuits of the highest qualities in humanity, the piano concertos pursuits of unbridled joy.”
Stewart Goodyear, 2019
You may not choose the same language, nor see the same qualities, but it’s intriguing to come to these performances with this subtext. What if we see the orchestral passages as “more public and more extroverted …, individual declarations to the public” and the solo piano passages as “more personal and more vulnerable”..? And then if we add the thought that these are theatre, performances where the piano soloist might be a kind of character displaying themselves with vulnerability, taking us inside their feelings, contextualized in a broader world by the orchestral passages. It means that in a sense we’re dealing with a kind of dramaturgy, where Goodyear understands the concerti as drama, the soloist expressing internal feelings, the orchestra underlining that or representing the broader world & the context. I’m not sure that it can apply uniformly—indeed how could it when the composer’s own understanding of the form changed so quickly from the first two through the last three? –but that’s a great start.
I will write more about the experience because I continue to listen to them daily.
I was thrilled by the cadenza Goodyear offers in the 1st movement of Concerto #1, the longest of the ones Beethoven gave us in 1809 (there are at least 3). It’s marvelous to listen to roughly twelve minutes of the concerto and then vanish into over four minutes of cadenza, surely the hardest & longest. Goodyear ends with a lovely ironic flourish, pulling back before the orchestra comes in for the brief tutti that finishes the movement.
Concerto #2 may be an earlier composition than #1, but it doesn’t really matter. Each of the first two has a youthful charm & elegance that satisfies, even while pointing unmistakably to the mature genius waiting for the new century to turn. We’re still in a realm of balance & restraint that shouldn’t trouble a fan of Mozart or Haydn, yet it’s as though we’re watching a teenage Lil Abner, about to sprout bigger muscles than we’ve ever seen before. Just you wait. So it’s apt to have a performance like Goodyear’s that sounds effortless, as though the player isn’t stressed, isn’t troubled, but sailing along without a care in the world.
For Concerto #3 the dramaturgy changes, which is hardly surprising considering how much else was changing. As the world was at war, the composer was also in battles, struggling with himself. This concerto appeared the year after his “Heiligenstadt Testament”, a letter in which he considers his diminishing ability to hear, the prospect of giving up performance, perhaps ending his life altogether in despair. No wonder that the composer takes a giant step, from the light & airy first two concerti, to one in that fateful key of C minor. The orchestra now begins to take us beyond mere sturm und drang into something profound, the depths of romantic anguish and an image of an implacable & indifferent world. It’s not enough to just play the notes. Constantine & that BBC Orchestra offer gravitas without being excessively slow, balanced right on the edge. Goodyear gives us something suggesting psychological insight, the 1st movement cadenza approached as though he were a method actor seeking to avoid being a ham. He builds to the big moments gradually without bombast, and with a searing clarity when the pain in the music requires it to finally burst out and show itself. Yet he’s very subtle the way he takes the passage to end the cadenza (with Constantine’s help) creating mystery and a drama to make you lean forward in your seat, wondering: what will happen next. While this Beethoven is still inevitable & inexorable it is also still capable of surprise.
Concerto #4 was probably the last one that the composer was able to premiere himself. I have to wonder, was that brilliant innovation of having the soloist come in alone nothing more than a way for a man in the process of losing his hearing, seeking to conceal it from his audience? Oh sure, it’s fabulous music. It’s also a very clever idea if you’re unable to hear. Ditto with the second movement too, possibly the most original single movement of a concerto written before 1850. (Although maybe the first movement of his violin concerto is even more original? I guess you can tell I like Beethoven…), where the orchestra comes in super loud (and visible, if not audible to the pianist), and then the soloist replies, in a very contrasting fashion. This movement has been spoken of as Orpheus calming The Furies, which is certainly apt. I think of it as a kind of sermon and indeed I put it (via a piano reduction) at the end of a church service the Sunday after the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer . This entire concerto is full of energies brimming to the surface, whether in the sparkly piano in the slow movement or in the exuberance of either of the outer movements. Goodyear is magisterial, every note in place, enacting perfection.
It might surprise you after all this to hear that Concerto #5 is my favorite. While the musicologists will tell you that #4 is the most original, most innovative, seminal, ground-breaking… Oh dear, so many adjectives. But this concerto is the one I’ve always found most stirring, most inspiring. It’s a composition of heroic sounds, militaristic imagery and a series of struggles in the first movement. The second is a dreamy meditation that was selected to suggest the latent romance of the film Immortal Beloved. However far off the historical mark it may be, the way the composition is used in the film adds another layer to my love of this concerto. Constantine & the BBC NOW step forward assertively for this one with the most interesting accompaniment I’ve ever heard for this piece, and that’s in a lifetime of listening to a great many interpretations. Part of it may be good sonics, but it’s also the choice to bring out voices & percussion in key places. Goodyear seems to be surfing on a tidal wave of powerful sound, at times emerging from the heroic tutti, at other times tinkling in soft commentary. Stunning, magnificent…
If you like Beethoven you really should get these recordings of the concerti. Stewart Goodyear deserves to be acknowledged as one of the finest interpreters of this music.
And I’ll keep listening to these great discs.
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