Pianist To Play All 32 Beethoven Sonatas
By his own admission, pianist Stewart Goodyear plays Beethoven like a man possessed.
“I feel possessed every time I play Beethoven,” he says. “I become transformed every time I play these pieces. They become so personal to me that it just pours out of me very, very naturally.”
Goodyear will be scaling an Everest of his own creation when he undertakes the complete sonatas — a cycle of 32 — over a single day, playing them in the order in which they were actually composed. The “Sonatathon” will take place over 10 hours, in three sessions presented at McCarter Theatre in Princeton on June 22.
Audiences may attend one, two or all three sessions, which will be mini-marathons in themselves — three- to four-hour events, with one intermission each.
The first leg of the Beethoven pilgrimage will commence at 10 a.m. and run through 2 p.m. That concert will include the Sonatas Nos. 1 through 11 (including the well-known “Pathétique”), as well as 19 and 20.
After a pause for lunch, the journey will continue from 3 to 6:30 p.m. with Sonatas Nos. 12 through 23 (with the exception of 19 and 20). This middle concert will include many of the famous nickname sonatas, the “Moonlight,” “Pastoral,” “Tempest,” “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” among them.
Then there will be a second break, to allow for a light dinner, before entering the home stretch, with Sonatas Nos. 24 through 32, including “Les Adieux” and the daunting “Hammerklavier.” That concert will span a mere three hours (as compared to the morning session’s four), from 8 to 11 p.m.
Goodyear will perform all the sonatas from memory. The undertaking is phenomenal from any perspective. Yet the one-day cycle is no mere carnival trick. Goodyear has had Beethoven in his blood virtually his entire life.
Though his father died of cancer one month before his birth, the elder Goodyear left his son a valuable legacy — his record collection. Among the albums by Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, there were box sets of the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky symphonies.
The younger Goodyear’s affinity with Beethoven was immediate. So captivated was he by the symphonies that he begged his mother to purchase a recording of the complete piano sonatas.
“The Beethoven piano sonatas were the first piano pieces that I heard,” Goodyear says. “I was 4 years old at the time. When I heard those sonatas, life was defined for me. I was compelled to be a classical concert pianist after that day.”
Goodyear listened to the entire set, recordings by Vladimir Ashkenazy, from the first LP straight through to the last — 13 records in all.
“Since that time I always thought of the 32 sonatas as a complete cycle,” he says, “almost like a song cycle — a complete set. And I knew that if I ever performed these sonatas, it had to be presented that way. That’s how I heard it.”
A love of Beethoven led him to studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his teacher, Leon Fleisher, had him learn a Beethoven sonata a week until he had them all committed to memory. Goodyear was 15 years old at the time. He’s had two further decades to deepen his understanding.
The McCarter concert will be the third time Goodyear has presented the complete sonatas as a cycle, and only the second time he has performed them all in public in a single day. The first was last summer in Toronto, the city of his birth. (The pianist currently makes his home in Philadelphia.)
The Princeton appearance will be the U.S. premiere of Goodyear’s “Sonatathon.” It is his hope to tour the one-day cycle worldwide. He will perform the sonatas in Dallas and Davis, Calif., later this year.
The stamina required for thee gargantuan concerts of perhaps the most revered cycle of piano sonatas in the repertoire must be staggering.
“For me, it’s easy to acquire the stamina because of the innovation of Beethoven’s music,” Goodyear explains. “Every sonata becomes more and more innovative. His music just keeps you on your toes. Just as the sonatas are very energetic, playing them in the cycle you become stronger as the day goes on.”
When asked about his favorite Beethoven interpreters, besides Ashkenazy, Goodyear expresses a fondness for Artur Schnabel.
“They’re both very different, but they both are, I think, equally powerful. I think what I like about the recorded cycles is that each pianist comes to Beethoven from his or her personal experience.”
He also admires the interpretations of Wilhelm Backhaus.
Goodyear’s own recordings of the complete sonatas have been issued on the Marquis Classics label. Critical response to the cycle has been largely ecstatic.
“When I decided to record all of the Beethoven sonatas, I wanted to wait until I felt that emotionally I knew these sonatas inside out, that I was coming at these sonatas from a very personal experience. I never want to be a copy of another interpretation. I will find out about nuances and what inspired the composer and the traditions that inspired him to write these pieces. But after that, it’s really about what I have to say about it.”
By way of introduction to the June 22 concert, Goodyear will appear at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday. He will share some of his thoughts about Beethoven and the sonatas, while providing musical illustrations.
“I will be talking about how I see these sonatas linked. I’ll be talking about humor. I’ll be talking about all of the different emotions that Beethoven communicates,” Goodyear says. “I think he communicates the whole human experience. That’s another reason why I think that the only way to present these sonatas is in a one day cycle. It’s like a retrospective of a composer’s art.”
Goodyear will be joined at Tuesday’s event by Princeton University professor and Beethoven scholar Scott Burnham. Burnham has written extensively about the composer, including an acclaimed volume, “Beethoven Hero,” published by Princeton University Press.
“I think for me, I come from a very eclectic musical background,” Goodyear says, “and I see Beethoven being a predecessor to many of the styles that are listened to in 2013. What he anticipates with syncopation, there’s this rock ‘n’ roll element. There’s something that is very, very contemporary and timeless about Beethoven’s music.
“The way that I present it, it is something that is very raw. I just go right to the jugular.”