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Concert review: Stewart Goodyear makes fine start in Beethoven sonata marathon

By John Terauds on June 9, 2012

Stewart Goodyear in full Beethoven flight at Koerner Hall (Darren Calabrese/National Post photo).

Stewart Goodyear made an impressive case for his one-day piano marathon of playing through all 32 sonatas by Ludwig van Beeethoven at the first third of his programme at Koerner Hall, starting Saturday morning.

In the first four hours, including intermission, he presented the first 11, as well as two more sonatas the composer had not originally intended for publication. That’s a lot of notes filling more than twice the length of the usual solo-piano recital.

And it was only the start of a very, very long day.

But Goodyear’s phenomenal technique, poise and attention to detail justified the attention lavished on the performance by a small but dedicated audience.

In dozens of interviews leading up to this unusual event — only two other pianists have ever attempted to play all 32 sonatas in one day — Goodyear insisted that this was not a publicity stunt or some sort of endurance test.

The 30-something Canadian simply wanted to share his unbridled love for these pieces, which are the cornerstone of the classical piano repertoire.

He also wanted his listeners to experience the full development and evolution of Beethoven’s compositional style and skills.

This is where Goodyear’s marathon might, by the end of the day, truly justify itself.

This pianist has a distinctive style. No one else plays Beethoven exactly the way he does — in the same way that Angela Hewitt puts her individual stamp on the works of J.S. Bach.

Goodyear articulates every note, carefully shapes every phrase, pushes the dynamics to the boundaries of pianistic good taste and then adds the finishing touch of underlining interesting dialogue and counterpoint inside the music.

The result is a depiction of Beethoven’s ideas so vivid that it compels attention. And because each piece benefits from exactly the same aesthetic filter, the stylistic progression of the composer’s work is also thrown into high relief.

Having a group of pianists divide the sonatas up amongst themselves — as was the case with the most recent Beethoven marathon, organized by New York City radio station WQXR last fall — dilutes the effect of the compositional focus, by drawing the listener’s ears to what each pianist is doing with the music.

Not that I was happy with everything Goodyear was doing. Each sonata among the first 13 I heard contained flashes of brilliance, of transcendent beauty. But at many other times, the interpretations felt busy, often rushed.

Beethoven overcame a nasty childhood as a not entirely successful keyboard prodigy. By the time he landed at the side of classical master Joseph Haydn, he had already developed a feisty independent streak that led the great, older composer to nearly give up on teaching his pupil anything.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of Haydn and Mozart’s classical form, proportion and playfulness in these first sonatas, composerd before his 30th birthday in 1800. There are also repeated signs that Beethoven is boldly heading in his own direction.

The interpreter’s challenge is to balance classicism with the Sturm und Drang that would be the hallmark of Romantic music just a couple of decades later.

The key to making this balance work is to imbue the music with a sense of drama that comes not only from dynamics, but of carefully played silences. The interpreter needs to maintain an element of surprise from one measure and phrase and chord and movement to the next.

Goodyear spent the first half of the first recital thinking ahead so much that he forgot to pace the pieces adequately. The two Op. 49 sonatas, the ones not originally intended for public consumption, felt unduly breathless.

But then, after intermission, it was as if Goodyear had finally found his successful marathon runner’s rhythm, and the Op. 10 sonatas (Nos 5, 6 and 7), were presented as objects of beauty as well as wonder.

By the time the Op. 13 “Pathétique” flew off the stage, Goodyear had the audience in the palms of his two very busy and seeemingly tireless hands.

Organizers of the concert, presented by the Royal Conservatory of Music as part of the Luminato festival, included movement work by Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryadarmo.

She confined herself to a little pedestal affair, often cradling or clutching a large piece of driftwood as she stood, sat, perched, stared and, occasionally, smiled.

The only connection I could see between Suryadarmo, Goodyear and Beethoven was a sense of otherworldly focus on matters we, lesser mortals, can only contemplate in silent wonder.

It boded very well for the afternoon and evening runs (the last begins at 8:30 p.m. and there are still plenty of tickets available).

If my body were able to withstand another 7 hours of recital sitting, I’d be there, taking it all in.

Would I recommend this sort of insane programming to any other Beethoven-loving pianist? No. But it sure makes for a memorable experience.

John Terauds

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