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Bold, Virtuosic Beethoven
on October 3, 2012
It's worth remembering that when the young Ludwig van Beethoven initially conquered Vienna, it was as a pianist, not a composer. The brilliance, dynamism, and expressivity of Beethoven's playing came as a shock to audiences more accustomed to the neat and smooth playing of Mozart and politely brilliant playing of Clementi. Beethoven was a true virtuoso - at a time before it became a dirty word.
Beethoven's piano sonatas are now a staple of the repertoire. From the patrician Wilhelm Kempff, to the analytical Alfred Brendel, to the generic Vladimir Ashkenazy - there have been many sonata cycles of note since Artur Schnabel recorded his pioneering set in the 1930s. Stewart Goodyear's traversal is the first complete cycle that I know of that comes from a truly virtuoso perspective. A Canadian, Goodyear made headlines this year when he played all of Beethoven's Sonatas in a single day - a daunting prospect for a performer and even for an audience. These were not recorded at that concert, but under studio conditions from 2010-2012.
Goodyear is scrupulous when it comes to matters of textual fidelity - declining even to double bass notes where Beethoven's keyboard didn't extend far enough. He's also clearly done his research about 19th Century performance practice when it comes to tempo: thus under Goodyear's hands some of the composer's adagios sound like andantes, andantes like allegros, allegros like prestos - that is to modern ears. If you're the kind of person who equates slow tempos with profundity, this is not the cycle for you. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Hammerklavier, where Goodyear's observance of Beethoven's metronome marking in the opening movement gives the lie to Brendel's statement that it can't be played at tempo "by any pianist, on any piano." Yes, Al, it can. In Appassionata's finale, Goodyear adopts the same tempo Rubinstein took in his 1946 recording, but unlike Rubinstein he observes the repeat and actually plays all the notes. He also plays the octave glissandi in the Waldstein as they were written. One obvious area where Goodyear departs from the score is Beethoven's pedal markings, which would result in a muddy sound on a modern piano. Indeed, one could almost take dictation given the clarity of Goodyear's playing, and his technique is equal to Pollini in his prime.
These are bold, large scaled performances that return vitality and a sense of discovery to a part of the repertoire that has become overly familiar. Goodyear's performances changed my perceptions of many of these works - and that's saying something for someone who hasn't just listened to recordings, but studied the scores. Goodyear's virtuosic approach to these sonatas is entirely valid - although I wouldn't want to be deprived of hearing the perspectives of other performers. Beethoven's sonatas are rich enough for varied interpretations.
The sound places the piano boldly forward, yet with a realistic sense of space around it. The rather colloquial liner notes are by the pianist.