LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Sonatas (Complete) - Stewart Goodyear (Piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Sonatas (Complete) - Stewart Goodyear (Piano) - 10-Disc Set - 774718151322 - Released: September 2012 - Marquis Classics MAR513

Earlier this year in Toronto, Stewart Goodyear performed all 32 of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas in a single day. The event received some advance attention in the Toronto media, mostly derogatory, but there weren't any published reviews. I wasn't able to attend the event and, to be honest, my first impression was that it was going to be a stunt. But then I reflected upon his performances of the Late Sonatas two years ago at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and his recordings of those works. I had enjoyed them and considered his interpretations serious and responsible, and I wondered if the marathon presentation might have been worthwhile after all. I'm not sure I would have had the stamina to sit through the whole thing at my age, but I wouldn't have minded giving it a try.

Now we have the complete sonatas on 10 CDs recorded over a period of several months. Two things need to be said at the outset, that this is pianism of a very high order, and that not everyone will like these readings, at least on first hearing.

Goodyear's tempos are nearly always quicker than today's standard practice, generally conforming closely to Beethoven's metronome markings. Experts have long pondered over the discrepancy between these markings and the more leisurely pace at which the composer's music has been played for the last 150 years or more. One explanation has it that Beethoven's metronome was calibrated improperly; another is that by the time the device was invented in 1815 Beethoven was almost completely deaf and may have had distorted notions as to how music would sound at the speeds he indicated. Another possibility, of course, is that he wanted the music played faster than the norm that developed in the Romantic era. In the end, it isn't a question of whether an interpretive artist's tempos are too slow or too fast, but whether they are musical and have the power to move the listener.

Another way of putting this is that if Goodyear's renditions were merely fast, they would have little to recommend them, especially compared to certain emotionally subtle and complex interpretations of a more traditional stripe. An excellent example of the latter, and also a Canadian one to boot, would be Robert Silverman's 2000 traversal on Orpheum Masters. It has been my reference set for some years, and I've used it for tempo comparisons in this review.

In preparing this review I listened to the entire cycle twice, and then to selected sonatas and movements for specific comment. I've been somewhat partial to the nicknamed works, the Moonlight and Appassionata, for example, as they tend to be familiar to more listeners. But for starters, I've chosen the A major and C major from the Opus 2 set.

The first movements of both are highly kinetic. The first impression is the tempo might run away with him, but it never does. The pianist is very much in control, yet the sense of adventure never flags. The slow movements are graceful and unsentimental, but also occasionally playful. The scherzos are playful too, though there are hints of the grotesque in the A major and of some unnecessary melodrama in the C major. Although the final movements are very fast, especially in the A major, a lyrical thread is maintained throughout.

Goodyear's rendition of the Pathétique Sonata (C minor, op. 13) is an exception in that its tempos are close to normal. In fact the first movement is longer than in Silvermann's version, though not by much. The second and third movements are more or less standard in length. Seldom shy about using rubato, he puts it to especially effective use in the Adagio cantabile. The finale is an especially good illustration of the detailed accuracy of playing with which he imparts his insights.

The "Moonlight" Sonata (C-sharp minor, op. 27, no.2) was not given its nickname by Beethoven and it is doubtful that he would have appreciated it. To quote Goodyear's notes, "Ludwig Rellstab, the Berlin poet and critic, gave one of the darkest and most tragic works in the piano literature its nickname because he pictured the moon over Lake Lucerne. If I were to give this sonata a nickname, it would be the 'thunderstorm.' The first movement's quiet intensity evoking images of a dark sky covered with dark clouds and threatening shades of green, unbearably quiet before the storm erupts." Personally, I prefer to hear it without any extra-musical associations and this recording makes that easy. The accounts of all three movements are rewarding to hear.

Other impressions: In the "Tempest" Sonata (C minor, op.31, no.2) the enunciation of the bass line is often striking, adding an extra degree of emotional sophistication. The "Appassionata" is taken quickly throughout. The first movement requires careful listening to hear its many fine elements. The Andante con moto moves right along but makes fine sense in its simple dignity. The finale, and particularly the coda, are as fast as Richter used to take them, and possibly more articulate.

Goodyear's renditions are not merely speeded up replicas of other people's interpretations. That wouldn't work at all. Instead, his tempos require rethinking of the internal logic and emotional potential of the music. The results are almost entirely gratifying.

The Hammerklavier Sonata (B-flat, op. 106) deserves special mention. Beethoven's metronome marking of half note = 138 was for many years regarded as ludicrous, if not actually unplayable. In this pianist's precise playing, it sounds entirely plausible and compelling. The slow movement is considered the heart of the sonata, if not of Beethoven's entire piano oeuvre. Its length varies markedly among pianists. Silverman plays it in 20:49 which is roughly average. Other well-known renditions run from Christoph Eschenbach's twenty-five minutes to Wilhelm Kempff's sixteen. Goodyear does it in 14:56. No one hearing this recording would accuse Beethoven of wearing his heart on his sleeve, yet it is a profoundly satisfying experience.

Now for a few words on a couple of small details from second movement of the Sonata in C minor, op. 111. The so-called "boogey-woogey" variations are played without sounding anachronistic, though Goodyear doesn't gloss over their syncopation. Finally, the crucial long trills near the end are done with a natural evenness that few recordings can match.

Richard Todd - September 2012