Dallas — Pianist Stewart Goodyear is full of surprises. One of them is that he is doing something that few have attempted: playing a marathon of all 32 of Beethoven’s sonatas in one day.
His Beethoven Sonatathon happens Saturday at Dallas City Performance Hall, as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Recital Series. He will play them in chronological order, beginning at 10 a.m., in three sets (10 a.m.-1:40 p.m.; 3-6:30 p.m.; and 8-10:50 p.m.; a schedule is at the bottom of this story). There are lunch and dinner breaks, and each set also includes an intermission.
Goodyear is Trinidadian and Canadian. He was raised in Toronto, but stays in touch with his relations in Trinidad, a tropical island with some unique animals that don’t exist elsewhere, lush rainforest greenery and an explosion of flowers year-round.
“It is a nice place to go in February,” he says about his Caribbean home. “The tropical climate holds steady at 70 to 75 degrees and the ocean is always warm.”
Goodyear’s mixed heritage is nothing new to the island. The nation of Trinidad calls itself an ethnic callaloo. That is a tasty local dish that is made up of many diverse ingredients and the use of a word that means “delicious” tells you that this mixture of people (and food) is prized on the islands.
But there is nothing exotic about his remarkable talent. Goodyear is enjoying a fine concert career, equally divided between orchestral appearances, chamber music and solo recitals. Oh, and how about a duo piano concert with Emmanuel Ax?
He is also a composer who is on the receiving end of major commissions, not to mention a first-rate improviser.
Perhaps it is this combination of concert artist, composer and improviser that gives him his kinship with Beethoven. The skill of improvisation has vanished in classical music these days. You can still find it among organists and the jazz world offered a home to improvisation years ago. Beethoven was a formidable improviser, certainly the best of his era.
We can experience his affinity with the composer, up front and personal, on Saturday. Beethoven’s body of piano sonatas is one of music’s monuments. Music writer Donald Tovey said the conductor/pianist Hans von Bülow called them the New Testament (with Bach’s set of preludes and fugues being the “old.”). Bülow was also the first pianist to preform all of them in a cycle. Since Bülow’s achievement, numerous pianists have taken the challenge. Many are well known names (Maurizio Pollini), some historic (Artur Schnabel) and other lesser known (Hungary’s Jenő Jandó).
Playing them all in one day is a stunning achievement in a number of ways. First of all, there is the memorization challenge.
“In some ways it is not really memorization like learning poems by rote,” says Goodyear. “You have to allow Beethoven to possess you and then you know the notes as he thought of them.”
He draws a parallel with an actor learning lines.
“You have to remember the words so well that you can forget them,” he says. “Then, you are not reciting words but bringing a character to life and saying the only words than could be said at that moment. So it is with these sonatas. Each note is inevitable—the only one that could come next in Beethoven’s mind.”
Then there is the matter of stamina.
“I feed on Beethoven’s energy,” said Goodyear. “He is always experimenting and you can feel his impatience to get into the modern world, [to] leave the constricts of the Classical world of Haydn and Mozart behind.”
Add to that the progression of Beethoven’s musical style, which is Goodyear’s real reason to play them all in a row.
“For me, playing all of the sonatas in one day allows me to immerse myself in the totality of Beethoven’s life and struggles, condensed,” Goodyear says. “All of his personality comes through: humor, courtship, rage, defiance, joy—many different layers. Then there are the heroic moments that contrast with the defiant ones. There are some funny sonatas, some that are intended to shock. He even makes fun of himself by deliberately going on too long, toying with a short motivic unit.”
“Beethoven also creates anticipation,” Goodyear continues. “For example, he will make repeats but use an uneven number. This gets the audience invested and hanging on note by note.” Goodyear said. “In many of the preliminary sketches, you will see that he crossed out just out one bar. If you add it back in, you can easily see why he crossed it out because the music loses momentum.”
Goodyear’s exposure to the sonatas goes back to his childhood. When he first heard one of the sonatas, he begged his mother to get him a recording. She came back with a box set that had them all.
“I was so excited that I started with the first one and didn’t stop until the last one ended. I was just a child at the time but Beethoven’s life progress opened before me. Of course, I only got a glimpse then,” he says.
“When the last recording finished, I sat there for what felt like a long time—maybe 30 minutes—in silence and wonderment. There was something that was spiritual about how that cycle ended. That feeling comes back to me at the end of every time I play the cycle. After the last note of Opus 111, I feel the same response of when I was a child.”
It will be a fascinating experience to make this journey with Goodyear on Saturday. Hearing him speak about the Sonatathon, you can listen to them in a different way. Hopefully, we can hook into a layer deeper than an important series of sonatas. We can try to catch Goodyear’s metaphysical journey through this most complex and revolutionary composer’s life. Indeed, it will reflect his own psyche and musical growth.
And of course, there will always be the possibility of surprise.
Part 1: 10 a.m. – 1:40 p.m.
Sonatas No.1 through 11, as well as 19 and 20, including the Pathetique and the Grand Sonata
Part 2: 3–6:30 p.m.
Sonatas No. 12 through 23 (except 19 & 20) including the Moonlight, Pastoral, Tempest, Waldstein, and Appassionata
Part 3: 8 p.m.–10:50 p.m.
Sonatas No. 24 through 32, including Les Adieux and Hammerklavier