Dallas — Pianist Stewart Goodyear bravely came out on the stage at City Performance Hall on Saturday, March 21 to begin his trip through all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, playing them in the order in which they were composed. The small and scattered audience greeted him warmly and settled in for a musical trip through Beethoven’s musical life. The concert was presented in the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Recital Series.
Below is a more detailed report on the second and third sessions of the marathon, but let’s start with some generalities that were immediately apparent in the first session and Nos. 1 through 11.
One is that Goodyear has an amazing technique. Everything is crystal clear and pristine. He uses very little pedal, but when he does, he soaks it. He is very musical and all of the rubato and nuance is beautifully handled. In fact, his rubato changes as the sonatas progress in history. More romanticism begins to appear in his playing.
The one reservation is that the quick tempi are really fast. They are right at the line between exciting and unplayable. He flashes through all of the virtuoso passages and he makes a good case for his choices.
Beethoven had one of the first metronomes and marked almost all of his music. Controversy reigns among musicologists about every marking. There is a theory, not much believed, that Beethoven’s metronome was broken. More about this later.
Goodyear sits at the piano with his head bent over, keeping a close watch on his hands. He barely moves, letting the piano display his musical thinking rather than the usual swaying we see of often.
He could have more fun in the parts Beethoven intended to be fun—even silly on occasion. But, the funny parts get the same tense no-nonsense approach as everything else. Some levity would give the serious mood of the occasion a break.
The second session featured some of the heavy hitters: The Moonlight, Appassionata, The Tempest, The Pastoral and The Hunt. The first part of the second session had some of the bigger and more difficult sonatas, especially at Goodyear’s lightning tempi.
No. 12 (Op. 26) opens with a set of theme and variations. Beethoven loved to improvise variations and could play for hours on any given theme. The challenge in playing Beethoven’s variations is to revel in tinier differences but keep them sounding like they are in the same piece. Goodyear did a fine job except in variation 3, which is marked piano (soft). He was at a forte from the start. Later on, there are sforzando markings every measure on the beat, but it needs to come from a soft sound to have full impact.
No. 13 (Op. 27, No.1) is marked Sonata quasi una Fantasia (like a fantasia, which is a freely constructed piece). There is nothing quasi about it, though. Beethoven takes the listener on a journey that has many twists and turns. Goodyear’s tempi were fairly standard here, except in the Allegro molto e vivace. It was so molto that it sounded like something interpolated rather than actually in the sonata. With a very slow section on either side, and given its brevity, such a quick tempo made it sound ice it was
The first part of the second session had some of the bigger and more difficult sonatas, especially at Goodyear’s lightning tempi.
No. 15 is called The Pastoral and shows Beethoven’s return to more classical roots after his wild experimentations. Goodyear took this into consideration and layered the first movement with charm and grace. Occasionally, he let it get serious when a louder dynamic was marked. However, Beethoven just wants it louder—not add in a serious moment. Goodyear kept all of the tempi in Beethoven’s more modest scale, but couldn’t resist flying through the last couple of lines.
No. 16 is Beethoven at his most jocular. It is full of jokes that he surely shared with the audience with some sly looks and even an occasional wink—right from the opening loping rhythm with a limp, through some carnival music. There are passages that it’s easy to assume were included just so he could impress with his technique. He teases by coming to a complete stop, tarrying in a sudden adagio and then explodes into a coda at breakneck speed. Then, he does a false ending, with chords that continue just when you think it is over. The last ones are very soft and spaced apart, like an actor reluctant to leave the stage. From my seat, little of this came across in Goodyear’s performance and the relief would have been most welcome before we were back in sturm und drang with the Tempest sonata.
No. 17 is The Tempest, which, as the name implies, finds Beethoven at his most stormy and brings to mind the scowling portrait that is so familiar. Goodyear set appropriate tempi in this entire sonata. Even the last movement had grace but lots of virtuoso passages to let Goodyear strut his stuff. One very nice touch was to keep the pedal down during the two out of tempo recitatives. You could hear the notes echo in the piano’s harp, giving the passage an otherworldly and haunted sound.
No. 18 is Beethoven being cute again. The opening feels like it can’t quite get started and there are sudden and surprising changes of pace throughout. Beethoven returns to an outdated form by this time, a menuetto, but it acts as an interlude to the last movement, marked presto con fuoco (super fast and with fire). We knew that he was going to really take off because, before starting, Goodyear adjusted his seat and position at the keyboard.
Wow, was this fast! It was a thrilling ride. As in the very fast passages earlier, his fingers can run away from him, especially in repeated sequential passagework and that happened here. But it really didn’t matter. It was like a speeding car taking a corner only on the outside wheels with the others off the ground.
No. 21 is another famous sonata, but not universally known by the non-concert-going crowd. It is a monster and broke new ground in piano playing. Beethoven got a new piano that had some more notes on it and was able to play many new effects. He used everything he could think up in this sonata, called the Waldstein (after Count Waldstein, for whom it was written). Goodyear was at his most impressive (so far) with this piece.
He took the first movement at a very fast clip, but it was not out of line or rushed. The final rondo was also very fast and those who knew what was in store at the ending could hardly wait to see how fast he could possibly take the coda. He did not disappoint. Once again, he was at the threshold of “unplayable.” He didn’t have time to worry as he breezed through with an incredibly fast tempo and brought his outstanding performance to a breathtaking conclusion.
No. 22 opens classically, again with a menuetto. Not really, Beethoven says in the tempo of a menuetto. Good thing no one was trying to dance, because Goodyear took that indication as a recommendation rather than an instruction. But the sonata was a welcome break before we got to the Appassionata.
No. 23 is called Appassionata for good reason. It is a cri de coeur, full of explosions and stormy passagework. It is also his most difficult sonata up to this point, only to be eclipsed in that category by the Hammerklavier sonata (coming up).
Goodyear brought every ounce of energy in an effort to create a dramatic performance that would convey Beethoven’s roar of frustration. This was written in the year that the composer finally had to face that he was deaf and would soon lose what little hearing he had left. It is common to hear comments like “how did Beethoven survive such a devastating loss?” In this sonata, his rage is apparent and Goodyear presented it all for us to see in its rawest form. It was a stunning performance.
The evening session included some of the big-hitter sonatas. They are the most difficult to play and require an equal amount of both musicianship nimble fingers. Goodyear has plenty of both, so there was an air of expectation in the City Performance Hall as he took the stage.
The first two in this set, Sonatas Nos. 24 and 25, are quite different from the extravagance of the Appassionata that preceded them. No. 24 in particular is a picture of a much happier composer. Goodyear spent some emotional capital on the brief introduction, which made us regret that it never returns—a real departure for Beethoven, who usually worked his materials to the point of a compulsion. Goodyear took the second movement at a very fast pace. It is very difficult music to play; hard on the right hand and occasionally causing a traffic jam between the hands.
No. 25 is short. Beethoven called it a sonatina, but it is filled with some charming music. Goodyear took the fast outer movements at his usual breakneck speed. However, he gave the operatic-style duet in the slow movement ample room to sing.
No. 26 is a programmatic sonata, based on a specific story, the only one like this that Beethoven wrote. It has a title and text for each of the movements and tells a biographical story based in fact. Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, left Vienna just barely ahead of Napoleon’s arrival. The first movement portrays the composer’s goodbye, without knowing if the Archduke would ever return. The second movement depicts Beethoven’s nervous and anxiety-filled waiting for that return. The last movement is a joyful celebration when he does return unharmed.
Goodyear is not as convincing a storyteller as he is when expressing purely musical ideas. However, the last movement is marked to be played as fast as possible, in order to express the composer’s joy. Here, Goodyear was in his glory.
Many in the audience were impatient to get to the Hammerklavier and Nos. 27 and 28 felt like preparatory sonatas for the big event. No. 27 is a shorter work. It was well played throughout and, of special note, was Goodyear’s treatment of the lovely theme in the second movement. No. 28 feels even more like a warm-up for the Hammerklavier sonata that follows. Beethoven appears to be testing the limits of the piano (the instrument itself), his desire to maximize his use of it and to expand his harmonic language. Goodyear gave a good account of all of the twists and turns in this sonata and, as usual, the passagework was blindingly fast and clean.
You could feel a change in the hall as we finally arrived at No. 29, the Hammerklavier. This is Beethoven’s longest and most complex sonata; an extremely difficult sonata to play, both musically and physically. Many a fine pianist has floundered and even shipwrecked on its treacherous shoals. In fact, there is a controversy over its proper interpretation before it even starts. Everyone always anxiously awaits hearing the first notes to learn how the pianist resolves it.
This is the only sonata that Beethoven himself gave metronome markings and the very first one is the subject of many an argument down the ages, and still happens today. Beethoven marks it for the half note to be played at 138. This is really, really fast and most pianists pull it back somewhat (more about this later). Goodyear was just a little shy of that at 130, but closer than this writer has ever heard it played.
Actually, hearing it in Goodyear’s hands at this tempo caused a reconsideration of the entire first movement. In the program notes, Goodyear says that this movement “…pays homage to a Baroque composer, like Vivaldi.” At a slower tempo, the opening chords are fraught with grandeur, but at 138, they become a brass fanfare—a very common Baroque introduction.
On the downside, both the scherzo, which seemed to fly past us, and the profound slow movement, suffered from too heavy a hand as far as the dynamics. The clouds were thundering, but the soft passages never quite reached a true pianissimo, let alone the vocal term Beethoven uses, mezza voce (half voice). Further, it was impossible to hear if Goodyear used the una corda pedal where it is marked, at least in my edition.
(The piano uses three strings for most notes to give the instrument increased volume. This pedal shifts the action so that the hammer only strikes two of the three strings, creating a muted sound.)
The big fugue at the end was particularly impressive. Once again, it was taken at a very fast tempo. However, Goodyear‘s gift is more than nimble fingers. He is also able to achieve a clarity that allows you the hear all of Beethoven’s counterpoint skills, which are on full display.
Goodyear not only gave this sonata a nearly perfect performance, but his mastery was such that the overall impression of the Hammerklavier, for once, wasn’t how incredibly difficult this sonata is to play, but how interesting it is musically. For the first time it was easy to think, “what’s the big deal?” instead of “whew, he made it!”—and truly enjoy the music.
The last three sonatas, Nos. 30, 31 and 32 are all about experimentation in the sonata form. Beethoven planned them all while he was working on his profound Missa Solemnis and that serious nature, and striving to make a statement for the ages, carries over to them. He tries to break away from the standard three or four movement arrangement and create a more unified structure, yet one with flexibility within the musical boundaries.
In No. 30, the scherzo-like beginning changes to profundity in a matter of seconds. Goodyear started out the last movement, a set of variations, to slowly to achieve Beethoven’s “singing” tempo marking (cantabile or Gesangvoll, depending on edition). Once into the variations, Beethoven’s favorite, Goodyear pointed up their differences but always kept their origin front and foremost.
Goodyear started out No. 31 playing the melodic material in high operatic style although he had some balance problems with the accompanying left hand overpowering the solo line in the right one. The fast movement was quicksilver and sharp-edged and played almost completely without the use of the pedal.
One reservation: The series of chords at the end (in the coda) didn’t get the full measure of silence that Beethoven writes, so we lost the sense of tempo approaching the final scamper. Beethoven was a master at negative space and this is a great example of how silence needs to be as precise as sound.
The opening of the adagio movement was very slow indeed with Goodyear giving it total freedom. But once underway, his tempi were excellent. Later on in the movement, when Beethoven writes some Italian opera, Goodyear let it soar. You didn’t hear the balance problems between melody and accompaniment that was so noticeable before. The final fugue brought the trio sonatas of Bach to mind. Goodyear overused the sustaining pedal here occasionally, but he played it with the same clarity that he lavished on the fugue in the Hammerklavier.
When Goodyear arrived at No. 32, he still had the most difficult of all of them in front of him.
This is a monumental work. Its two movements stand both unified and completely contrasting at the same time. It also looks forward and backwards. The famous theme of the first movement can be found in his sketchbooks from almost 20 years prior but he also appears to conjure music that will arrive in the future. We hear proto-Chopin and Mendelssohn, even Prokofiev, not to mention some hints of jazz and even a trace of what would become boogie-woogie.
It is often observed that the end of this sonata is also the end of the piano sonata itself. A planned third movement never materialized and, hearing this sonata at the end of Goodyear’s 12-hour gripping journey through them all, you can understand why. Beethoven took the form from its infancy to a state of perfection. This sonata is his final statement of what the form, that was so personal to him both as a composer and pianist, had to say. He uses these two movements as bookends with an as yet unseen and unheard universe between them.
MOMENT OF GEEK:
Anytime someone programs the Hammerklavier sonata, the discussion of metronome markings comes up. This is a subject of fierce discussion among musicologists and performers alike. So, here are the facts:
Beethoven welcomed the invention of the metronome. He felt that it would allow his wishes about tempo to come down through the ages. However, the Hammerklavier is the only sonata for which Beethoven supplied such marks. All of the other metronome indications in the other sonatas were given to us by his pupil and disciple Cark Czerny.
Czerny is best known to legions of piano students by his volumes of uninspired technical studies, which casts some doubt on his insights. Further, he made the markings many years after Beethoven’s death, working from memory. In order to do so, he presumably put Beethoven’s tempo markings in a hierarchy from the slowest to the fastest and then assigned metronome markings based on similar tempi in other works (symphonies, chamber music, etc.) that Beethoven marked himself.
The controversy over the Hammerklavier is that the markings at the beginning, undeniably Beethoven’s own, seem to be very fast, even a misprint that robs the music of its nobility. As mentioned, Goodyear took Beethoven at his word and the effect was terrific—a splashy fanfare instead of profundity.
A metronome works on a pendulum principal. There is a large counter weight at the bottom of the moving indicator arm. It is housed below the wooden cabinet, so no one sees it. The movable sliding weight is much smaller. As it moves up the indicator, the clicking slows, and as it moves downward, it quickens. Accuracy depends on precise calibration. Some, who think that 138 is way too fast, suggest that Beethoven’s instrument was broken.
Beethoven’s metronome was eventually found, but unfortunately, it resolved nothing. It was missing the large counterweight, which would have told the tale.
One detailed scientific study reached the conclusion that Beethoven’s lower counterweight was out of alignment, perhaps from falling on the ground (or thrown in one of the composer’s legendary fits of rage). Here is the study’s final conclusion.
“Whatever the case, our mathematical analysis shows that a damaged double pendulum metronome could indeed yield (faster) tempi (than intended) consistent with Beethoven’s markings.”
Here is another interesting quote on the subject from a definitive text: Carl Reinecke’s Die Beethoven'schen Clavier-Sonaten. Briefe an eine Freundin, Leipzig 2nd edition, 1897, p. 97:
“B(eethoven) himself set the tempo of the Allegro at = 138 M.M., but certainly anyone would ask himself, if the grand character of the movement would not be better brought out at a somewhat slower tempo.”
However, a recent edition of the sonatas by Prof. Barry Cooper, the chair of the music faculty at Manchester University, came to the following and opposite conclusion.
“We appreciate now that Beethoven’s speeds were surprisingly fast,” Professor Cooper said. “And it’s significant that when Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny wrote about the speed marking in the Hammerklavier, he didn’t think it was impossible at all. He just said, ‘Work at it.’ Now I don’t think Czerny was always right, but I’ve taken the view in my edition that he was often a good guide.” (You can read more here.)
One last thought. Here is a chart from the Alfred edition of the sonatas that gives the tempo at which a number of great artists took the final sonatas.
As for the tempo of the opening of the Hammerklavier, Goodyear settled the matter—for me, at least.
138 it is.