JWR Articles: Live Event - Beethoven Piano Sonatas (Featured performer: Stewart Goodyear) - July 29, 2010 id="543337086">

Beethoven Piano Sonatas

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Mammoth task lacks weight and breath

Despite some reports to the contrary, Stewart Goodyear is in no danger of being heralded as a Beethoven specialist. Surely it must be a dream of every serious pianist to learn and perform all 32 sonatas just as much of the concert-going public never seems to tire of this truly fantastic collection of themes and ideas, moods and emotions which reveal themselves differently at every hearing.

With Opus 49, Nos. 1 and 2 conveniently dispatched at the 10:00 a.m. “Musical Musings” (giving rise to some logistical musical chairs as the crowd shifted between the studio and the sanctuary), the trio of sonatas which comprise Op. 2 continued the series in earnest. With the dedication to Joseph Haydn reminding us of that master’s special affinity for sonata form, it could only be hoped that even as Beethoven began his magnificent journey into new possibilities that the basic elements to realize his intentions would be a given, rather than value added.

Goodyear has considerable experience and remarkable intuition but was unable to let the phrases and structure breathe or provide the necessary weight/wait to give these performances an overarching sense of surety, clarity and control. To be sure, there was much excitement, yet—disappointingly—most of that was self-generated: scores of flying notes led the intrepid performer on chase after frantic chase instead of being harnessed for purposeful, poised revelation.

The opening “Allegro” (Op. 2, No. 1) was a prime example of the need for microseconds of air to realize the content: notably the liquid, minor-ninth rich second subject; the closing material also lost its balancing impact compared to the dryness of the arpeggio theme. The “Adagio” was blessed with a fine tempo and singing lines; perhaps a notch slower pace for the “Menuetto” (allegrettos are often faster than necessary) would have better prepared the way for the stormy “Finale.” There, the wild ride never had a chance to settle into its determined skin.

Even more than No. 1, the first frame of No. 2 must find the pulse in order for the initial phrases to begin with upbeats; focusing the swirling 32nd notes on their targets instead of themselves would go a long way to relieving this deficiency. The study of length and repeated-note lines which infuses every measure of the “Largo appassionato” was given an uneven result: the “staccato sempre” bass seldom arid enough while its opposite melodic counterpart was unable to provide enough colour to sustain interest. (Nearby listeners took this moment as their cue to begin the needlepoint, next chapter or crossword puzzle.) The “Scherzo” did play and an admirable balance was maintained between light and legato. The concluding “Rondo” had too many notes and not enough “grazioso,” the frequent dotted rhythms—coexisting in a sea of triplets—didn’t keep their duple integrity.

The C Major Sonata—certainly the most challenging of the three—never really found its groove. The tightly knit syncopations had more panic than rhythmic tension; the E Major “Adagio” was a welcome breath of fresh air while the “Scherzo,” once the pulse was established, had much to enjoy. The inner depths and carefree playfulness of the “Allegro assai,” had to be left for another day

The two sonatas heard the following day (Nos. 4 and 5) were much improved. When planning a cycle that spans so many years in their creation, one wonders if the composer’s own development is taken into account in terms of dynamics, tempi and harmonic architecture. Should/does a sfzorzando in Op. 2 have the same weight as Op. 111? Clearly, Goodyear is using the same paint box for the lot, which may be a valid approach (there being—of course—no actual recordings to compare), yet the edgy attacks in Op. 4 seem at odds with the many radiant lines around them.

The opening movement of Op. 10, No. 1 flew by breathlessly: more presto than “Allegro molto e con brio” (fire doesn’t necessarily imply faster). The lyrical second subject—once started—immediately began losing the sense of arrival that its preceding transition so lovingly sets up. The “Adagio molto” was a great pleasure with a wonderful feeling of moving forward without rushing the pace. Given the speed of the first movement, the “Finale” (prestissimo) lost some of its punch but most certainly thrilled the capacity crowd. JWR

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Featured performer - Stewart Goodyear
Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2, No. 2
Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3
Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major, Op. 7
Sonata No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1
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