I travel quite a bit for work. This means time away from home and the piano, and that of course in turn means limited practice time. So I’ve decided to concentrate on just a few Beethoven piano sonatas and drop everything else. This poses a tremendous technical and interpretive challenge, especially since I am lacking in technique. It takes me a long time to do things which would be relatively easy for other more accomplished pianists. But I get there eventually, which is tremendously satisfying.
So why did I choose such difficult music? It’s because Beethoven’s piano sonatas have become utterly fascinating to me, particularly from his middle and late periods. When I was attempting a couple of Beethoven sonatas 25 – 30 years ago I didn’t really didn’t ‘get’ it at all. Not even when I started playing the piano again in 2006, when I bought the Kawai K-8.
Then in July 2007, on a flight home from Hong Kong to Singapore, I watched a segment from “Barenboim on Beethoven” on the in-flight entertainment system. It was part of a master class that he gave on Beethoven sonatas, and was broadcast on BBC 4 back in May 2005. His ‘pupil’ in the segment was Jonathan Biss, and they were working on the third movement of Op. 109.
The whole experience was for me very educational. Many ‘Ah Ha!’ lights came on in my head. I’d never listened much to late-Beethoven before because it seemed somehow disconnected from Bach, Mozart and Haydn. I had no idea that the last three Beethoven sonatas were so sublime. I literally had goose bumps and tingles listening to Biss play.
When Barenboim critiqued Biss’ playing even more light bulbs came on. It showed me how much scholarship and thinking is needed in order to discover all the subtlety in a piece of music. Of course, I’d never been to a masterclass before, so watching it was an epiphany of sorts.
It was amazing to me to be shown how tempi, line, harmony, and dynamics collectively shape the experience of the whole movement and indeed the whole sonata. It’s something that many of us sort of understand, but don’t really get in a concrete and conscious way. The amazing thing is that even very small phrases, sometimes just a single note played in a particular way in relation to the surrounding notes can either add to or take away from experiencing the music in an organic way.
After that I started to buy Beethoven cycles on CD. At last count I had five – Arrau, Brendel, Barenboim (on DVD, including the master classes), Kempff, and Kovacevich – and individual sonatas recorded by Rubinstein, Ashkenazy, Schabel, Gieseking, Solomon, and a couple of others I don’t remember offhand. I now listen primarily to Arrau.
I also started to buy different editions of the Beethoven sonatas (six at last count). I play from the Edition Peters edited by Arrau. And of course I acquired literature on Beethoven, his sonatas, and the piano practice thereof.