Tireless Beethoven from Goodyear

[Italian version here]

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: December, 2018

Ludwig van Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas
Stewart Goodyear, pianist
Marquis Music 774718151322 (10 CDs)

[Goodyear album cover]

When unloading our antiquated dishwasher, I sometimes like to quip to my wife, "You know what's wrong with this place? We don't have enough coffee mugs!" The joke, you'll have guessed, is that we are drowning in the things, some incautiously purchased because they reflected our hobbies, many more received over the years as gifts from my wife's piano students or from well-meaning friends. (Some come from I know not where--I suspect when our existing mugs find themselves in dark seclusion at the back of our cabinets, they breed.) In our personal Sorcerer's Apprentice nightmare, the magically animated broom carries water not in buckets but in coffee mugs, dozens and dozens of coffee mugs, which it proceeds to deposit at our feet before rushing back whence it came to haul in more.

Just as my wife and I have accumulated an embarrassment of coffee mugs, so the classical side of the record industry tends to do with recordings of certain "warhorse" works. Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is probably the most notorious example of repertory duplication run amok, but Beethoven's output--the symphonies; the concerti; and, most pertinent to this article, the piano sonatas, particularly those with popular names--also figures prominently. Curiously, many of the master's sonatas were not available on records at all until Artur Schnabel waxed the first complete set in the 1930s; that pioneering traversal has rarely or never been out of print since, and once the transitions from 78s to LPs and then from LPs to CDs eased the practical issues presented by complete sets, the record companies made up for lost time by releasing successor set after set by names distinguished and obscure. Just a few noteworthy examples are Backhaus, Kempff, Nat, Fischer (Annie; Edwin's mark on recording history is the first complete recording of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, not a Beethoven sonata cycle), Barenboim, Ashkenazy, Brendel, Arrau, Goode, Bishop Kovacevich...

...and now Goodyear.

Although by no means entirely a newcomer, Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear is a relatively recent arrival on the world's concert stages. His academic credentials include stints at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, then Curtis and Juilliard, but he made his big splash early on by performing all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas back to back, in order, in recital on a single day. By his own account, his love of music and determination to become a concert pianist came from hearing his father's complete cycle of these works on records at age three, and "I knew that my first solo recordings must start with all of them."

And so they did, the result of a series of sessions at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio beginning in mid-January 2010 and continuing, off and on, until early February 2012. Eventually, they would span 10 CDs issued as a set on Marquis, a Canadian label new to me but apparently active since 1981. Along the way, Marquis released two groups extracts: sonatas 13 through 18 as "Beethoven: The Middle Sonatas" and sonatas 28-32 as "Beethoven: The Late Sonatas." Later, Goodyear and Marquis followed up with a recording of the Diabelli Variations, outside the scope of this review but now high on my Christmas want list.

Of course, what I'll actually get is a coffee mug.

Needless to say, the competition in this monumental body of literature is fierce, posing the question from the outset: when we can hear recordings of Schnabel, Kempff, Backhaus, and the like, why pay attention to those of some Canadian johnny-come-lately on an obscure non-budget label? The answer lies in something Artur Schnabel himself said, albeit in a broader context: "I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed." Beethoven's sonatas certainly qualify as such; in them, Beethoven threw down the gauntlet to every pianist who would follow. Goodyear should be heard because, rising to the challenge, in most he picks the gauntlet up and throws it right back at him.

A corollary of "better than it can be performed" is that no complete set can be perfect. Because Goodyear's is so strong in so many ways, let's start with its weak points to clear the decks. I'd say the most serious is his account of the Appassionata sonata, the sole instance of what I'd call a "misfire" in the entire set. What a deceptively tough nut that recital hall staple turns out to be! I've been listening for my "ideal" recorded performance for decades, and I have yet to hear it, although some have come close. The usual problem is the first movement coda: those who play it with passion tend to be messy; those who play it cleanly tend to fall short on passion. The nearly forgotten Aline van Barentzen (French HMV, 78 RPM) came tantilizingly close, pretty much nailing that treacherous passage and overall brimming with passion--but then in the coda of the last movement she took weird pauses that badly disrupted what should have been an inexorable climax. Artur Rubinstein (RCA Victor, 78 RPM) had passion to burn, but his first movement coda was a mess. Anthony Newman (Newport Classics CD), on a period piano, is exciting and may well come closest to sounding the way notorious string-snapper Beethoven himself would have--in that third movement coda, he overplays the instrument so hard, the strings are jangling off their bridges--but a period instruments piano recording is more a stimulating supplement than a first choice. I've liked Sviatoslav Richter (RCA CD) and Artur Pizarro (Pentatone SACD), but for reasons I can't explain somehow neither one has quite clinched it for me. And so it goes.

Having played one or two other sonatas first, I had high hopes for Goodyear's account, but, alas, they proved fruitless. The performance struck me as good, solid, but too polite, a real oddity in a set that otherwise has a "caution to the winds" character. The playing is clean, to be sure--a hallmark of Goodyear's performances is immaculate fingerwork, sometimes astonishingly so at the tempos he adopts--and the tempos are more than bracing, but for all that, the performance seems detached, not at all consistent with its setmates.

I should also note that the set's packaging is spartan, if efficient. The discs are housed in generic paper envelopes of the sort on sale in boxes of 100 at any Target store . The outer packaging is a slip case of flimsy cardboard, considerably thinner than what you'd typically remove when opening up a new men's shirt. Mine was already wrinkled when it arrived in the mail (I mean the slip case, not my shirt--well, let's leave matters sartorial out of this!). Deluxe it is not, although it does have the virtue of taking up very little shelf space, and at least the envelopes avoid the silliness of adhesive on the flaps hindering removal of the discs for play, as is the case in, for example, Annie Fischer's set on Hungaroton.

By contrast, in most respects the booklet is uncommonly good. Goodyear, following in the footsteps of violinist Hillary Hahn, writes his own program notes rather than leaving them to a label copy writer; like hers, his are personalized reflections on the music offering articulate, lively, and engaging little windows into the thinking behind his interpretations, a refreshing alternative the usual "this-sonata-opens-with-a-three-note-motif-followed-by-a-ten-bar-development" sort of thing. Appearing before his musings is a complete track list (better not lose it--none is on the outside packaging), and inside the back cover are the credits and general recording dates. Alas, while these listings are admirably comprehensive in most respects--they even go so far as to list the wardrobe source and makeup artist for the artist's photos sprinkled liberally throughout the booklet--they make one glaring omission: nowhere do they divulge what piano or pianos Goodyear played during the recording sessions. Consulting the Web does not entirely clarify matters: Goodyear's name appears on the roster of Steinway artists, and the site includes a one-liner endorsement of that storied company's wares, but in the video below, made at the Glenn Gould studios around the time of the recordings, Goodyear plays a Baldwin.

My other concerns, such as they are, fall more into the category of "cautions" than "flaws." Most generally, these performances are a "young man's" Beethoven. The pianist's interpretations are neither short in feeling nor lacking in depth, but they are swift, decisive, and athletic, affecting generally quick tempos and making every dynamic contrast stand out in bold relief. In the complex, multifaceted character Beethoven poured into these personal testaments, Goodyear most often teases out the aggressive Beethoven; the Beethoven of abrupt contrasts and unexpected turns; the defiant Beethoven who, his life ebbing away during a raging thunderstorm, abruptly sits up in his bed, shakes his fist at the heavens, and falls back dead. Bracing, exhilerating stuff, but probably not to everyone's taste; I'd say the performances probably will have more appeal to admirers of, say, Arturo Toscanini than to those of Otto Klemperer. I suspect on first hearing many might have the same reaction as my wife, herself a classical trained pianist who studied with a "name" artist of an earlier generation, when I played the first movement of Goodyear's Hammerklavier for her: "I don't know if I love it or hate it. He certainly paints in black and white with very broad strokes."

I think it's fair to say that Goodyear's approach goes straight to the core of strength at the heart of Beethoven's idiom. In "better than it can be played" literature, such an interpretive choice inevitably will downplay other qualities, and so it proves here: I won't pretend that Goodyear always makes as much of Beethoven's reflective, tranquil, and humorous moments as do some other pianists. Are they underplayed or, worse, entirely lacking? No. Are Goodyear's interpretations unsmiling or deadpan? No. Nonetheless, these qualities are important aspects of what has kept Beethoven's music at the center of the standard repertoire for more than 200 years now, and they tend not to be the focus of Goodyear's performances. For example, Goodyear's quick tempo and precise fingers make the first movement of the Sonata no. 25 in G, op. 79, a glittery affair indeed, but at the end the pianist glosses over the slyly dissonant restatement of the first theme, one of those instances in which Beethoven was clearly playing for laughs. Back in the mid-1980s, over several weeks National Public Radio broadcast a composite complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas, in which several pianists played recitals of a few each. I forget who drew the op. 79--a young Richard Goode, perhaps?--but whoever it was ended the third movment with a slight rallentando and elicited an audible, contented "aaaahhh" a split second before the audience broke into applause. Goodyear's less relaxed take is lively, pointed, stimulating--in short, on its own terms delightful, and true to the spirit of Beethoven--but I dare say its slightly clipped final note, albeit in character, would not draw a similar response.

Some previous reviewers have complained about the recorded sound of this set, but I don't understand why, other than that rather than being crammed right into the piano case up against the strings, the microphones seem to have been set far enough from the piano that its sound has a chance to blend naturally with just a bit of room ambiance. To my ear, the result has plenty of immediacy but no overbright glare, impact that conveys the pianist's sharp attack without devolving into ugly percussiveness. Goodyear does not hesitate to play up Beethoven's wide-ranging dynamics. He also shows no fear of deviating from the pedagogue's admonitions of "the treble must always be louder than the bass" to bring out the bass when appropriate, and he conclusively demonstrates how very often bringing out the bass is appropriate in this literature. The recording engineers capture both these aspects of his art with complete success.

Please try to contain your disappointment, but I don't intend to write a detailed assessment of each sonata. Instead, I'll pick out a few to give you the flavor of what I think is a remarkable set. We've already covered the Appassionata; here are my impressions of a few others:

No. 3 in C, op. 2 no. 3.This early essay finds Beethoven still inhabiting the capital-C-Classical world, but the germs of what we think of as "Beethovenian" are already sprouting, and Goodyear emphatically plays up the contrast between the two. In the first movement, Goodyear's clean, precise fingerwork and clear, bell-like tone make all the passagework sound like a robust brand of Haydn (with whom, after all, Beethoven studied at around that time), while his keen sense of dynamics play up all the twists and turns and "power passages" that foreshadow the Beethoven of "middle period" fame. In the second movement, Goodyear shows that he is plenty capable of tenderness when he wants to be, and again his interpretation stands with one leg in the Classical world and the other in that of later Beethoven. The scherzo is pure, explosive Beethoven, little "Classical" about it (although I still hear occasional, faint echoes of several little Mozart pieces Tchaikowsky mined in assembling his Mozartiana suite); the fourth movement, in Goodyear's hands, is a skittish thing with a lovely, lyrical interlude but always moving like the wind. Overall, Goodyear shows the third sonata to be a worthy member of the family in its own right, not just a distant ancestor whose dusty portrait hangs amidst the hunting prints and landscape paintings in the drawing room of the op. 31 set.

No. 15 in D, op. 28 ("Pastorale"). Here's a good example of what I meant by describing Goodyear's approach as being first about the aggressive Beethoven while not lacking for feeling. In this sonata, which brings out Beethoven's soft-grained side, Goodyear achieves a lovely sense of delicacy and warmth. As so often in this set, his keen sense of dynamics; spotlessly clean fingerwork; and clear but never percussive tone, with its strong projection of bass lines when appropriate, serve him well here, allowing the artist to place the sonata's lyrical quiet within a strong structural context. So, delicacy and warmth--but lurking inside that velvet glove is a decidedly steel hand. In his program notes, Goodyear describes the scherzo as a noteworthy example of Beethoven's humor, and he brings out that aspect, although perhaps not as clearly as some others I've heard. On the other hand, in the last movement he clearly projects the little high figures that probably represent birdie tweets, not always so evident in other recordings, and his gallop to the end of the coda is positively ecstatic.

No. 25 in G, op. 79. Please let me add a brief elaboration to what I wrote above about this sonata. Goodyear's traversal of the first movement, Presto alla tedesca, at first struck me as very fast. Imagine my surprise, then, when I compared several other recordings and found that its timing fell somewhere in the middle. Against Goodyear's 4:29, Artur Schnabel, for example, takes 4:03, Annie Fischer 4:39, Bruno Leonardo Gelber 4:53, and Gerard Willems 5:00. In comparison with Fischer's, Goodyear's tempo seems faster by much more than a ten-second difference would suggest. I think we have here a fine illustration of an observation by Harvey Sachs, in his biography of Arturo Toscanini, that perfectly even playing sounds faster than playing that is less so even at the same tempo. Annie Fischer is no slouch, but Goodyear's fingerwork throughout the cycle is astonishing.

No. 26 in E-Flat, op. 81a ("Les Adieux"). Time for a terrible confession: this sonata, for all the appeal of its underlying story line, has not worn well with me over the ca. 40 years since my first (at the time, favorable) encounter with it in Artur Rubinstein's 78 RPM set from 1940. To my way of thinking, Beethoven's enduring power is his ability to package powerful emotion into abstract forms, and it suffers when constrained by a defined program--witness the composer's struggles to bring Fidelio into workable form. Granted, the Pastoral symphony works, but its "plot" is more of a general outline into which the composer can pour his love of nature. In this sonata, by contrast, the story is strictly defined as "Narrator's friend leaves on a journey; Narrator misses friend; Narrator rejoices when friend returns." Far more concrete than, say, "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arriving in the country," and hence far more restrictive. Nonetheless, Goodyear makes this work one of the high points of his cycle. He imbues the first movment with a real sense of the hurrying and scurrying attendant on trying to get set for a long journey, and if (as noted above) "tender longing" is not always his strongest suit, he compensates with intensity that conveys the anxiety of separation in an age when communications were next to nonexistent and travel was fraught with uncertainty, if not outright danger. Goodyear saves the best for last, however: in his hands, the final movement, taken at a headlong tempo and milking Beethoven's dynamics for everything they're worth, communicates overwhelming joy and excitement better than any other account I've heard. This performance elevates a piece that's tough to pull off right up to top drawer status--quite an achievement.

No. 29 in B-Flat, op. 106 ("Hammerklavier"). If for some reason you can listen to only a single recording from Goodyear's set, make it this one. In his program annotations, Goodyear observes, "No other sonata has inspired such discussion, dissection and argument than this one. It has been called the 'Mount Everest' of sonatas, the striving for Elysium, a scale so massive and imposing, mere mortals cannot come close to it. ... Almost everything about this sonata encourages bloodshed between musicians, the biggest thing being the metronome markings in the score. The first movement is marked half-note=138, a marking deemed by many to be utterly ridiculous." (For those not versed in such things, that marking is extremely fast for music of such density and complexity.) Needless to say, Goodyear does not fall in that camp; he takes Beethoven at his word and plays the first movement at the specified tempo, and his combination of blazing speed and flawless technique simply must be heard to be believed. The musical results are justification enough, but Goodyear, himself a composer as well as a pianist, offers an interesting perspective on why that controversial metronome marking actually makes sense: "[It] is correct, if one thinks of the movement as being in homage to a baroque concerto movement, and not 'Mount Everest.' The movement begins with a fanfare, followed by a dialogue between voices or instruments, leading to another full-orchestral fanfare utterance. This is very similar to how a Bach or Vivaldi first movement would be composed." The listener must make up his own mind, of course (see my wife's comment above), but this listener would note that others have remarked on the work's orchestral character, and Beethoven is known to have learned all Bach's Well Tempered Clavier in his youth and to have admired Baroque era composers, particularly Handel. What of the other movements? Goodyear takes the little scherzo at a fairly conventional tempo, about 10 seconds faster than Annie Fischer and about 10 seconds slower than Friedrich Wuhrer in the 1952 recording I recommended back just before TNT's summer break, but Goodyear's incisive fingers pay extra dividends here. The fugue he takes again at a brisk clip, 10:35 as against Fischer's 11:25 and Wuhrer's 12:04, and even that comparison is deceptive, because Goodyear dwells longer over the "improvisatory introduction," which he justly characterizes as "utter magic." Therefore, once he launches into the fugue proper, his tempo is even more brisk than the timing would lead you to believe. I'd give the crown for the introduction to Goodyear without reservation; he really does make it magical, although, in fairness, his more modern recording helps here. As to the body of the movement proper, both Goodyear and Wuhrer give powerful, bass-driven accounts, but an imprecise analogy would be that Goodyear is a fast, powerful sports car, Wuhrer a heavy, powerful steam locomotive. Goodyear is faster out of the gate, but Wuhrer gains implacable momentum as he gathers steam. Goodyear's power comes with agility, Wuhrer's with mass. Each account takes the listener on its own form of fantastic journey, and each is compelling in its own way.

About now, alert readers will be asking, "What about the third, slow movement? What many call the heart of the piece? You skipped over that one." Ah, here is where Wuhrer gets some of his own back. Goodyear's account is by no means callow, unfeeling, uncaring, or undigested; he views the movement as "pure anguish ... All the elements of human suffering seem to be in this movement...." He certainly does his best to convey this view, and with some success. It's probably telling, however, that he writes at length about the first and last movements but only a couple of sentences about this one, and I think it's fair to say Goodyear's performance of the piece as a whole finds its foundations in the outer movments. By contrast, the slow movement is the glory of Wuhrer's performance, deep, meditative, quietly--or not so quietly--emotional. The music puts a premium on precisely the characteristics that were Wuhrer's strength, starting with a rich, warm piano tone. Goodyear's best tools--his athleticism, his razor-sharp fingerwork, his sensitivity to dynamic contrasts and developmental twists and turns--certainly are not out of place, but in my opinion they are not as innately suited to this movement's demands as are Wuhrer's, rooted in capital-R-Romanticism. Please don't get me wrong: I'm not disparaging Goodyear in any way, but I am suggesting that in this segment of this exceedingly complex work Wuhrer has something very special to say and comes closer than Goodyear to its core.

As you can probably tell, I'm more than enthusiastic about this set. So this year, if you're puzzling over the perfect gift for yourself or a music-loving friend or family member, why not do something a little daring? Skip that hackneyed coffee mug and buy a copy of Stewart Goodyear playing Beethoven instead, one of the individually issued extracts (if forced to choose, reluctantly I'd plump for the set of "late" sonatas, which includes his incandescent Hammerklavier) or, if you're feeling generous, maybe the entire sonata cycle. In the long run, it likely will prove a headier brew than can be extracted from the darkest of dark roast espresso beans, and it won't require a rinse in the kitchen sink after every use.

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Copyright 2018 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com