Pianist explains to Christopher Morley why he is performing Beethoven's 32 sonatas again.
The first instalment in a complete cycle of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas is to be performed by internationally-renowned pianist Peter Donohoe at Birmingham Conservatoire.
When he takes to the stage on Sunday, it will be the 11th time that the Conservatoire vice-president has played this “New Testament” of the piano as a single project.
“The first ever time I played them together was in the Schauspielhaus in East Berlin in 1987. That was a very daunting prospect, considering the East German audience’s level of understanding of music – particularly German music!
“This was of course just before the re-unification of Germany and the taking down of the Berlin Wall, and there was a very special atmosphere in the Eastern Bloc at the time, which made it even more memorable.”
Peter expands upon the importance of Beethoven to his career.
“He was the composer who most drew me into the music world in the first place, and now I feel so strongly that his works laid the foundation of almost all piano music since their composition that I need to play them all as regularly as possible,” he explains.
“That’s an almost addictive desire. I developed the same feeling towards Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues (the “Old Testament” of the piano), and the music of Chopin – these three composers the Everest of piano-playing.”
Among Donohoe’s remaining ten cycles of the Beethoven sonatas has been one at the CBSO centre in 1999. He always performs them in chronological order of composition, though the published opus numbers can be confusing (the two sonatas of Op.49, for example, preceded the three of Op.2).
“I love the way each sonata seems to point to the next, and the same goes for each of the eight programmes. In fact, we are very lucky that each programme does seem to ‘fit’ – there is no sense in which it seems incomplete, and each programme seems to work independently as well as in sequence.
“And that’s enhanced enormously by the fact that the very last of the sonatas is, in the opinion of many, the greatest, and possibly even the greatest single piano work of all time. This in itself makes playing them in order very logical.”
Yet Peter has a great fondness for the earlier sonatas.
“The first two programmes are for me almost my favourites, partly because the genius of all of the works never fails to surprise me, and any comparison with the more famous sonatas almost increases one’s admiration for the less-known ones.
“All those early sonatas are so bubbling over with originality and vitality that to miss them in the great scheme of the whole would be a shame. So if any of your readers is thinking of coming to one or more of these recitals, please do not miss out on the early ones. Better still, come to them all!”
Peter is planning to precede each recital with an introductory talk from the platform. How does he prepare for this?
“Actually, I never prepare my pre-concert talks. I used to, but now I find that my own response to the people who attend the talks and the things they ask and observe gives us all a chance to feel part of the same ‘family’.
“I often go on stage to do these talks with a level of trepidation and a sense that I don’t have a clue what to say, but somehow it always works out far better than if I prepare a university-style lecture.
“I’ve begun to realise that to be a true artist it’s important to reveal yourself completely, and the honest difference between aspiration and reality.
“To me this is one of the fundamentals of real art, rather than aspiring to be an icon. A pre-concert discussion is one way of revealing yourself, and I’ve found that audience members appreciate it. It’s also a way of forcing me to be able to put into words what can so easily remain an illogical ‘feeling’ about the music if you don’t elucidate them in this way.”
All the proceeds from this complete Beethoven sonata cycle are being devoted to endow scholarships for young pianists.
“I’ve always wanted to encourage young pianists to be as broad in their taste and knowledge of music as possible, so originally I wondered if we should describe it as an award for versatility. I wanted it not to be just another prize for playing a particular group of pieces well on the piano, but for demonstrating something in that performance that indicated a desire on the part of the young artist to be what I always wanted to be myself, to have a cultural awareness.
“The idea is for me to play concerts in the Conservatoire periodically to gradually build up a fund that is invested, and the prize will be taken annually from the interest earned on that. They tell me that the invested figure needs to be at least £15,000 to produce a sizeable prize. It’s a good idea to aim high, but in reality anything that creates something to work towards, even a small amount, is just that – something to work towards. The more there is available to students to encourage them to go on, the better!”
Another acclaimed pianist in whose career the Beethoven sonatas have loomed large is the Canadian Louis Lortie, who has just released a recording of the complete cycle on the Chandos label.
Early next month, Louis comes to Birmingham to give performances of Beethoven’s epic Emperor Concerto with the CBSO, soon after recording the complete Liszt Annee’s de Pelerinage for that composer’s bicentenary next year.
How does he bring a freshness to the Emperor, given that he must have played it countless times?
“Well, usually just meeting a new conductor, and perhaps an orchestra with which you’ve never played, it’s just give and take.
“I remember one of the last times I played this, with Mark Elder, it was wonderful, because he’s from that school of young conductors who really has a fresh approach to this repertoire. I remember that he insisted that the strings played with as little vibrato as possible, and everything just sounded so different, so wonderful. It immediately became a different piece.”
Louis is also active these days as a conductor in his own right, and I ask him whether this ever arouses any conflict in rehearsals when he is performing as a soloist under the baton of someone else.
“Well, it can sometimes happen. It’s a matter of attitude. There are certain situations in which you come to a sort of a dead end, and that’s unfortunate. For some reason there’s a static attitude with soloists in general.
“If I have a problem with a conductor, you have to put yourself in their shoes. A lot of conductors are going to impose, they have different soloists every week, and it’s very frustrating.
“We as soloists have many more programmes as recitalists, in which we have much more influence over what we do. I think conductors would be better off if they did half their programmes without soloists.”
* Peter Donohoe begins his Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Birmingham Conservatoire on November 21 (4pm, pre-concert talk 3pm), tel: 0121 303 2323.
* Louis Lortie plays Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the CBSO, Thomas Dausgaard conducting, at Symphony Hall on December 8 (7.30pm) and 11 (7pm), tel: 0121 780 3333.