Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven @ Koerner Hall by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 28, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Stewart Goodyear’s powerful account of four ‘named’ Beethoven sonatas brought out new meaning in each one. The “Tempest” is tempestuous. Goodyear let us hear that. Written in the ‘fatalistic’ key of D Minor, the opening theme offers two diametrically opposed tempos—largo, quiet and questioning— joined to a driving allegro that fulfills what Beethoven offered as the performance note, ” The piano must break.”

The insight Goodyear brings to the drama created by these contrasting states is in the spaces he allows. It is as if the struggle in Shakespeare’s play—between Prospero who works quietly to maintain dominance on the island, and the raging lust and intrigue of his enemies—pivot around the unwobbling space of the peace that resides in the natural heart of the island and in the pure hearts of Miranda and Ferdinand.

Listening to Goodyear’s two hands running the fast and the slow arpeggiated chords of the Finale allegretto into a marbled perpetual motion brought to mind the surging waves of music made by Philip Glass and other Minimalists. In this performance, it seems Goodyear bridged the hypnotic intensities of modern music and the music of Beethoven choosing to strive in his music for the impossible.

It is said that the Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, “Waldstein“, known by the French as “L’Aurore” for its light and serenity, was composed on a piano with an extended upper register. This brought the breadth and drama of the concerto to the sonata. Goodyear’s account brings out in the “Waldstein” the tonal richness, the idealism and lyrical dialogue of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, also written in 1805.

There is a melodic simplicity in the exposition of the first movement that compares with the nursery-rhyme rhythms one habitually hears in Mozart. The Adagio molto’s  gorgeous theme is repeated ostinato like a benediction passing into rhapsody. The concluding Allegretto moderato builds such tension in its 40 bar long flow of trills that we learn the meaning of ‘release from tension’ when Goodyear switches the pace to a clipped, spring-loaded trot.

Goodyear’s delicately played introduction to the “Moonlight” Sonata in C sharp minor moved very slowly, hypnotically, in undulating arpeggios. The Scherzo by contrast sped along like a keystone cop car-chase, which in its turn was sharply contrasted by the invigorating drama of the third movement. Goodyear obviously gave a lot of thought to contrasts and how to bring them out at every level of the music—tone, colour, dynamics, mood, and so on.

With the “Appassionata” in F minor Goodyear hit it out of the park. From the volatile start-and-stop rhythmic scheme of the introduction that prefigures the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony, to the Presto finale’s pounding blur of fury, Goodyear never backs away from the heroic challenge of this music.

What is new about this performance are the spaces where Goodyear allows Beethoven’s defiance to relent and to manifest redeeming emotions. The central section of the Andante second movement is played as if  improvised, jazzy, almost ragtime. And towards the end of the third movement, where the liquid flow of passion seems to be outrunning the pursuit of fate, he drops the music into a space of gentleness and peace, before punching out the last triumphal chord.

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