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6 minutes reading time (1259 words)

The day of the thirty-two: Stewart Goodyear performs a Beethoven marathon

I recently endured something that probably no human should attempt.

​I heard, on Saturday, October 5, 2013, in Davis, California, at the University of California, Stewart Goodyear perform ALL of Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas IN ONE DAY. Since this was Mr. Goodyear's fourth reading of the "New Testament"—he had already performed this series in Toronto, Dallas, and at Princeton University—I assumed that by now the guy knew what he was getting himself into. So I decided that if he was still brave/foolish enough to perform them, then I would be brave/foolish enough to listen.

The playing was near miraculous. To my utter amazement, there never was a genuine memory slip the entire day. Maybe one or two passages disappeared into a pedal-induced haze, and maybe once or twice the left hand opted to sit out a bar or two, but on the whole it was an astonishing feat. One could argue that a few (but really very few) of the sonatas were still a bit "green around the edges," but considering that Mr. Goodyear is a mere thirty-five years old, he can easily be forgiven those few needing a bit more ripening. The big surprise of the morning was the fact that, excepting Opp. 49 and 79, all repeats of all sonata-movement expositions were omitted; a move that had the purists up in arms, but it was a necessary compromise, and life is full of compromises! All quibbles aside, this was monumental piano playing.

At 10 a.m. sharp, Stewart Goodyear walked on stage, quickly disposed of the Op. 49 gems and then got down to serious business, playing all three Op. 2 sonatas back to back—without even leaving the stage. These are great compositions, deeply satisfying to listen to, and remain to this day powerful introductions to the young Beethoven's genius.

Almost exactly four hours later the first segment of this three part series ended. As we applauded Mr. Goodyear off the stage and headed into the beautiful California sunshine to devour our pre-purchased lunches, I was stunned that we still had so far to go. We were only up to Op. 22, and we had only heard one of the "named" sonatas, the "Pathetique," Op. 13.

It is easy to forget that there are eleven of these early sonatas—fully one-third of Beethoven's total output—and all are masterworks; but it was only during this performance that I fully realized their immense significance. These were the works that formed, and then transformed the young composer. These sonatas are long, complex, highly inspired, and the product of great effort. I realized just how very hard Beethoven worked to perfect his craft.

Our one hour lunch break ended all too soon, and at precisely 3 p.m. Stewart was back on stage to commence part two, and it was time for the "money" sonatas: "Moonlight," "Pastoral," "Tempest," "Waldstein," and "Appassionata." This was also the part that drew the largest audience, nearly twice the size of the opening portion, and there is good reason that these are Beethoven's most popular works. They exude—maybe sometimes even overflow with—energy, enthusiasm, optimism, grandeur, and heroism, as well as dazzling pyrotechnics. These are sonatas that proclaim achievement and triumph, even as they struggle through difficulty and adversity. With each one, Beethoven carries us farther and farther along on his journey into uncharted territory.

By the time Beethoven's sorcery and Stewart Goodyear's fingers catapulted us through the final presto of the "Appassionata," I was exhausted. It took real stamina to stay alert and focused through these intensely driving, emotionally charged pieces. I have no idea how Mr. Goodyear was holding up, but I definitely wondered if I was going to make it.

The dinner break lasted a merciful two hours; but promptly at 8:30 p.m., now more than ten hours into our mutual marathon, Goodyear was back on stage and we were back in our seats. That was when it all began to make sense, and I started to understand the real point of this exercise. Despite this all-but-super-human feat of physical endurance and mental acuity; it was the journey itself that was the ultimate accomplishment, and we were not yet at our destination. Like so many of the early explorers in America, it did not matter that we had already come a thousand miles. The Rocky Mountains still had to be crossed before we could arrive at our Pacific Paradise, and the messy business of mountain climbing was about to begin.

As Op. 101 unfolded I realized just how much this piece is a continuation of the Op. 57 "Appassionata," and how much that sonata is a continuation of the Op. 53 "Waldstein." Each is an ongoing disintegration (for lack of a better word) of all that had come before. In each sonata the harmonies are bolder and more dissonant, the rhythms more jagged, the dynamic changes more abrupt and disruptive. Despite our fatigue, it was no longer difficult to stay alert and focused. It was almost as if we were watching in fear and uncertainty as some narrowly averted catastrophe unfolded before our eyes. Something we were powerless to prevent and could only watch with disbelief, yet at the same time with complete fascination and awe.

Stewart accepted our Op. 101 applause, and, without even leaving the stage, returned to the keyboard, and with an almost rashly wild abandon launched into "THAT ONE"—the "Hammerklavier." Beethoven's Götterdämmerung, his apocalypse. This massive and powerful culmination of concepts that had, in truth, already revealed themselves in Op. 2, No 1, had reached climaxes of grandeur in Opp. 53 and 57, and had accelerated in Op. 101, were now irreversible. The first movement at least made an attempt to put on a powdered wig and satin trousers, but they clearly no longer fit and were quickly cast off as completely irrelevant. By the end of the slow movement we were no longer even on earth, and the fourth movement fugue was so super-humanly astonishing in every way that we could only sit with mouths agape, as Beethoven, aided in no small part by Mr. Goodyear's impressive musicianship, hurled us through outer space—to places unknown.

At the close of Op. 106, we were granted one final intermission, and I suspect everyone, maybe even the performer, wondered how it would be possible to regroup and return to somehow bring this massive project to culmination. I cannot say exactly when Op. 109 began, for it emerged out of complete silence, and I believe I saw Mr. Goodyear's fingers move before I heard any sound, as he nudged the slightest bit of vibration out of the piano strings, just enough to create audible music.

During Opp. 109, 110, and 111—we sat transfixed. Was there ever a quieter audience? Forget about moving, we hardly dared breathe. Was this how Columbus felt as he sighted land, how Neil Armstrong felt as he stood on the moon? The journey was complete; the goal had been reached; life had been lived.

As the clock neared midnight and the final notes of Op. 111 faded away, Stewart Goodyear sat motionless, hands in mid-air, and there was total silence. He then put his hands in his lap and bowed his head, and still there was silence. At that moment anything could have happened. We all could have begun floating in air and I don't think anyone would have been surprised.

But we did not start floating in air. Eventually the spell was broken and the ovation began. But rest assured, we had been shown a glimpse, however fleeting, of the "great beyond" and it was beautiful.

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