Review / Beethoven sonatas kick off the Canberra International Music Festival

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IT was a fitting opening to the 21st anniversary of the Canberra International Music Festival, being at the Fitters’ Workshop, resplendent in its rather nice facelift (including having the apostrophe in the right place on the sign out the front).

To celebrate the milestone, the Festival’s new artistic director, Roland Peelman, has put together an ambitious program, including seven concerts given over to performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas.

I was quite excited at the prospect of hearing the full cycle in three days; it took me back to Adelaide in 1984 when I heard the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy performing the nine symphonies and five piano concerti over, as I recall, five concerts. Ashkenazy conducted all the works including from the piano, as soloist in the concerti – and not a single page of music in front of him. It was extraordinary.

I was thinking it would be interesting to trace the development of Beethoven’s composition style starting with the earliest one in the first concert and finishing with the last in the final concert. But Peelman was smarter than that; he put the programs together so that each concert gives a taste of that development.

Then the next challenge is who to get to play them all. There would be very few musicians who could play the entire cycle in one tight series of concerts. So Peelman did quite a bit of scouting across the globe to bring no less than 20 fine pianists to Canberra.

This, of course, adds another layer to the attraction for attending these concerts. Naturally, the audience will want to compare musicians as if it were a competition. But the real interest is to see how different pianists interpret Beethoven’s work.

The first two concerts featured 11 sonatas, played by 10 artists.

It was proper that the first piece should be Beethoven’s first sonata – Op 2 No 1, written in 1795, when Beethoven was in his mid-20s. It has clear Haydn and Mozart influences and Kotaro Nagano played it with great technical ability, although I found it lacked dynamism somewhat across the four movements.

Then we had Op 14 No 1 (1799). It clearly showed that Beethoven had moved on from the so-called “early music” style of composition. Arnan Wiesel, well-known to Canberra audiences, played the three movements, showing he has quite an empathy with Beethoven’s music, but I often thought the space between the notes was uneven.

Lisa Moore took to the platform during both concerts, firstly playing Op 31 No 3 “the Hunt” (1802) and then Op 54 (1804). Moore was brilliant, even with a minor slip in the first movement of Op 54. She was very expressive, with just the right touch to deliver wonderful clarity and definition of tone, especially in the Op 54, a diabolically difficult work.

Then a surprise package in 12 year-old Bernice Chua, playing the Op 49 No 2 (c. 1798). Chua played with considerable confidence and a beautifully fluid technique, pulling a lot of emotion out of the piece.

Finishing the first concert was Op 31 No 2 “the Tempest” (1802), played by Gabi Sultana. She had a lovely lyrical style, which I thought would better suit music from the Romantic period. Still, her interpretation perhaps added a level to what we might be used to hearing in Beethoven’s music.

Opening the second concert was the second earliest sonata – Op 2 No 2 (1795). Andrew Leathwick pulled out the Haydnesque stateliness and Mozartian light and shade beautifully.

Another young pianist, Daniel Pan – he couldn’t be more than early teens – then wowed the audience with a very mature reading of Op 49 No 1 (1795). His expressive, light touch throughout this work was a delight.

Nicholas Matthew played Op 78 “Für Therese” (1809). Matthew’s interpretation of the Beethoven style conveyed the considerable humour in the piece, achieving beautiful clarity of tone with an expressive and fluid technique.

Op 81a “Les adieux” (1810) got an airing from 21 year-old Alex Rainer. Rainer has a great future ahead of him, with an expressive if sometimes rather heavy-handed technique. With maturity, he will be able to achieve the dynamism this piece demands, without being youthfully bombastic about it.

The highlight of the two concerts, for me, was the Op 111, Beethoven’s very last piano sonata, written in 1822, five years before his death and when he was totally deaf. Nicholas Young seemed totally immersed in the mind of Beethoven, with a wonderfully expressive performance, full of heart-felt passion and a technique to die for. He handled the many moods in the two quite long movements with great assuredness, producing a very convincing result.

These two concerts have set the scene – and the standard – for the ten days of the Canberra International Music Festival. If you’re thinking of going, don’t delay!

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